Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Don’t worry that your job is pointless (jshakespeare.com)
100 points by jshakes on March 14, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments

One of my favorite stories told by our software consultants (the people we send to client sites to train how to use our software effectively):

One day he went to a customer's site to train them on the new version of our software, and met with one of the bookkeepers of the company. He showed her a report that we recently added a column to as part of a feature request from our clients, and she started crying. He was asking her what was wrong, worried that we did something terrible. She replied: "You just saved me 3 hours a day. Now I can go home when my kids are home from school instead of after supper".

Just because we're not saving babies doesn't mean we're not making people's lives better.

You just hit the nail on the head.

I work in ed-tech and while a school contract is no where near the size of a business contract, we regularly hear from school administrators how much of their day they get back.

You just saved me 3 hours a day. Now I can go home when my kids are home from school instead of after supper.

The ugly part of this is that we rarely know whether we're saving time or cutting jobs (and depriving people of income). Between our low level of access to the relevant information, and the execrable leadership the world currently has, we can rarely know that.

When the world has good leadership, technological progress (even small victories) save time and create wealth. When it has bad leadership, it ends jobs (that are never replaced) and helps the working world shut itself down.

> "whether we're saving time or cutting jobs"

Those two things are basically the same.

In a shop with only one accountant, you're saving her three hours a day.

In a shop with 100 accountants, 30 of them just lost their jobs.

The trouble with our work is not that we don't know whether or not it's doing good or bad, it's that it's almost always doing both at the same time. Determining whether the good outweighs the bad is both subjective, highly fraught with egotism, and treads uncomfortably close to rationalization and playing god.

Yes, in a simplistic world if you think that's all those accountants did.

Who tests the software? You need accountants.

If the 100 accountants are smart, they'll spend half the day studying for their CFA exams and not let management know that they're overstaffed.

You're right, though. That's the fundamental problem. I can always get on board with automating (and thus "killing") undesirable work. I can't get on board with depriving regular people (below $100,000 per year) of an income if I can help it. I am aware that society needs to cut jobs and that that's a really good thing; I just wish it would train up before trading up.

whether we're saving time or cutting jobs

It depends what you mean by "jobs". If you mean it in the headcount sense, then yes, that's bad. Good leadership should inform its employees of how technology is impacting its operations. That way employees have an opportunity to prepare and to find new ways of adding value, so they don't have to leave once their old role becomes obsolete.

But if you mean "jobs" in the "having a person do this specific action" sense, then I couldn't disagree more. Progress isn't made unless jobs (in that sense) are cut. The human mind has such amazing potential and we shouldn't waste it doing things that can be easily automated.

People not doing something any more is not necessarily "progress". People who enjoy their job, or for whom that job is the only thing to keep them from hitting bottom, do not have an 'amazing potential' that will improve their lives to use elsewhere.

We think all the time about how to automate things, but rarely or never about how to make places for other people at the feast. When it comes to distribution of surpluses, we get all vague about "progress." Why are we are so specific and concrete and active on one side, and so vague on the other?

When something is automated, we are not allocating the excess production to letting people spend time with their kids (or whatever those people want to do with it). We are cutting positions, hiring temps without benefits, hiring cheaper contractors from elsewhere... and keeping the change.

Because the little people are not defined as really part of the company, but as supplies and tools for the company's operations. From interview to layoff, they are at best a necessary evil, held at arms' length. The only people who are really part of the company are the powerful ones, who allocate the increases to themselves because they had the vision and the capital and they are the only ones who deserve it. And assuming a just world, those who are excluded and may have trouble finding new jobs deserve what they're getting as well.

Good leadership is leadership of humans, and incorporates concern for the humans being led. Just having lots of capital and using it in any way that gives you profit is not leadership, it is merely ownership.

It's not bad to be wealthy, nor is it bad to grow the pie. The problem is that interests are so profoundly misaligned that "progress" means allocating a higher and higher proportion of all surpluses to a ruthless subset of the wealthy. If we wanted more progress, we'd work on aligning interests better.

Some theorize that automating people out of jobs, "frees" them to find some more fulfilling job/activity. As our current economy illustrates, "it ain't necessarily so".

If by whisky?

The problem is that the two effects go hand in hand.

Yeah - fortunately our company is small enough where we can hear stories like that from our support/sales staff, but in larger companies developers are so far removed from the end user that we have no idea how much of an impact we actually make in people's day-to-day.

Without doctors people would consult each other on what to do about their illness. Without nurses people close to each other will help out. Without firemen people would be passing the water bucket.

Any job can be made to be useless, the difference is that when someone tries to specialize he/she becomes good at it. It's how the world works. You optimize JavaScript, which in turn helps someone else be more productive.

This Disney song should give you better feeling of yourself after reading this dark and depressing blog post. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whDr4MJbIhs :-D

I agree. Without demeaning medicine, clean water and hospital sanitation have had the biggest impact on health by far in the course of human history.

Almost any job you can think of is as critical or pointless as you make it.

Oh, I thought it would be antibiotics and immunology.

Check out these stats: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/global/wash_statistics.html

Water, sanitation and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of all deaths.

And that's today. I can't even figure what that number would be when poo-tainted sludge was the default drinking water worldwide.

I assume you mean vaccinations when you say immunology. Vaccines make life better, but the impact is pretty small -- look at the outcomes for the diseases we vaccinate against. Take polio for example. Even if you do manage to contract polio, 90-95% of cases are asymptomatic and a further 4-8% are minor.

What's the biggest way people got polio? Fecal transmission in water/food, which brings us back full circle to clean water.

According to Wikipedia, smallpox 'killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans annually during the closing years of the 18th century (including five reigning monarchs), and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Of all those infected, 20–60%—and over 80% of infected children—died from the disease. Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century.'

Of course, this disease was contained by vaccines. And immunology is definitely more broad than mere vaccines. In fact the modern immunology plays a quite central role in today's research of physiology, virology, microbiology and pathology.

Back in 2003, when SARS broke out in Beijing, the streets were emptied. Nobody wanted to meet each other, nobody dared. If immunology had not existed, such scenario might not be just one incidence, but incidence after incidence.

Actually, people do that TONS already, often via Internet, often because doctors failed to help them adequately or outright told them "abandon all hope."

Sometimes people don't have the luxury of going to see a doctor either.

When I began college my carreer plan was this Bill Gates "be rich or powerful, than do good for the world" path. Well, it doesn't work like that. Actually, now I see this as kind of selfish, a pretentious delusion of self-importance. When I thought like this I wanted to be a hero, not make the world a better place. I realized my mistake in time, changed my major, started a carreer on the non-profit sector and I was cool with doing something adjuvant as part of something that was trying to do some good.

But that doesn't mean the more important conclusion of the OP, that is "Just because optimising Javascript isn’t making the world a better place right this second doesn’t mean you’re destined to a life of misanthropic selfishness" is wrong. This has something to do with Steve Jobs connecting dots, with Gandhi being a lawyer before being Mahatma, with Muhammad Yunus being a humble professor of Economics in his native country before a Nobel laureate (Peace Nobel prize, not Economics).

I just quit my job on a non-profit startup, after 8 years in the field, and now I am a founder of a regular, for-profit startup. This is not my final carreer path, this is teaching me a lot about disrupting things. I mean, A LOT. The paradigm shift emerging through startups is very powerful.

On a final note, all this "I want to change the world" mantra that I often listen applied to tech startups is, 99% of the times, BS. Facebook indeed changed the world. For better? Not necessarily. Twitter did? Not in my opinion. "But what about the Arab Spring??". Listen, people, empowered by technology change the world. So you may say that technology change the world. Not brands. SMS technology is changing the world in many ways all over Africa, internet changed the world, not Twitte, or Facebook. Some startups disrupted some technology use so strongly, that they became monopolists in their use. But still, don't confuse technology and brands.

Summarizing, optimizing Javascript may not be making the world a better place right this second, but if you are improving your knowledge, and - another good advice from OP - don't let yourself be defined by your job and is trying hard to create a big picture for yourself, than optimizing Javascript may be a very important dot that you will connect to make a difference in the future.

Absolutely agreed. I would take it a step further and say that you can't "plan" to be rich and powerful, or have huge social impact, or be disruptive. It doesn't really make sense and it sidesteps the actual goal you should have, which is doing what you want to do and making the small differences you want to make daily, monthly, yearly. xkcd's alt text here (http://xkcd.com/874/) says something very powerful: "I don't trust anyone who's more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at."

You pursue what it is you want to pursue, like, and has meaning for you--non-profit work, lawyering, javascript debugging--and the impact comes later, if it does at all. "Get rich, then change the world with it" is betting your future on the resources you might have tomorrow, whereas you should be pushing forward with the resources that you DO have today.

To add on. . . code is just a tool/component used to make other, more complex tools. And if the tool your code is used in ultimately makes the "hero/philanthropist/???" more effective, then you are still making a positive contribution.

I always find these self-flagellation articles interesting, but feel like I'm observing a phenomenon from an outside perspective.

Do most people agonize over the supposed "importance" of what they do? Do they feel so insecure when comparing what they do to what others do? Do they feel that what they do really is going to change the world or matter in some spiritual context?

I don't really worry about it. I figure that if I'm content doing what I do, with my work-life balance, with the money I make... then why worry about it. Whenever little thoughts or concerns of self-importance come to mind, I always think of Ozymandias.

For some, the concern stems from this line of thought: "This is my one life, and after its gone I'll never get it back. I need to make the best of it."

So then we imagine what the best life could be. We don't even have to try hard to imagine the best life - examples of people who had a better life are constantly made apparent. Whether a life more noble, more enriched, more fun, more profound, or any other adjective, it doesn't matter because we see them all.

Then we see that elements of our life are not notable and we regret that others may have done something better than ourselves. And then we feel guilty, sad, upset, or angry that our ONE CHANCE, our life, isn't what it ought to be in order to be the best.

So, we trudge on making the best moves we know how. Its sometimes a bit of relief to see articles like this which, for a few minutes, give a sense of relief that maybe we don't have to cram every ounce of our lives with greatness... I don't buy it though.

This is my one chance, and I'll be damned if I waste my most functional hours of the day on something that doesn't matter.

This is my one chance

That's the thing. Your one chance for what?

I'll be damned if I waste my most functional hours of the day on something that doesn't matter.

Do you have some notion of an afterlife where that even matters?

Really, I'm not that nihilistic in the way I live my life, but intellectually I don't really fight it.

Thats the thing: I don't know what the most important thing for me to be doing is. So the best thing I can do is figure it out. Putting myself in a position of wealth and power opens more doors so that I have more opportunities to figure out just what the hell I'm supposed to be doing here. If I were to "give up" and not strive to grow, I'd have less access to the variety of things which can be done. Therefore, I must work hard and must get better and must do things that matter so that I have a better chance at figuring out what I'm here for. If it turns out that I'm not actually here for anything at all, then I really haven't lost anything because there was nothing to win in the first place. But, giving up before you even know the answer? Thats a sad story.

Okay, I like that answer. Just asking out of curiosity. Personally, I've never found a greater purpose to my life. I don't really think I'm looking for one any more. I have my family, my work, my hobbies, etc. I never feel like I must have some higher purpose to get up in the morning and do my thing... but I know that everyone is different.

Chance to do the things that matter to you or your loved ones. I have recently had a painful remainder of how short life is when my aunt deceased in her late 50s. And it made it painfully obvious that none of the stuff that I'm working on right now really means anything to me. A year, two or ten from now I won't even remember tweaking the site to work on IE9. Nor will the client, nor the customers. And then, ten years from now, one of my parents might die and then I could only wish that instead of spending 2-3 hours finding out why some js or css wasn't working in firefox on mac, I spent that time being with them.

If he doesn't believe in the afterlife, that only makes his limited lifespan more valuable.

More valuable at the moment, I guess so... but also utterly pointless.

Or not, because if you build/do something really meaningful, it will be impacting people long after you turn to dust. People often call that 'leaving a legacy'.

MLK's legacy makes people's lives better, today, every day. Lincoln's legacy does the same. Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, etc. Ansel Adams, John Lennon. All these people are gone, but the version of light that they each brought to the world touches new lives -- people that are living -- every single day.

And then the people who are living get inspired and do the same, on and on forever.

Pointless to the individual after he is dust, though. There is no meaning to dust.

That's the point. If the impact of your life is measured by the number of people you affect, then you want the have best possible affect spread over the most amount of people possible. Some people have lived such meaningful lives that their impact outlives them.

If you can have an impact on the living not only while you are living but while you're dead, that's quite the accomplishment.

Is it actually self-flagellation? A less dramatic description would be "introspection." You could also replace "agonize" with "think about," etc.

I think it's healthy to explore these thoughts, as long as it doesn't consume you. The trouble with a blog post is that you necessarily come off as heavily invested in the topic you're writing about, but it is also possible that he just wanted to be provocative and spark a discussion. It didn't seem as negative to me as some comments have indicated.

Self-concious people are less selfish.. their life will tend to have more meaning.. the ones that surround them are more happy because self-councious people are more aware of himself, more aware of the things he does, and the result of his actions in the life of others..

Sensibility is always a good thing.. with more people like him we wouldnt have experienced the arise of the nazis or the koch brothers destroing everything around because they are the "only ones who matter", "the elite"

is subtle, it may look small.. but the attitude of always think about the results of your own actions (in the moral aspect, not just in the results for himself) is one of the things the western civilization are in deep need..

Do we only act like vampires of resources and the earth, or we contribute a little back? do we worry?

I'm not smart enough to make a Nobel-price-worthy contribution to science, to cure an epidemic disease or to invent a new way of producing energy. I don't have a physics degree to help build rockets nor a biochemistry degree to design better food. I didn't choose to study to be a doctor, and even as I somewhat regret that choice, it's too late now. I also don't own any land, so I can't be a farmer.

The only way I can change the world for the better is to earn a huge amount of money and then spend it on other people that actually can do one of the above. Like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet. So even if my career pursuits are totally focused on money, that's not a bad thing!

Maybe us "not so smart individuals" could be a small cog in some bigger picture, like a world interdisciplinary project to cure cancer (think Manhattan project, or NASA). But in capitalism it's more important to work on SEO and sell stuff to people. All of the advances of modern computing boil down to advertising, such a shame.

>All of the advances of modern computing boil down to advertising. I could be very nitpicky about this, because it's not only technically wrong, but dead wrong. I'll leave it at "Advertising pays the dev, just like direct payment".

>Like a world interdisciplinary project to cure cancer. I'm pretty sure there is an interdisciplinary, international effort to cure cancer, which is really easy to miss because other world projects that spend more of their money marketing themselves. Lots of things starting with UN. I honestly wouldn't want to see cancer research turn into the ineffectual behemoth some of those peace keeping missions by the UN are.

>But in capitalism it's more important to work on SEO and sell stuff to people And in Communism it's more important to do pep rallys and posters to sell Communism to people. Whosh, expect economics to be some strategy game where you assign some people to cancer, and it gets solved faster, and you take those people from SEO, and you have a little "You won!" screen in the end? Ok, here's what'd happen. All those SEO people would likely just end up eating up research budgets, because they know SEO, but no biomolecular chemistry. Still, you assigned them, so you got to pay them, or at least throw them some bread so that they don't die. The impact on cancer research would likely be the same to the impact on Hacker News if we got a sudden, forced influx of carpenters, or cooks, or whatever. "RSS was some kind of drill right?" "Nah, that's HSS".

Everytime I hear a grand project with a noble goal announced, I cringe. Because whatever it is, politics will screw it up, and noble goals are perfect excuses in front of the public (democratization of the middle east...yeah, right). And it will likely jeopardize other, more effective initiatives in the field where the metric is improvement, not good will(exp. Europe pouring money into Africa to feed (warlords/)the starving vs China investing in infrastructure and stability ("evil ressource grab, why haven't I thought of that"))

Selling stuff to people isn't a bad thing. My own personal example:

I work for eBay Inc., so my job is to be a cog in a bigger picture like you said. That bigger picture is game-changing commerce. I don't know the numbers, but some large amount of people have found a way to make a full-time living selling on eBay, or Magento, or some other platform using PayPal to take payments. They feed their families by selling stuff in our marketplaces. On the buyer's side, we help people get what they want for the best price. That makes people's lives better, too.

Maybe it's just rationalization. :) But I do think that many capitalist companies create a net positive for the world.

I think you could deduce the net positive from comparing capitalist companies to communist combinats. Somehow they churn out more, cheaper and better. They're people who spout that that's materialism and bad, and then they say we should help the poor. But more, cheaper, better helps the poor. So no matter how you turn it, it's a net plus.

Yeah, all those computers running medical devices, the algorithms behind genome sequencing, the software running on the Mars Rover - all advertising!

I'm all for self-deprecation, but that's just insulting to people who use computers for good.

I know, I was deliberately exaggerating for effect.

IMHO, a biochemistry degree had little to do with designing better food back then. Maybe now everything changes.

> The fact is that if all the web developers (or investment bankers) disappeared tomorrow the world wouldn’t change much – at least not compared to doctors or nurses or firemen. There wouldn’t be a global meltdown.

I really beg to differ.

I think if all programmers disappeared the world actually might shut down.

Just think of all the places in the global infrastructure that require software to work: financial trading, military, flight control, all modern business accounting and financial reporting, medical systems, etc.

All that software already exists and is running though, and I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'shut down.' These industries might no longer be able to update, but I think it's possible to run just about any industry without IT, or on legacy code, just on a smaller, slower scale. You could predict some level of catastrophe for the disappearance of any large sector that affects commerce -- from truck drivers to sewer workers to even maybe interns. I think this implies the tenuous nature of our economy more than the relative importance of programmers.

I wholeheartedly believe you can save lives (including babies) with javascript. http://hackingmedicine.mit.edu/ The way healthcare professionals use computers is slowing down r & d and ultimately costing lives. I worked at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center last summer. They claim that they are the leader in healthcare IT. Yet my job was to copy clinical data from one computer system to another by hand. They had a developer doing manual data entry at a Harvard teaching hospital! Today, healthcare needs programmers as much as they need doctors (maybe not in the same quantities).

Great article. It looks to be down at the moment, however.

Here's a link to a mirror/cache of it:


I agree with the OP's general point. Career aspirations? What I give back to the world? To me, I just want to be happy in my life, I guess some can argue it's Utilitarianism. This is my big picture. So if I can pay my bills, live the lifestyle I have (not very lavish btw), go to work and be happy working there (above average, you're always gonna have bad days), have a healthy relationship with parents, friends and the other half, and be able to save some money to ensure my and my family's future happiness, then I'm happy.

So whether I am a graphic designer, charity worker, investment banker, even a saint, if I can continue to be happy and do the stuff I said above, then I couldn't care less if the job was 'pointless' or not. Who is to judge? It's worth something to me!

Disclaimer: I work at a bank as a developer. Perhaps not the 'coolest' job out there, but if it means I can go home and be happy, then I consider myself a success. Don't get me wrong, if anyone asks wouldn't you want to be a millionaire, of course I would, but sacrificing my happiness? It'll require more thought.

Final thought: maybe I'm only 27 and I haven't hit the mid life part yet. I am keeping an open mind as to how my thoughts will change...

This is an important idea. Several years back I quit a well-paying job in finance because I wanted to work on meaningful problems. What I realized fairly recently is that most problems are social problems. It's not like some demon is draining the world of natural resources and polluting it, creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, or starting wars all over the world. We're doing that.

You want to save the world? Start with being a good parent.

...Or don't have any kids at all, since kids turn into adults and adults are the cause of pretty much all the social problems we have, such as pollution and depletion of natural resources.

> In reality, we do what we do because we’re good at it and doing it makes money.

Speak for yourself. I work because I enjoy both making things and the act of working.

Donate your salary to charity, then.

I'm not sure that follows. He was saying that enjoying the work and building things is sufficient to get him to work, but that doesn't mean he would prefer earning $0 than some number bigger than $0. It just means that if the 2nd option wasn't available, he would still work.

Thanks. All I meant was that to me my work is not a means to pay the bills, and perhaps I'm not even particularly good at it. I just enjoy doing it. OP is being offensively presumptuous with that statement.

But what about my deep-seated need to feel like I'm fundamentally better than investment bankers?

“if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary”

Awesome quote.

As someone who has the goal of "making enough money so I can give back", I've realized that doing something NOW is important for a couple reasons:

1) I could die tomorrow and 2) Habits form, and if I plan on giving services/time/money at a latter point in my life, I might as well start now and get used to it (even if the amount is small).

There's plenty of ways to make a difference in the world without having a job that is immediately altruistic.

http://80000hours.org/career-advice has a lot of good information along these lines.

I find we're really bad at defining goals. Let's play a short question game. You win if you read through these questions and you say "Nah, got this covered" without feeling guilty. What are you working for? To better society? To make an impact? Sure. That's a little vague though, isn't it?

Ok, maybe it's to better society. Define better (Well, uhmm...better, you know?") and define society (Uhmm...the country? Ohh wait, the world? Maybe those kids in africa?). You kinda see where I'm going with "this is way vague for a life purpose"?

Ok, let's take the impact example. Which impact? Do you want to be remembered? Just remembered, or positively remembered? Or do you want to make a lasting change on the face of earth? How long should it last? How visible should it be? Or do you want to change somebody? How do you want to change them? What will you do to change them?

The gist is definition.

A lot of "career planning" is an improperly defined goal for an even larger time period than the usual resolutions we make. Stop smoking, lose weight, work out more. How often do you keep your new years resolutions? Proably not that often. So why are you entrusting your life purpose to the same kind of expectation making that you do for your new years resolution, to some goal with quicksand consistency?

You know the feeling you get in mid february that you didn't keep up with your resolutions, right? You feel guilty because you've wasted another year and still haven't gotten these things done. Lack of willpower, right? Ok, imagine you're 35, look at your life resolution, realize that you haven't lost weight nor changed the world, and you feel guilty. Really guilty. Because your former me is ashamed of what you've done. And it's not just a new years resolution, it's your life goal you haven't gotten done.

Ok, fair enough. Figure out what exactly you are trying to do till when, preferably with why you want to do these things. Name - date - reason. You can't worry about the pointlessness of something if you got the point on a paper in front of you, 12pt Times New Roman. Then factor that into object(ive)s and method(ology)s, so you can whip up the source of your life one task after another. You'll get there.

> Ok, imagine you're 35

Did I read that right? Are you really using 35 as an arbitrary number meaning "some distant point in the future"?

More like 35 as that point when you realize you're not young anymore, this is actually your real life, and you need to stop daydreaming and deal with it.

Although there's nothing wrong with constantly wondering what you want to be when you grow up. . .even when you're "old" - however you define that. . .as long as it doesn't lead to unhappiness or obsessive navel-gazing.

As someone who's experienced both depression and obsessive navel-gazing at 35 I can attest to its counterproductive nature.

I'm using 35 as the midpoint to 70, the rough point at which, if you're doing the wrong thing, you can't kid yourself anymore. For some people it's 25, for some 40, for some it never ever happens and they just live out their lives. The number IS arabitary +-10 years, but you won't have your midlife crisis when you're 5, nor when you're 90.

The real problem is forget what actually makes them happy can have little to do with what society says should make them happy. I feel more joy thinking about my job as useful destructive chaos than any sort of direct betterment to society. Consider, people actually making atomic bombs often had a great deal of job satisfaction.

You can look at people at the bottom as in desperate need of help, or a buffer in case of crop failure. Now think about it for a second which idea makes you feel better?

PS: I am not saying this is a good thing, but it's a thing that's worth considering.

So when society tells you what you should feel, you obey? Society is an overly broad term. You assume it's a rather large set of people, but it might just be your aquaintances and some talking heads. I think any ill defined concepts in your moral understanding are like security holes, allowing for inconsistencys to slip in. And society somehow comes to mean a different thing in each case. It's a prime example of an inconsistent concept. Along with "the public", "the greater good", etc. You get my bend.

I think we're getting into value systems right now. Feeling better. Happiness, right? Exitement. Tranquility. Lack of Guilt. Joy. From AI i've learned that actors work optimally when they optimize a key metric. That metric has to be defined properly (So what makes this robot morose?), and there has to be a heuristic for estimating the changes to that metric given an action. I think we work very similarily. Your value system, whether you value joy, prestige or altruism is the optimization metric. Your emotional apparatus (it matches input to output) is the quick, over the thumb heuristic you use.

I for example am optimizing for Happiness. Creating things makes me happy. Solving tacky problems makes me happy. Helping other people makes me happy (If they choose to let me help them, and if they are thankful towards me afterwards). Learning useful things makes me happy.

It's quite likely that some of these things will benefit others greatly, but that's a side effect, not the moral justification of my actions. I honestly don't feel bad about that kind of motivation, because it makes sense.

Seeing that your site is offline, I'm going to have to disagree with you.


A job that can be automatized _is_ /unimportant/. Your finance wizard can just be replaced by a few line of code _because_ his whole world is already part of this technology world. Now try to automatize the one doing to the coding.

People losing jobs are a consequence of an economic decision, not because of technological advancement. Knowledge is still power.

I ended up blogging a response to this - http://rtigger.com/blog/2013/03/20/saving-the-world-with-sof...

TL;DR - We change the world for the better in so many ways that we don't even realize. Don't sell ourselves short.

I'm seeing a Cloudflare page that states that the site is offline and there is no cached version available. I wonder if this is because they decided to set up cloudflare right when their site was getting hammered by HN.

That could be it. Still, the server is down, and Cloudflare is showing that it can't really do anything. Even if reasonable, it's pretty bad publicity for Cloudflare (at the very least, definitely not good).

Fantastic article. Thank you for writing it.

“Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it”

Mahatma Gandhi

thank you

A problem with us as a tribe is that we tend to misunderstand the fact that most humans require conflict to reach for greatness. We, as technologists, perceive a natural conflict between what we want (whether it's to live for 1000+ years, to fly to Japan for $50 on a non-polluting electric airplane, to have all of the world's information accessible at a computer terminal, or just to have more interesting jobs) and the actual state of the world, which we see as dismally primitive. We don't need a human enemy to have conflict and to inspire us to greatness; primordial entropy is our enemy. Most people don't think this way. It takes a fight to unlock their energies. This is especially true at the complacent top of society. The best way to create social mobility for smart people is to create a massive, irreparable cleavage in the elite. In 1540, it was the Protestant Reformation, leading to exploration and trade and new theories about politics, culminating in rational government and modern capitalism. (Henry VIII was no saint, but one of the reasons for his horrible reputation is that he promoted smart commoners to work out his split from the church, angering nobility of the time.) In 1965, it was the Cold War, resulting in incredible technical progress, including the space program and the Internet. Neither of these rifts was free of harm or pain, but ultimately, humanity is better off with its elite cleft in two halves that hate each other's fucking guts (and will therefore promote smart people from without in order to win their existential struggle) than it is with one elite that can singularly focus on keeping itself established and the "without" outside. When there's harmony in the elite, there is no progress.

Most of our jobs are based on conflict. Hedge fund traders are trying to outsmart other hedge funds in a winner-take-all market. In VC-istan, it's all about ad dollars (hence, I call it "ad-banking"). Most of the great technologies we use (e.g. the Internet) were funded by military projects: people wanting to out-innovate and out-technologize the Russians. It'd be better if we could do great things without all the negative side effects of conflict, but human organizations are lethargic and no elite has been immune to the temptation of parasitism.

The pointlessness we perceive in our jobs comes from the fact that most of what we do isn't about civilization's advancement, but about helping one party compete against the other. Web development is mostly about making one business more attractive than the other guys, which has a zero-sum, arms-race feel to it. All of this conflict leads to multiplicity of efforts, left-against-right work, and weird indirections that sap our efficiency. It seems like this renders 95% of what we do pointless.

The problem is that, in reality, without the business conflicts that waste 95% of our work, most of us wouldn't have jobs or money at all, so the wastage would be 100%. The only thing that will allow transfer of wealth out of an elite and into new talent is some kind of severe conflict within that elite. The ideal of capitalism (until a parasitic, socially-connected corporate elite hijacks it and subverts whatever mechanisms it uses to force competition) is that business elites in competition with each other will always perform better than single monopolistic powers.

This is also why VC-istan sucks Hitler's necrotic scrotum. VCs collude and decide, as a group, who's hot and who's not. They don't compete with each other. They'd rather get invited to each others' parties and in on each others' deals. The lack of competition within that elite leads to downright awful terms for the people actually doing the fucking work.

Your assertion that the Protestant Reformation was responsible for renaissance exploration and trade is extremely dubious.

By all accounts, Spanish and Italian monarchs were behind the push for exploration, this occurring before the reformation. They wanted trade, and it didn't take a religious schism to provoke that. Rather, this happened in the thirteenth century when the Arabs lost their stranglehold of the Silk Road, and the Mongols opened it up (hence Marco Polo's travels).

Advances in naval technology made the travels of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries possible. These trips were simply not feasible beforehand, it was not a matter of some nebulous cabal of "elites" suppressing the merchants and scientists.

I find your interpretation of this history revisionist, framed to support your "VC-istan" thesis, which probably doesn't need historical evidence from the renaissance. You'll find plenty of suitable fodder in the past fifty years.

>Your assertion that the Protestant Reformation was responsible for renaissance exploration and trade is extremely dubious.

You've misread michaelochurch's comment. He wasn't asserting the Reformation came before the Renaissance. His point was that the states newly energized by the Reformation became very active in exploration and trade and ultimately created the economic and political institutions that define the modern world. And, while he is correct about England (which, despite insularity, was never a great naval power before it began being ruled by Protestants), his best example would have been the Northern Netherlands, which featured: the first modern republic, religious toleration, the first stock exchange, extensive civil engineering, the revival of drill-based military techniques etc. Unlike earlier mercantile republics (say, Venice), the Dutch model also found ready imitators in many of its aspects (Sweden in its golden age, England especially after 1688, the North American colonies) and developed directly into the capitalist / parliamentarian society that many of us live in today.

The kernel of his thesis is

  The best way to create social mobility for smart people is
  to create a massive, irreparable cleavage in the elite. In
  1540, it was the Protestant Reformation, leading to
  exploration and trade and new theories about politics,
  culminating in rational government and modern capitalism.
That is entirely backward and has little grounding in history.

The points you make are sound and accurate, and had they been his, I would have had no reason to criticize.

I think the general theory that conflict creates progress has some merit though, even if his choice of examples turns up flawed. There is the general example/theory of several countries in Europe with good defensive terrain protecting them being able to compete with each other for a sustained period, without one power control the entire area as in other parts of the world (ancient China, say, or ancient Persia). It's interesting.

The way I might be wrong is in the assertion that the Protestant Reformation was responsible for creating cleavages within the European elites that might have formed in other ways and for other reasons.

Did society need the Protestant Reformation, at that specific point in time, to get those advances? Possibly not. Did we need a Cold War with the Soviet Union, rather than some other kind of conflict, to get the Internet? Again, no.

It's not specific conflicts that humanity has needed to advance, insofar as history could have played out in a million of other different ways. However, it has been the case throughout most of humanity's history that social health (rather than slow degeneracy due to a parasitic elite) requires some kind of intractable enmity to exist within the elite.

Reading The System of the World, Neal Stephenson covered this topic. The Spanish were indeed prolific traders with their Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. Stephenson chronicles that the Protestants created an economy based, not on silver currency, like the Spanish, but instead on debt and a fiat currency. I suppose it could be argued that this new currency enabled more commoners to participate in the economy and gain wealth.

A fair assertion. Also, it is important to note Adam Smith et. al. got many of their ideas from the Islamic world (credit economy and such), not from Protestant reforms. Popular history seldom gives the Islamic world the credit it deserves for influencing later progress in Europe. There's a good case to be made that in the absence of Arab advances, Europe would have remained mired in feudal states and regional economies for a much longer time.

Whether the reader finds this change positive or negative ... reflects their views on the merits of nationalism, and ultimately globalism.

It is not fair to say that Adam Smith et. al. got their ideas from the Islamic world and not from Protestant reforms. Surely some inspiration came from both.

Further in the absence of Arab advances, we can't tell what the would would have looked like. It certainly wouldn't look like our current world, but there are a ton of possible worlds out there. You can't predict alternative histories retrospectively with any certainty.

Nassim Taleb expounds on this in his latest book "Antifragile". He points out that while Adam Smith certainly drew inspiration from Arab philosophers (Al Ghazali in particular), we can't say how the world would look today without that particular intersection having happened.

You make a great point. The Arab world (and, to a lesser degree, the Byzantine Empire) preserved and continued Western progress. For a long time, Baghdad and Beijing (and, quite possibly, Alexandria) were centers of the civilized world.

By the Enlightenment, the great ideas were coming from all over-- American Indian civilizations, pirate ship organizations, the Arab world, and (later) the East. The (mostly American?) idea that the bulk of progress came from a bunch of bigoted Puritans is pure credit-taking. They played a role, but a small one compared to Parisian salons.

In fact, the Pilgrims had the opportunity to "live in religious freedom" in the Netherlands and left because it was too liberal.

You know a lot about this and you're not wrong, but I think trade and exploration would have been very different without the Reformation, which created intractable competition among European elites.

The standing elites, initially, bought into mercantilism and wanted to steal resources: especially gold, silver, and people (slaves). They had no interest in building new societies or challenging old ways of doing things. There's a lot of bad to be said about the Puritan Pilgrims, but they did have that ambition, leading to a pattern culminating in experimentation with rational government. (Pirates and the American Indian federations also provided some inspiration.)

The Reformation provided an incentive for more nations-- poorer, Protestant ones far from the Mediterranean-- to get involved in (costly, dangerous) exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries. Being unable to compete with the existing powers (especially Spain) directly, they often got into industries (e.g. cotton) that had less short-term yield but more durability.

Sea trade itself wasn't that interesting, or even new. Sailing was millennia old already. It was the desire for social and economic experimentation that made that era interesting.

This isn't to white-wash that time or say that the experimentation mentality was purely virtuous. There was an incredible amount of ugliness involved (genocide, religious persecution, slavery) in the process. I do think, however, that there was a much faster rate of overall, eventual progress on account of the competition between two halves of the European elite.

Your interpretation of renaissance history remains revisionist. England was perfectly able to compete with Spain, etc. particularly following the Spanish Armada. Note that Spain had been crumbling from within for a long time. Only at that point could the English settle in the Americas. Further, the English were every bit as interested in raping the Americas for gold as the Spaniards and Italians ...

I have studied Virginia history at length, and the first colonists to Virginia were interested in very little apart from establishing a base so as to extract precious metals from the continent. Only when this proved impossible, and poor Englishmen realized how much opportunity the New World offered, did goals begin to change.

I omit discussion of the Pilgrims because your original thesis was specifically about elites, claiming that their competition (specifically, when strongly divided) spurred innovation more than anything else, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a time in history where an oppressed people were not fleeing. It's an error to say that this was a novelty of the Protestant Reformation.

Sea trade was in itself interesting. Yes, Europeans had been sailing for some time, but apart from the Vikings, nobody had sailed across great expanses the way the Europeans did in the age of discovery. Improvements in navigation and cartography enabled the new travels.

In any case, what you seemed to interpret as a cage match between European rulers, divided by religion, was actually the rise of nationalism. As power was consolidated so as to combat the Arabs in Europe, which along with the Crusades broke the stranglehold the Arabs had on trade, the Europeans could dream of greater endeavors.

The British empire was perfectly able to compete with Spain, etc. particularly following the Spanish Armada.

The defeat of the Armada was more than a hundred years into the so-called "Age of Exploration". Northern Europe started from behind, but caught up and eventually surpassed the South, at least from a North American vantage point.

Further, the British were every bit as interested in raping the Americas for gold as the Spaniards and Italians ...

Sure. There's a tendency (especially in the U.S.) to simplify and say that the Northern Europeans wanted "to settle and live in religious harmony" (hogwash) and that the Southern European explorers wanted to loot. It's a lot more complicated than that, as you know. Assessing virtue to one side or the other is ridiculous.

It's impossible to know for sure, but I think that religious leaders on both sides of the divide (not that "Protestants" were a united group) wanted to validate themselves. The Catholic Church, fearing a loss of power in Europe, sent people overseas to expand and validate Catholicism. This might have made people behave better on a social or economic justice front (religious charity). It might have made them worse (aggressive conquest and cultural genocide). It's hard to tell. From a modern vantage point, it was all very ugly, but most of history is that way.

I tend to think, however, that the Reformation started (or, at least, accelerated) conversations about comparative society, religion, and government.

If you twist your glasses enough, you can make history into whatever you wish it to be. That's why it's called revisionism. In your case, you are going overboard to show that Protestantism was the driving force behind much of the renaissance (which started well over a century prior the Reformation) and later, the enlightenment, all to support what I find to be a flawed theory on power dynamics.

The only argument that will find any support in the sources is that enlightenment-era political and philosophical thought was in some way made possible by a split in the Church. But Descartes and others were highly influential and have little relationship with this. Religious schism had little to no bearing on the sudden development of trade and exploration in the renaissance, both of which opened the New World. And if there was a watershed moment that enabled what would follow, it was clearly the discovery of the Americas, not what Luther had to say.

I don't know who you think you are fooling by typing walls of text that subtly, and later overtly, alter your original thesis. I often see these long threads end with "oh, we really agree!" and ASCII smiley faces. Abusing history to support some jaded idea you have about the startup scene earns no sympathy from me.

> Religious schism had little to no bearing on the sudden development of trade and exploration in the renaissance, both of which opened the New World.

The spanish fight against the moslems was certainly immediately temporally connected. That fact is definitely relevant. But the most important part of the argument is not that the struggle between elites were of religious origin, but that there was an intense struggle between elites. In fact Columbus' travels were probably supported by Isabel of Spain exactly because Spain had made an agreement with Portugal of not sailing in the southern atlantic waters.

The discovery of the Americas did likely not have a great impact before much later. I don't know if Luther's exact words ever were very important. I don't think so. But the excuse they gave many small kings to separate from the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic church and to go on crusades inside of Europe certainly put fuel to the fire of european history. The thirty year war had much greater impact on european philosophy in the 17th century than America did.

I'm not attributing superior contribution to the Protestants or the Catholics, but to the dialectic. I'm not saying that the Protestant Reformers were more or less virtuous than the Catholic Church of the time. I'm saying that the intractable schism within what might (not necessarily "would") otherwise be a more unified European elite had progressive effects over the long term.

Of course, something other than religious reformation could have had a similarly elite-divisive effect.

My real point has nothing to do with the Reformation per se, so much as the overarching truth that competition within an elite leads to progress and social mobility, while in-elite collaboration is stagnant and toxic.

Social mobility is not a one way street unless people at the top can easily fall you end up with stagnation.

Right, and generally elites, when they compete with each other, prefer to do it in a way so that the bad is externalized to the outside and, while people might lose in-elite status, they don't fall out of it. They don't want that risk.

It takes an intractable cleavage in the elite to get real competition and a chance at progress.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact