Taste, conviction, Elon Musk
Plus, ten things that caught my attention
I’m back! Coming out of a busy few weeks of calls with more than 100 HUNDRED Sublime believers, a team offsite in Bogota, a nasty cold which eventually wrecked everyone in our house, and a print project I can’t wait to share with you soon.
Building a company and maintaining a writing practice is hard. But I’ve learned that when I don’t find time to write about whatever I’m chasing around in my head, I have to fight not to see everything else in my life as an annoyance.
All this to say — this newsletter isn’t going anywhere, and here’s some things I’m thinking about.
I devoured Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk. I found it very inspirational. I know positive statements about Musk trigger some people. But I can appreciate and learn from the man without endorsing or wanting to adopt his life whole.
My note to self from reading the book: “THINGS LOOK GOOD AT THE END OF THE JOURNEY, NOT DURING.” Tesla and SpaceX were not built. They were willed into existence, against all odds.
SpaceX failed to launch many times, and was ridiculed by many people. After their third (or fourth) failed launch, Elon sends an email to his team: “SpaceX is in this for the long haul. Come hell or high water, we are going to make this work”.
Tesla similarly had lots of issues with production and manufacturing. One of their early investors suggested they pivot to B2B and sell whatever to incumbent car companies. It would have been reasonable to quit, pivot, course correct, and doubt the viability of the mission. But Musk kept going.
I’m thinking about conviction, because it is so rare.
A lot of people start off with conviction, but life, hardships, and other people’s opinions get in the way, and they stop believing in the greatness of their own ideas.
I’ve met intelligent types with lots of skills and advantages at their disposal. But they usually don’t know where to go with these skills. Or they’re paralyzed by nuance. I’m thinking about how many people were one or two iterations away from the right formula, but lacked the conviction to stay the course, the understanding that minor, subtle, successive changes can drastically influence outcome. I’m thinking about how self-doubt makes more people abandon a vision than competition or lack of funding ever will.
I’m thinking about how important it is to have a genuine sense of mission, and how few people or companies have one.
You look around and companies are focused on building technology (generative AI, blockchain) or making money. But starting with technology is like trying to invent voting by asking so, what can we do with pencils? Technology for the sake of technology is useless. What is a vision for the future that you are willing to trade decades of your life to will into existence? When you have one, the universe conspires to make it happen. When you don’t, you end up with a generation of aimless tech bros with uninspiring visions of the future.
Conviction is in much much shorter supply than intelligence. But maybe, in the absence of conviction, we can at least substitute the seduction of optionality for the disciplined pursuit of commitment.
I’m thinking about how A/B tests are a kind of mental laziness. You can’t A/B test your way into building Tesla. And I’m thinking about Linear (a product I love and use every day), whose founder recently said they rely on taste and opinions to make decisions.
I hadn’t heard that from a tech founder before — we’ve created a world where the burden of proof demanded of a decision driven by taste and judgment is infinitely greater than one based on a narrow set of rational choices. Or like Michael Bierut from the design firm Pentagram said, “most processes leave out the stuff that no one wants to talk about: magic, intuition, and leaps of faith.”
I’m thinking about how to build Sublime to perpetually serve the needs of the people that use it, rather than the needs of Sublime.
Examples of the opposite are everywhere – dating apps win when you don’t find love. There is no alignment between the customer (me) and Facebook, who wants me to spend my days glued to my phone. The forces here are complex to say the least, of which business model misalignment is one of them.
I was talking to a friend about why we decided to invite only paying believers to the Sublime private beta. My answer is that charging early for a product creates high expectations, and in aspiring to meet those expectations, we are held accountable to deliver a product you love and trust. My answer is that growing Sublime the right way is more important than growing Sublime fast. My answer, inspired by film executive Tom Rothman, is that we are being fiscally responsible so that we can be creatively reckless. My answer is that it felt on-brand. I don’t know if it’s possible to articulate exactly what the brand is, but I can feel the dream. The joy of thinking of software as craft. The delight of serving people with dignity. The alignment that comes from moving at the speed of trust. Of falling in love with the questions, and inviting people on a journey. Of tossing the standard corporate-y playbooks around speed and scale and committing to authenticity and a long-term orientation. And it’s working! We’re slowly divining a sustainable financial base, and our customers are hiring us to build them a beautiful instrument for Internet-ing.
I’m thinking about how malleable the world is, and how easy it is to forget that. The world has, many times throughout history, reconfigured itself around strong visions.
Our desires, motivations and behaviors are constantly being shaped by incentives and systems we aren’t even aware of. So much genius and money has gone into a metaphor that assumes all humans desire is status and likes and influence and convenience and efficiency.
Yes, humans want all those things. But we also want to be inspired. To be delighted. To express our deepest desires. To seek truth. To be moved. To create with others. To be challenged.
The incentives we bake into the products we build dictate what human desires we magnify. Because here’s the thing: when something is easy, people will do more of it. Having a Kindle makes me read more. Having Substack makes me write more. Having Instagram made me take more photos of myself. Having Whatsapp makes me more likely to call friends that live abroad on their birthdays.
Junot Diaz (you might know him as the author of the Pulitzer Price winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) recently shared the ups and downs of devoting two years to writing a book, only to end up with nonsense. A punch to his soul.
I’m thinking about how they say “you should never meet your heroes” because it’ll likely end up being a disappointment. I disagree. I think getting to know my heroes—the people I most look up to—is what’s made me realize we’re all humans and there is nothing separating us from them.
I’m thinking about how nobody shares on the web anymore, outside of a small percentage of influencers and brands with big content marketing budgets. I suspect twenty years from now we’ll look back at the years 2003-2023 as a primitive era when we were naive about how good online life could be.
Twitter rewards extroverts with hot takes. Substack rewards fully formed thoughts distilled in linear form, a consistent publishing cadence, and some level of expertise.
Where are the spaces where you can share the process of thinking, not just the finished thought? Spaces that are less about projecting authority and more about individuals weaving the threads of their mind and connecting different ideas. More curious and iterative, less defensive and definitive?
I love this framing by:
Too often, we think of notebooks as a way-station: a necessary stop en-route to the perfected, polished work of art. But what if the notebook is the work of art? What if the process of taking notes is the point?
Plus, ten things that recently caught my eye, attention or heart — intended for a smaller group of paying subscribers.
I’m trying to spend more time doing, less time thinking. Or to let the thinking happen inside the doing. But then I read this.
“When you’re a race horse, the reason they put blinders on these things is because if you look at the horse on the left or the right, you’re going to miss a step. That’s why the horses have blinders on. And that’s what people should have. When you’re running after something, you should not look left or right — what does this person think, what does that person think? No. Go.”
Applies to most situations in life: