I’ve been struggling lately with what to do next in 2015. In 2014 I had mostly to choose from a limited selection of hard choices. We had to make the decision to shut down SolarList. I then had to find a way to get back some of the enormous amount of money I lost on the project. I spent a good chunk of the year turning my side project into a full time income and building an ecommerce/startup consulting practice. In 2015 I’m very slightly moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My safety and (largely financial) security are in a decent place. My attention is shifting (back) to things that maximize my ability to do something that matters in the world. Systematizing the things that make money is increasingly freeing up more and more of my time, leaving me to figure out what exactly to do with it.
At the same time I’m in Chiang Mai. A digital nomad nexus filled with people doing unconventional things with their lives. Everyone you meet just slightly amplifies the feeling that literally everything you can do with your life is on the table or at least worth considering.
I found myself pretty scatter-brained. I’ve been generating ideas faster than I can evaluate them, but I have also been evaluating them — testing them out, throwing me out to smart people for a valued opinion. Thanks folks for bearing with me. As I tried evaluate ideas, some of them seemed to be not totally stupid. So the next question is, well I can’t do ALL of these, so I should start trying to compare them.
And this is where things just get weird. Every time I compared ideas, either in conversation or in my own head, I found the line of thinking started as a neat little two-column list of pros and cons, and rapidly devolved to a very existential discussion of what did I truly value in life.
Literally, I start off talking about two types of web apps and end up in a deep discussion of human fear of our own mortality. I’m talking about converting travel guides from PDF to HTML and end up debating, intensely, whether giving 1,000 people a moment of joy they will remember their whole life is ethically more worthwhile than materially improving 1,000 people’s standard of living in some useful but ultimately boring way. What the hell! How can I possibly make a simple decision when everything devolves to an insoluble philosophical question.
So I sat down today and I started writing, and talking to myself, and talking to my computer and listening to it back. Trying to dig deeply into the different distilled conflicts all these options kept circling back to. And all of the sudden I was like:
There’s absolutely nothing unique here at all.
All of these conflicts distilled to some very fundamental dilemmas that probably every human faces on some level. You only have so many units of time and energy in your life and you constantly have to distribute how much you dedicate toward trying to fulfill each of these categories. All of these are hard too. They’re all a gamble. You can put all your time and energy into one and still not get the desired effect, on top of having neglected the others. Life is hard that way.
So what am I thinking about and what are these categories, you might ask. You might already think I’m full of crap and have closed this tab. But for those of you still with me, read on.
Making more money
Why would I want to make more money? I guess some people might find this question silly but I think it’s an important question to ask. I hate thinking about money. I get a visceral reaction in the pit of my stomach to thinking about budgets and accounting and taxes. In my personal life I only want to make money for the purpose of thinking less about money. And I think there is hopefully an achievable crossover point where I have enough money that I don’t really have to think about money at all.
But moreover it seems like it really does take money to do something interesting with one’s life. Money is influence. Money is optionality. Money can give you back 100% of your time and energy to focus on things other than paying the rent.
One of the biggest mistakes I made with SolarList was increasing my expenses too quickly without the ability to cover them. As a result we couldn’t take a long view on the business, we didn’t have time to experiment and basically it was a total crisis just to pay the rent. I never want to go through that again, so building up financial security has a lot of value for me.
So I’m looking at some options. One avenue is to take the lessons learned from SolarList: digging deep into the customer education and sales process of solar energy, building software and doing dozens of user interface experiments. To take that and do enterprise consulting with big companies. Another is to continue to build out my ecommerce and consulting business. And another is to build another product like Storemapper. With so much experience in building a micro-SaaS product I feel confident I could churn out another few simple products and catch a small winner pretty shortly. Two profitable micro-SaaS business would almost certainly throw off enough cash that I could basically spend 100% of my time not making any money for the foreseeable future, at least until/unless I needed to support a family.
All decent. I’m lucky to even have them as viable options.
But they also don’t feel very meaningful. At the end of it I’ll just have the money and have spent the time. Who really gives a shit about money. Right now I’m in Thailand where it costs about $1,000/month to live really really well. I’ve just spent the last year thinking, involuntarily, a lot about money and I fucking hate thinking about money.
Do meaningful things, make a dent, etc
This is the big one. Basically I just want to be in perfect health, full of energy, have all my finances taken care of and spend all of my time trying to solve important problems that will matter 200 years from now.
Elderly heiresses take note: If any wealthy aristocrats would like to sponsor me in that endeavor, I’m certainly open to arrangements.
When I quit my job I had a vision for my startup. There was this massive energy transition that needed (needs) to happen to save the freaking world. In my job I had learned that I was particularly good at buildings tools that accurately described big parts of this transition and could make them concrete and quantifiable. I learned that I could be at times particularly compelling at dispelling inaccurate beliefs about this energy transition, using that data and those models. So I wanted to scale up what I felt I could do on a person to person basis. Massively scalable, personalized education that would change the minds of millions of people and meaningfully accelerate an energy transformation that could save the world!
Fuck that’s meaningful, right!?
So why do I spend my days working on an ecommerce widget!?
Well, see above, it creates a degree of financial freedom for me. I work on it because it has high leverage of time, it can pay the bills and give me more time in return to work on big projects.
So, I should be working on big meaningful projects right?
Yes, I should.
But, honestly I’m hesitant and yea, a little bit afraid. I have only just barely scraped my way to avoiding personal bankruptcy. My first startup basically failed, had to have shitty conversations with investors — friends, mind you, who put their hard earned money behind me, and lost it. I invested three years of my 20s with very little meaning to show for it. I’m still psyching myself up to get back in the ring.
But this is crap and excuses. What big things am I thinking about:
1) I’m still not over the original vision behind SolarList. I think about giving it another go in solar. I think about trying the same angle — software superpowered personalized education — in different markets like LED lighting. I’m still aggressively poking around looking for an idea that really punches me in the gut and forces me to commit.
2) On some level I worry that I’ve missed the opportunity a little bit. That big companies and marketing budgets are ultimately going to solve #1 in the developed world because the major technologies have reached a threshold where they make sense for a very large number of consumers. I’m super curious about what’s going at the edge of the grid with distributed renewable technologies. In mobile much of the innovation happened at the edges, like mobile money, and percolated back through to the broader network. I think the next big phase of this energy transition may look like that, where innovations happen at the edge in unexpected ways. I would love to start exploring that and documenting that. And exploring it, at least at first, in a totally non-commercial way. Just learning and showing other people what’s going on. This intersects with something else that I think about the next phase of the energy transition is that business models become less important for moving things forward and something that looks more like “art” becomes radically more important. Things that serve no purpose other than to make the observer feel something. And that feeling starts to change the way they perceive the world and that seeps into their decision making so that they simply decide they want to participate in taking better care of the climate, whatever the return on investment may be.
3) Outside of few individual people, nothing has had a larger and more positive impact on my life than travel. I don’t remember where I read this, but someone suggested a thought experiment: What job would you be doing if you woke up every morning and thought to yourself, “Wow, I can’t fucking believe I get to do this for work!”? For me I think that would be running company where the product helped more people travel for their first time, helped more people afford to travel more often and helped people have spontaneous adventures that they treasured their whole lives. That would be awesome. Also, I’m a traveler so I can just scratch my own itch and build products I like. But as I dig deeper I’m discovering that, well, a lot people think the same way and it’s a super complicated, super crowded market with a ton of very smart people who know a lot more than me already working in it.
Take care of self and do fun things
In 2013 I took very bad care of myself. I raced my mind at full-throttle. I drank too much coffee and booze. Stressed myself out severely and got in pretty bad shape. Since early 2014 I reverse that to some extent, mainly emergency maintenance. But I haven’t really invested in rejuvenating myself.
The conundrum is always that maybe you’re just too burnt out to do the ambitious stuff you want to do. Maybe I’ll do better at all of these other things if I take a few months to focus on traveling, re-investing in my education, learn a language, do more rock climbing, yoga and skiing. Maybe I’ll come out of that with 10x the energy and everything else will be better for it.
But wow is it hard to turn off that ambition. I probably would need someone to force me to do this as I can’t imagine convincing myself to do anything more than the minimum. But Southeast Asia is a lovely place to just relax and have fun for a little while. It’s cheap, the weather is nice and the food is good.
Probably not going to happen.
Giving to family and loved ones
This is a short one because there’s not a lot of nuance to it. Pretty straightforward. I don’t give nearly enough of my time and energy to my family and loved ones. I’ve lived a lot of my life on the opposite end of that spectrum. Mostly because I saw too many of my friends and peers sacrifice too much of their lives and opportunities for rote familial obligations. I always thought people spent too much of their time and money flying home for every holiday and doing stuff just because it’s what you do. They missed out on too many opportunities and experiences for it. I love my family, but I always felt a little comfortable passing certain obligations that society and tradition place on the eldest son.
But the fact remains that my family, extended family and loved ones could do with more from me. There’s help for the older folks and mentorship for the younger ones that I could and should give. As I get older, and more importantly as they all do, this gnaws at me more and more. Gotta do better.
So that’s what is on my mind. I’m going to, perhaps too rashly, post this unedited and then go for a digital detox for a few days. Maybe I’ll come back with a clearer head. Thanks for reading.