Love [And Design]
We live in a time of uncertainty.
For millions, the post-college world was a place of recessional scarcity. Many of these people lived off the good grace of their parents. Others were lucky enough to get a startup job. Others decided to become self made men and women, startup founders. Not necessarily out of true passion and interest, but out of necessity.
Yes, necessity is often the mother of invention. But, love is the mother of art – and it’s art that I believe is increasingly scarce in the digital world.
Some people are born to love. They can look into your eyes and intuit exactly how you’re feeling. They know the right things to say, and when to say them. They cry in movies. They relish kisses. Some hug often.
For others, learning to love takes a lifetime. They don’t mind having their co-workers labor late into the evening while they sit at home. They don’t mind telling a white lie to get what they want. For them, the world is a small place that exists in fifteen foot spheres around their bodies.
To them the old adage holds true: It’s a small world, after all.
So, what is love?
Fundamentally, it’s the experience of feeling the emotions and sensations of others as if they were your own. In times of stress and uncertainty, it’s the easiest thing to lose. (1)
So today we have an industry (web tech) built by a population born into uncertainty. An industry built by people with overactive amygdalae. Most people would be happy with a six figure salary, but when you’re in fight-or-flight mode, catastrophes seem much more likely. True security? That’s going to take millions.
And only after that big pay-day can you truly pursue what you love – the thinking goes.
The dirty secret is that there’s no such thing as true security, and the greatest hazard of building a castle around oneself is that it can crumble, crushing the architect in the process.
As we’re seeing in the current world economic environment, inequality brought on by greed and fear just multiplies fear (which then necessitates increased greed). A benevolent king need not worry about his security.
We humans are a cooperative species, and we see no greater heights than when we all bind together. Digitally, we built the Library of Alexandria in just a few years (Wikipedia). In the wake of 9/11, for a short time, the world community bound together in a showing of support. It was both an extremely depressing, and extremely promising, time. Ironically, true tragedy (4) snapped us out of our myopic concerns about survival and self-preservation, and instead prompted us to focus on our shared humanity.
We are at our greatest when we love – and we love most when we accept the inherent uncertainty in life, and see the plights of others not as comeuppances, but as expressions of the inherent instability and unpredictability of the world we live in.
Yes – life is unstable. But a tapestry can hold more weight than a single ribbon. And by healing the pain of others, we too are healed in time.
When we’re building our products and companies, we should focus on solving true pain points. This requires a deep understanding of the people we’re building for – it requires empathy. Manipulation for profit should not be our game. Zero-sum ramification, and addictive reward schedules, is a sign of selfish insecurity. Empathic, clear product design that hopes to heal and delight is a sign of love.
Stop building products that take more from the user than they give. Think about whether or not the world needs a “better way to find cool content” or “another way to view your friends’ photos”.
Can’t find a company that’s building something of true value? Wait. Build your craft. Volunteer. Help others. Strengthen your empathy. Let your community be your fortress and your castle. Lie back in the web of humanity like a hammock, and wait until it’s your time to really contribute and build something special.
Everything we do is for others. And love is really just an understanding of how similar, and interlinked, we all are. Make sure that what you do strengthens others – zero sum is a thing of the past.
I want to end with an old eastern story:
Once a man had a dream in which his hands and feet and mouth and brain all began to rebel against his stomach.
“You good-for-nothing sluggard!” the hands said. “We work all day long, sawing and hammering and lifting and carrying. By evening we’re covered with blisters and scratches, and our joints ache, and we’re covered with dirt. And meanwhile you just sit there, hogging all the food.”
“We agree!” cried the feet. “Think how sore we get, walking back and forth all day long. And you just stuff yourself full, you greedy pig, so that you’re that much heavier to carry about.”
“That’s right!” whined the mouth. “Where do you think all that food you love comes form? I’m the one who has to chew it all up, and as soon as I’m finished you suck it all down for yourself. Do you call that fair?”
“And what about me?” called the brain. “Do you think it’s easy being up here, having to think about where your next meal is going to come from? And yet I get nothing at all for my pains.”
And one by one the parts of the body joined the complaint against the stomach, which didn’t say anything at all.
“I have an idea,” the brain finally announced. “Let’s all rebel against the lazy belly, and stop working for it.”
“Superb idea!” all the other members and organs agreed. “We’ll teach you how important we are, you pig. Then maybe you’ll do a little work of your own.”
So they all stopped working. The hands refused to do lifting and carrying. The feet refused to walk. The mouth promised not to chew or swallow a single bite. And the brain swore it wouldn’t come up with any more bright ideas. At first the stomach growled a bit, as it always did when it was hungry. But after a while it was quiet.
Then, to the dreaming man’s surprise, he found he could not walk. He could not grasp anything in his hand. He could not even open his mouth. And he suddenly began to feel rather ill.
The dream seemed to go on for several days. As each day passed, the man felt worse and worse. “This rebellion had better not last much longer,” he thought to himself, “or I’ll starve.”
Meanwhile, the hands and feet and mouth and brain just lay there, getting weaker and weaker. At first they roused themselves just enough to taunt the stomach every once in a while, but before long they didn’t even have the energy for that.
Finally the man heart a faint voice coming from the direction of his feet.
“It could be that we were wrong,” they were saying. “We suppose the stomach might have been working in his own way all along.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” murmured the brain. “It’s true that he’s been getting all the food. But it seems he’s been sending most of it right back to us.”
“We might as well admit our error,” the mouth said. “The stomach has just as much work to do as the hands and feet and brain and teeth.”
“Then let’s get back to work,” they cried together. And at that the man woke up.
To his relief, he discovered his feet could walk again. His hands could grasp, his mouth could chew, and his brain could now think clearly. He began to feel much better.
“Well, there’s a lesson for me,” he thought as he filled his stomach at breakfast. “Either we all work together, or nothing works at all.”
(1) This is why I think that economic policy is almost always more important than social policy (and why we should weight the economic ideas of candidates above all else). When times are prosperous, and a large portion of the population is able to live comfortably, stress is low – which allows us to be happy and empathize/connect with our fellow human beings. If no one in the world ever had to worry about survival again (food/shelter), I believe that we would see most prejudices melt away.