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February 6, 2021

How the OS of the future might really help us out

You get an email. It contains an event invite for a meeting. It’s also got a meeting agenda PDF.

Your operating system today completely ignores the fact that these things are all related. But what if it didn’t? That’s what this week’s lab note is all about.

Dive in:
LN 005: Associated items »

Alongside our fifth lab note, I’d like to get a little feedback.

Would you mind taking this survey? It’ll help inform my next few Lab Notes:

Quick survey on these Lab Notes and how you use your computer »

In my time after graduating from college, I still lived and worked near the university campus, and regularly engaged with students after guest lecturing in classes or speaking at events. Whenever I spoke on campus, I’d hear from a small handful of potentially-entrepreneurial students who wanted to chat one-on-one. Far and away, there was a most common question they’d ask in this setting.

They did not see a path forward for their work. It was about balancing income and purpose. As they saw it, they had these options:

  1. Go work for a large company, make a great salary, but do work which contributes little to humanity; work which contributes mostly to shareholder’s returns.
  2. Go work for a nonprofit, make far less, but for the most part do work which contributes meaningfully to humanity — though likely not the most creative and technically challenging work.
  3. Start their own company, likely make even less for at least a while, but be able to self-direct. The main question left here was, “how do I start a company that makes money and simultaneously contributes meaningfully to humanity?”

Of these three options, none of my mentees felt there was a solid path that made sense. Some did the first, contending that they could make lots of money doing less meaningful work at one of the big tech companies, and they could use that money to strike it out on their own after two years. (None of these students have since done the striking-it-out part in the nine years I’ve been following along.)

Some did versions of the second, but have mostly floated around from nonprofit to nonprofit, not yet having found a solid home for their work, ambitions, and purpose.

A few have ventured into the third, where the remaining question continues to plague the work: how do I make something that both makes money, and purposefully contributes to humanity?

Finally, some have found new paths entirely. One finance student who was being pushed to join one of the big three accounting firms discovered impact investing, and joined a firm that directs its investments and mentorship into teams which are doing great things for humanity. (Last I heard, she was quite happy.)

In a letter advising his friend on how to navigate some life decisions, Hunter S. Thompson once wrote:

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

from Hunter S. Thompson's letter to a friend — a highly recommended read.

I’ve discovered in recent years that, in my own life and work, independent research is my “ninth path.”

Today, it is increasingly simple (not easy, but simple) for an independent researcher to fund their work. And by conducting and contributing research in and to the public interest, it is both a way to make a meaningful living and contribute to humanity.

For any creative or technical researcher, this path may very well bring together purpose, profit, and the pursuit of one’s own specific interests.

It’s a path I’ve only just begun to explore in recent years, and hope to understand more about this year.

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