Written 10/16/17. Edited 10/24/17.
This Life Plan is the first of my three-part Planning Series, which also includes my World Plan and Future of Coding Plan which you can expect in the coming weeks.
For my friends and family that are curious about what I’m up to but don’t want to read a 5000-word journal entry…
I am moving on from The Coding Space – which if you really haven’t been keeping up with me is the after-school coding program I started with Eli Kariv and Nicole Kelner in 2015. I’m so proud of what we’ve built over the past 2.5 years, and while I’m sad to move on, I’m so excited to see where the program is taken by Eli, Nicole, Sophie, Maddy, and the rest of the teaching team!
As I figure out my next move, I wanted to take the time to zoom out, think about how I want to live my life, the impact I want to have on the world, and finally what my next steps will be. The following post is my journal reflection on how I want to live my life.
As a programmer I am familiar with thinking analytically about the problems I am trying to solve while coding. However those problems are often the least of my worries as an entrepreneur. This is why The Lean Startup is such an important book: it encourages you to think analytically about the process of starting a startup in the same way you’d think analytically about a technical challenge. It’s the process of zooming out and using the same analytical machinery in your brain on a different, more abstract – or meta – subject-matter.
I was recently inspired to plan in this way for my own work after learning about how well it worked from an acquaintance of mine, Juan Benet. A few years ago I was sent his plan and shrugged it off as the idle musings of an idealistic college kid. He wanted to created a new internet from the ground up, as well as “the next Bell Labs” to spur on the next technological revolution just as Bell Labs spurred on the information revolution with the invention of the transistor, cell phone technology, laser, communication satellites, etc, etc.
When I looked Juan up a few weeks ago, I was shocked to find that he was well on his way to accomplishing his goals. He had created the much-respected Inter Planetary File System (IFPS) and raised over $200 million dollars for his FileCoin project. What really shook my worldview was that he was talking about the same things that he wrote in his master plan three years ago: trying to solve the world’s most pressing problems through decentralization (IPFS) and systematic innovation (the next Bell Labs, which he calls “Protocol Labs”). There aren’t many people in history who publicly declare their massively ambitious intention in writing, are written off as crackpots, and then go on to achieve those intentions in short order. One example that comes to mind is how Elon Musk achieved his Tesla Master Plan so well that he recently released Master Plan, Part Deux. You may also be familiar with the ragtag group of rebels who declared their independence from the British crown with the intention of creating a more perfect system of governance by the people for the people…
On a more personal note, this way of thinking - explicitly laying out intentions - has worked in dating for me as well. I recently decided I was ready to meet someone to seriously date, so I wrote down a list of what I’m looking for in a partner, began articulating my desire to friends and family, and just a few weeks later she “leapt off the page” and we’ve been seriously dating ever since! This also happened to a friend of mine last year. She told me what she was looking for in a partner. I told her to be “more realistic,” and then she met him the next week and they are still together!
To clarify, I do not believe in the cosmic power of “the secret” whereby I am using voodoo magic to bend reality to my wishes. On the contrary, I think the reasons this articulation technique works are:
1) It helps you articulate to yourself what you’re looking for, so that you can consciously optimize your strategy towards achieving your goal.
2) It helps you articulate to others what you’re looking for so they can help you find it.
3) It makes it more obvious to yourself and others when you are acting in ways contrary to your goals, and then self-correct accordingly.
With all this inspiration, I began writing my plan for work with gusto. After a couple of hours, I realized that this was going to take some time. Plans don’t just pop out of one’s head fully formed. They are a creative effort in their own right. Thus, I made a conscious decision to put day-to-day work on hold while I zoom-out and think about my meta-strategy.
I didn’t get too far with this before I started to wonder how my plan for work would interact with the rest of my life. For example, what happens if a family wants advice while I’m busy working? Or: how do I balance my time between friends, family and my significant other? I started to feel the itch to zoom-out once again and turn my analytical engine towards the subject of my entire life this time.
This is some meaty stuff! How can one even approach answering these questions? As I thought about this, I began consulting my friends, family, and of course books for answers. My girlfriend asked me, “What’s important to you?”
“A lot of things are important to me,” I said. But upon reflection through reading Essentialism, I realized that if everything is equally important, then nothing is important. I realized the need to make a prioritized list of what’s important to me so that it’s actionable, so that it can act as a heuristic in the moment, helping me make decisions that align with these priorities.
As I am learning from from Essentialism and Ray Dalio’s Principles, I can have “anything I want but not everything I want.” And “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” A value or principle is only valuable insofar as it helps determine which of two good things to optimize for.
For example, my mom would tell me growing up that it was key that a married couple prioritize their marital relationship over their relationships with their children. This seemed like a blasphemous thing for her to say at the time, but she justified it well: when a parent prioritizes their children over their own relationship, that relationship will fall apart which will then hurt the children. Instead, you need to ensure the foundation is well set at the parental level - then you address the child’s needs. In other words: “put on your mask before assisting others.”
We can find examples of this in startups as well. My cofounder Eli was very proud that his former company Remind.com made it clear that their customers are teachers. Not students and not parents. It was hard for me to make this same distinction in our business: I wanted to have it all and optimize for both parents and students. However at the end of the day, as an after school program our customers are our parents, and being honest and clear about that makes everything easier. Of course this doesn’t mean to give lip service towards students – on the contrary one of the main ways to make our parents happy is for their children to enjoy our class. What it means is that we should prioritize our actions according to how parents see them – not how students do.
I say all this to explain how gut-wrenchingly hard it can be to rank your priorities in this way. At the same time, it is so key to success. Here’s my first stab at my priorities/values:
An important thing to note here is that these priorities assume “equal quantities of import” of each of the above. For example, if I’m a little bit sad but my significant other is really sad, I will of course address her mental health issues before my own.
Is there anything else that’s important to me? Hmmm, that seems to be it. As you can see, it’s all about people, and then there’s my work. However, it’s clear that work is #8. I learned the importance of setting personal life as a priority over work as an anti-lesson from watching many traditionally successful people. Just because you’re saving the world doesn’t mean that the world needs to be your first priority. As Sam Harris says, there are benefits to a world where everybody cares most about the people directly surrounding themselves (“think globally, act locally”). Imagine a world where parents cared as much – in their daily actions, not just abstractly – about others’ children around the world as their own. Sure this would be beautiful in the abstract but in practice we are more effective at improving the things close to home than we are the things far away – it’s the basic principle behind decentralization.
I do not think I am yet done with this exercise because I do not yet have a clear foundation for other values in my life, such as honesty and integrity. Here’s why this is on my mind: I was recently encouraged by Glen Chiacchieri to reflect on when I feel the most emotional satisfaction in my body physically. After some reflection, I decided that I feel deeply good when I feel like “I’m killing it.” Or put another way, “When I am adulting.” Or even better, “When I’m acting like the person I want to be.” Or even, “When I’m doing what the idealized superhero version of me would do.” These thoughts were bouncing around in my brain when I was signing the receipt for a new suit I just bought at J Crew and realized I forgot to pay for the socks that I was wearing out of the store. I was in a rush so my first instinct was to shrug it off - J Crew wouldn’t miss the 15 bucks. But then I remembered what brings me joy, and so I told the cashier that she needed to ring me up again. Her eyes widened and she gave me a big smile. I could see a bit of Honest Abe reflected in her eyes and it made me feel like a million bucks - just for the price of 15.
And this – the way in which I earned this hard-won realization about honesty – is why it pains me when teachers preach about honesty and how it makes you feel good to do the right things. Of course it does! But this is a really deep, subtle, and profound thing that we must each come to in our own time, in our own way. Just telling someone to be honest all the time directly interferes with their ability to figure out what honesty is, when it is good, when it is bad, and why. For example, if a man with a gun asks you where your friend is, honesty clearly would be bad. These subtleties are lost from the teacher’s pulpit, where you are simply impelled to do “the right thing.” It is not nearly so simple and making it seem so undermines the very goal of developing a student’s moral character.
All that said, what is the significance of morality to me, and how does it fit within my philosophical framework?
I think honesty and other moral guidelines fit into what Ray Dalio calls “principles”, “heuristics” or “algorithms”. In other words, they are generalized wisdom, which is to say that they are a single piece of advice that can apply in multiple related contexts. Really, all pieces of advice are like this, but we can be overwhelmed by all of this “common sense” wisdom that contradicts itself as often as not. For example how can you both “seize the day” when it contradicts “following through on your [prior] commitments”? Again, this is why it’s important to reflect on moral principles for oneself so as to be able to discern how to resolve such complexities.
As they teach in the Landmark Forum, integrity, the ability for a system to function, is a foundational principle, because without it, the system simply – by definition – doesn’t function. How does this relate to honesty? At Landmark, they argue that truly honoring one’s word – treating it as sacrosanct – allows you to function in the world at higher levels for a few reasons:
1) When you gain respect for the power of your words, your words become more ambitious
I acknowledge that the act of writing a plan such as this one is a pretty arrogant (or self-confident, depending on your perspective) thing to do. This is not something that I would even feel remotely qualified to do if I didn’t already recognize the power that my words and intentions could have on the world – as I have seen them already have through willing (with my co-founders) both The Coding Space and WoofJS into the world, and seeing them now exist as real entities that exist beyond my cofounders and me that do good in the world every day, as envisioned.
2) Others respect your words
Elon Musk merely needed to lay out a plan for the Hyperloop, and the world sprung into action to make it a reality. Every time Elon accomplishes something impossible that he set in writing his intention to accomplish, we are reminded “it’s Elon’s world. The rest of us just live in it,” as his ex-wife Justine says.
Now that I recognize that honesty, integrity, and other principles of personal morality, are merely strategies used to accomplish our main aims, I don’t want to spend too long dwelling on such principles right now. As important as they are, they are mere “implementation details” I will use in order to accomplish my main objective. It’s much more important to figure out what that main objective is.
Planning is a very self-important mindset to have. When Elon released Master Plan, Part Deux, I would not shut up about it, and it upset a friend of a friend at a party. It upset her that a white man would presume to decide for the rest of us what his plan for the world is. Hasn’t the world have enough of white men concocting grand solutions, drawing border lines on maps, telling the rest of us how to live?
While this was a hard thing for me to hear at the time, I am deeply thankful that I did, because it is important to acknowledge that very few people even get the opportunity to live their dream, let alone the opportunity to dream up a better world for others. I am a lucky guy, that’s for damn sure.
It’s also really important to acknowledge that the solutions we planners dream up have massive effects on every single other human being on this planet, some for better, other for worse, and they do not get a chance to consent to these changes. Nobody is asking truck drivers if they want Elon to build a fleet of self-driving 18-wheelers.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to improve the world. This is simply to acknowledge the injustices in the world with an eye for 1) not exacerbating them, and 2) correcting for them where possible, and also 3) to acknowledge the inherent responsibility one assumes when presuming to save the world. As I learned last month as I finished Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, far-reaching, top-down solutions, even with some of the best intentions, and crafted by some of the world’s best minds, often cause more harm than good. One of many ways to correct for this bias is to build decentralization, choice, and personal autonomy into one’s’ plans - for example choosing to build a social network open-sourced on the blockchain, like Scuttlebutt, as opposed to closed-source on proprietary servers, like Facebook.
“What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted… Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to . . . well . . . save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.” ― Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Inventing the Future
This is not to rag on Mark Zuckerberg! He’s also done some amazing things for the world with a clear and important mission: connecting people. However, there clearly is a difference between Elon and Juan on one side and Bezos and Zuckerberg on the other side: Elon and Juan set out to save the world – going to Mars and building a new, decentralized internet, respectively, are mere sub-steps to that ultimate aim – while Bezos and Zuckerberg set out to build more specific things – “the everything store” and an app “to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better”, respectively.
Important caveat: I don’t know these people
Besides Juan whom I only barely know, the only things I know about Musk, Zuckerberg, and Bezos are from what I read in books and on the Internet so please correct me here if I am misrepresenting original intentions here. I also acknowledge that Zuckerberg and Bezos seem to have developed an appreciation for their newfound responsibilities as the world’s newest richest people. You can say the same thing for Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie, and other ‘ruthless’ businessmen who sought to dominate all competition to achieve personal financial success, who then later in life reflected on their newfound responsibilities as stewards, which my dad calls noblesse oblige, the obligation of the nobility – or in America’s case the rich – to care for society at large, not just for their own interests.
Before I move on, I want to contextualize my shift to a superhero mindset within earlier iterations of my philosophical worldview. The farthest back I can remember having any sort of worldview, it had something to do with getting to the next stage in school, be it middle school, high school, or the big one: college. It was always about preparing for the next stage in life, the great beyond where everything changes and all our hard work was worth it. Of course, this is a pseudo-religious worldview, but instead of the promised paradise in the afterlife, it’s promised on the green lawns of Ivy League universities. And so my life in high school was spent as an “excellent sheep”, grade grubbing, boat rowing, and extracurricularing, all for the ultimate aim of salvation through college acceptance.
Looking for a new philosophy in college, I found it in Josh Kopelman’s speech about why First Round Capital was starting the Dorm Room Fund. College kids who can code can “build billion dollar business from their dorm rooms.” I promptly quit the crew team the next day so I could devote those 23 hours per week I spent getting a boat from point A to point B as fast as possible to getting me from point HERE to point STARTING A UNICORN as fast as possible. The goal in this stage of my life was all about putting all of the pieces necessary in place so that I could start a company. I took computer science classes, went to hackathons, read books, and met with founders and venture capitalists, which all eventually led me to dropping out of college to join Looker, where I could learn how a soon-to-be-unicorn company was doing startups “the right way.”
After 11 months at Looker, I all of the sudden realized that I had learned most of what I had come there to learn, and that much of the remaining things I needed to learn to start a company – finding product market fit, managing myself, managing others, dealing with finances and accounting, etc – could not be learned at Looker, and so it was time to leave. This was a much more difficult transition than leaving college for a few reasons:
My dad started worrying that a pattern of not being able to finish what I started was developing. Coming from a the world of finance, he worried that my resume would read poorly.
A commonly given principle is “don’t leave a job until you have the next job lined up” and for good reason. Being in between jobs is really scary and opens you up for all sorts of deep philosophical holes to fall into. On the flip side, falling into deep philosophical holes is sometimes exactly what you need to establish your foundations, and powerfully choose the next step in one’s’ career, as happened for me. As a happy medium between these extremes: it’s probably a good idea to have a more than a vague sense of what you’re going to do next. It would probably help to have a rough, yet specific outline, such as traveling to these three countries or doing that self-help program.
I was battling with a lifetime of high expectations, and was scared shitless. Ever since I was young, I had been compared first to Bill Gates and then to Mark Zuckerberg. In high school I decided to introduce myself as Steve instead of Stevie like I used to to encourage more comparisons with my then-idol Steve Jobs. For one, I was the computer kid. For another, as a nerdy, awkward, Jewish boy with glasses, it’s hard not to make the comparison. And it starts even younger than this: I once taught a computer science class to 7-year-olds and one of the students of color pointed at me and then at a picture of Mark Zuckerberg who was on the homepage of code.org and shouted, “It’s you!” (Of course this brings up the very important question of role models, where I would be today if my superficial appearance were different, and how to communicate to all children that they can do anything they set their minds to, regardless of what the stereotype of the people who do that job now look like superficially.)
This is all to say that I was stuck. I was thinking about traveling – because that’s what lost kids, like the young Steve Jobs, do to find themselves – or maybe living on a farm – because I had all sorts of guilt about my privilege and wanted to pretend that it didn’t exist by running away from it.
Through this turmoil, my life philosophy morphed into a confused state of nihilism: What is the point of getting out of bed in the morning when all of this – everything I know and care about – will one day wither and die? Why do we strive when there is no meaning in the universe?
It was from this mire that my friend Zach plucked me and dropped me into the Landmark Forum, where I was able to confront and overcome many of my fears and insecurities, and establish a new baseline life philosophy: I will exist in this world for approximately another 60 years. Taking a long-term-hedonistic viewpoint, there’s not enough television (or other pleasure-inducing stuff) to satiate me for my whole life. I need to find something else to do. What would be fun? What would stave off this 60 years of boredom best? As our society slowly but surely approaches a world of abundance, where every human has their worldly needs met, this will be the key question of our age: What do we do with all of this leisure time?
Boredom avoidance became my North Star, and I began thinking about work in terms of what would bore me least, which I decided would be starting a company with Eli. After some brainstorming, and a failed attempt in SF, we started The Coding Space in NYC. It was an adventure. It was also when I began keeping a journal, which I’ve written in almost every day since. I accomplished so much on this simple life philosophy, and I’m so grateful for where it’s gotten me. However, in recent months I’ve begun seeing places where it falls short of what I need as my guiding life philosophy.
As a kid I loved the quote, “some people eat to live and others live to eat,” because I very clearly lived to eat. I LOVE food. So with my newfound life philosophy of maximizing pleasure over the long term, I began optimizing my life around my meals. For example, I found that I enjoyed my food more when I was starving so I began skipping breakfast so that I would be really hungry for lunch which would allow me to chow down. Sure - eating a massive, carb-o-loaded lunch would mean that all blood would flee my brain and prevent me from any serious work in the afternoon, but what does that matter? The only reason I’m doing serious work is to stave off boredom, and eating delicious food brings me more pleasure than doing serious work: food trumps work. Case closed.
Clearly I’m not going to be able to accomplish anything of significance if my main goal in life is pleasure-generation / boredom-avoidance. Which is a great question: why then accomplish anything of significance? Back to my original question: why strive when we will all die?
On the one hand, saving the world is merely an enlightened extension of staving off boredom: I can sacrifice eating a big lunch in the short term so I can do more fun anti-boredom things in the long term. However that doesn’t feel like a strong enough foundation.
I think the new foundation is twofold:
Helping people is meaningful. Even if they will die. Even if the human race ends. Helping people is meaningful because people construct meaning, and helping a meaning constructor is meaningful, almost by definition.
Saving the world is fun. Elon Musk is literally – no joke, you can look this up – the real-life inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, Iron Man, and leader of the Avengers. If you could wake up every morning and put on a figurative superhero costume, down to the figurative cape, why wouldn’t you? As my wise friend Docks says, “Until you wake up every morning pissing blood, ready to kick down doors, you’re not doing it right. The world needs you.”
But we aren’t the naive superheros of the 1900s. We are the Peter-Singer-effective-altruism-enlightened superheros of the 2000s. We understand that you have to think deeply about what is truly the most good you can do. We can’t just donate shoes to the needy (TOMS) because then what becomes of the cobblers?
“[Musk] points out that one of the really tough things is figuring out what questions to ask,” “Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy. I came to the conclusion that really we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask.” The teenage Musk then arrived at his ultralogical mission statement. “The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment,” he said.” ― Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Inventing the Future
In a similar way, Juan Benet asks the same question and reaches almost the same exact answer: “At the very top of it all, I think it is crucial to think about the very endgame. Thinking really long term, what’s critical? What is of fundamental importance? (i.e. why do anything at all?). I think the most important thing to be doing is to: advance science + technology. Accelerate science itself if we can, and certainly protect our knowledge at all costs. Why science + technology, why not people? Because I think science + tech (which I treat as two modules of the same system) are the best thing around… In the last 10 years, the iPhone (+ unwittingly, the Telcos) have done more for human rights than the UN. It’s kinda crazy, but email, photos, twitter, facebook have stopped more abuses + promoted more global community than the “world government” body.”
Unsurprisingly, my life mission is quite similar to theirs: enable thinking. I want to enable people to think more precisely (including but not limited to communicating their ideas to computers), logically (sequentially and without contradictions), resourcefully (considering multiple perspectives and sources of wisdom), and joyfully (feeling empowered to use thinking and learning to solve their problems).
This is meaningful to me for a few reasons:
I love my mental apparatus. I get such joy from using it.
My thinking allows me to improve my life, and the lives of those around me.
I feel so grateful to the people who have enabled me to think critically: my mom and dad for kindling my passion for reading, my dad for pushing me to ask quantitative, reasoned, and sequential questions, Ken and IMACS for teaching me to teach myself arbitrary concepts through reading technical writing, Seymour Papert for designing LOGO which planted the seed of my self-efficacy as it pertains to learning, Paul Graham for showing me how the written word can be used to think through issues to articulate one’s own thoughts…
I want to fully acknowledge here that this is not “the answer” to the question “what is the most good you can do?” It is simply the answer to the question, “what is the most good that I, Steve Krouse, can do?” Moreover, I plan to complement these efforts with charity of 5% of my income through effective altruism organizations, because humility never hurt nobody none.
“The Summer Day”
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
When I encountered the last line of this poem in Essentialism by Greg McKeown my eyes went wide. What a beautiful question! What a insightful poem! If there’s anything out there that more succinctly embodies my thinking here, I would like to know about it.
Well, Mary Oliver, if you must know, I plan to use my one wild and precious life to embark on an adventure to save the world thoughtfully while balancing my health and relationships.
As Mark Manson says, if it’s not a “fuck yes”, it’s a no, and so a no it remains for the foreseeable future. I totally acknowledge that this may change as I get older, but I must remember that it’s better to be too late to this party than too early. In other words, having to adopt a child because I waited too late is much better than having a child before I’m ready.
Historically, I’ve been very disempowered around vacation, disliking it both for the loss of autonomy, and because I normally throw my back out after all the sitting in long planes, trains and automobiles. However I am now trying to reclaim vacation for myself and design from scratch an exciting escape, where I can recharge my batteries and come back better than ever. The opposite of what I’d want is: to go on a trip I didn’t want, for someone else’s reasons, and come back exhausted and bitter about it – the kind of “vacation you need a vacation from.”
I have dinner plans in a few hours with my significant other to think through our plans for the next year or so - what are we doing for thanksgiving, new years, her nephew’s bar mitzvah in London in March, Burning Man next year…? In particular I am excited to spend time decompressing, reading lots of books, and focusing on our physical health and sleep.
This is something I am also newly empowered to experiment with now that I am beginning to conquer my back pain through the Alexander Technique. I plan to experiment on this with my partner through vacations.
NYC is great but there are other cool people elsewhere, winter sucks sometimes, and less people around can be great for focus.
While I’ve found great value in setting a half-day each week to review my work progress with my futureofcoding.org research recap podcast episodes, I have yet to establish a similar practice of reflection into my personal journaling practice. I will add this to the calendar on alternating weeks from my work reflection weeks. In addition to re-reading and reflecting in writing the journal entries from the prior two weeks, this time will include working on skills I’m trying to improve (stevekrouse.com/debugging) as well as blogs I’m writing.
At the very least, I plan to reflect on my progress on my Life Plans from the prior year and plan for the next year at least once a year here, much like the shareholder letter than a company releases annually.