When I was 14, I woke up on the floor of my friend’s house. It was January, 2000. I knew that we were living in a tech bubble. That morning, I realized the economy would be crap when I graduated college, and so I’d better get good grades in school now, so I could get into a good college and get a good job when I graduated and the economy was broken. I spent the next 9 years in fear of never having a good job, afraid of the world, and afraid of ending up homeless and alone. After studying physics, computer science, and math in college, and then going to graduate school for computer science, I got a job working at a company that was doing electronic trading. This was fall 2008, a few weeks before the whole market collapsed.
It was confusing to see my personal fortune rise as the entire financial world whipped itself into a panic and people talked of losing half their retirement savings. Were we causing this to happen? Was I responsible? I didn’t know. I didn’t really understand what we were doing or how it made money . I just knew I felt guilty. I knew I was paid well to do something I enjoyed. I knew I didn’t understand it. I felt overpowered by guilt. I didn’t work on financial code – I worked on code that connected the machines together and allowed them to communicate rapidly about the situation they were in. I learned about distributed systems and software engineering, while the actual financial work we were doing was a mystery to me.
I understood that money seemed to run the world, and I understood that I was getting paid well to do something I enjoyed. It felt like i was changing the world in ways I didn’t understand. I wanted more money, so I could spend my days doing what I wanted – which i figured would help the world for sure.
What I didn’t realize was that at age 23, I was being rewarded for the hard work I did from ages 14-22. I made the mistake of confusing my day-to-day actions (the things “I” was doing) as being the cause of the pay “I” was getting – instead of seeing the long chain of cause and effect leading me to where “I” was.
“The self as a discrete entity is an illusion.” “I” could have told you that years ago, but I didn’t know what it really meant. “I” got where “I” am right now because of 3 billion years worth of choices made by my ancestors, to work hard for the future – and just a few decades worth of easy choices on my part.
I spent age 23 to 28 angry at the world for being unfair – I told myself I was fine with what I went through, but it wasn’t fair for “other people” to suffer. I stopped working hard. I looked for opportunities to get wealthy the way I thought other wealthy people did – by networking, using their connections, learning how to bullshit, learning how to sound confident when I didn’t know what i was talking about. It worked! I saw some success for a while. I was an early employee at two startups – Uber and Twilio – that both went on to billion+ valuations.
And I got nothing because I was too focused on myself. I left Twilio after a few months for Uber, because Uber was clearly going to get bigger than Twilio. This was obvious in 2011, as soon as Travis took over as CEO of Uber. I left Uber after a few months, because I didn’t want to get rich working for someone else – I wanted to be the author of my own life story, and I took a role as CTO of a gaming company that had a team of 40 guys working on games in Ukraine, and needed a technical leader.
I didn’t want to get rich working for Uber because I didn’t want to be jugded by myself in the future. I didn’t want to feel guilty again, for having success while others didn’t. Walking past homeless people who muttered things that made sense to me but were incomprehensible to the world – towards a job I knew would leave me with millions if i just stuck with it – it was scary. I imagined voices challenging me in the future saying “you don’t deserve this money, you worked for a sketchy company, just like finance, you should be helping the world” – and I couldn’t take that. I wanted to say I’d made my money by building a company that was doing something marginally useful, rather than being lucky enough to be an early employee at a company that was doing something marginally useful for society. I had the experience of being wealthy and feeling guilty, and I knew it sucked.
How arrogant I was.
I didn’t get to Uber because of work I had done alone – It was my parents, my grandparents, my ancestors for millions of years that worked to put me where I was. Just that one job could have given me enough wealth to support several generations of descendants – to cover the medical bills for my family or put siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews through college – and I said “no, it’s not enough for me to be wealthy: I want to feel like I created that wealth.”
What a fool.
No man is an island. Nobody gets where they got alone. I still think free markets are the most fair way of arranging things and I think they lift people out of poverty faster than central planning – which curiously tends to have fabulously wealthy planners but still plenty of poor folks . I’ll be damned if you can get me to say that I deserve to be where I am because of what “I” did – I deserve to be here because of what my parents did, and what their parents did, and what their parents did. Nobody deserves to be face down in their own piss, no matter how bad their choices were.
Everybody who is born into the world today is born into a world of immeasurable wealth, created almost entirely by dead people. Anyone who says “I did this on my own” is being told “no, you didn’t,” by 3 billion years worth of ancestors – as long as they listen to the past. The wealth they created for us – wealth such as buildings, sure, but also wealth like cultural institutions such as the rule of law, democracy, freedom of speech – those were not cheap. They did not come easily. And yet that wealth, created by all of our ancestors – is not distributed in a remotely even fashion among their offspring. That wealth is given to people who did nothing for it other than show a possibility of existing. We, all of us alive today, gave hope to our ancestors thousands of years ago when they otherwise would have given up. That is why we are collectively wealthy today, and it is why nobody can claim they deserve what they have because of what they did.
We, even the hardest working among us, do a tiny bit of work. In comparison to the sum total work done in all of human history, a hundred years of hard work is a joke. We do a single lifetime’s worth of work at most, move some of that wealth around, create some more, and think we deserve what came to us. That’s ridiculous. It’s like someone who sits out in the sun and thinks they created the sun – and therefore are more deserving of its warmth than a man trapped in a cave.
I do believe free markets – which are based upon consent – are the best way of arranging human affairs. I do think when you take things from some to support others, it just makes us all worse off – but I refuse to believe that I deserve to be comfortable while others who are less comfortable serve me all day.
It’s true that some people work harder than others, and it’s true that hard work does account for some fraction of success, but it’s completely absurd to say you “deserve to be where you are” because of choices made by people who didn’t know you, never met you, to give you things before you, or even your parents, were born.
How much is democracy worth compared to the largest company today? What is the value of the rule of law? And how equally do we share those gifts from our ancestors? Not as equally as we share their genetic code, that’s for sure, cousin.
For those of us who are successful today, like I am – The world we grew up in was made for us, and it was set up so we could do well as long as we followed the rules and worked hard – and even at that, it failed a lot of us. Setting that world up meant hurting a lot of people who didn’t deserve it, taking resources from them because they couldn’t fight back, and then hiding it from us as kids, just like we don’t show jimmy who loves eating chicken nuggets where those nuggets came from.
If you worked hard to get where you are, it’s time to grow up and admit that you are the beneficiary of far more value than the tiny amount you’ve created on your own. We are in a palace of relative freedom and justice, constructed by ghosts who died in a much more violent world. The palace isn’t finished, and there’s plenty of room for a lot more of the family.