The life-changing magic of commitment and faith
Because believing in something, to the point of delusion, is the only way to get past the pain of making ugly things
🚯 (Co-founder) dating is a trash fire
The tech entrepreneurship scene in Toronto is tiny. Between the ending of Entrepreneur First’s TO3 cohort and joining YC Startup School in Toronto, there appears to be a somewhat incestuous community with diverse and colourful definitions of the word “commitment”. To nobody’s surprise, it’s a real mix of both trash fires 🔥 and diamonds 💎 out there, just like actual online dating. Have fun navigating the minefield of people who are:
Looking for a manic pixie dream engineer 🦄 with 30 years of experience in React / FastAPI and AI-bLoCkcHain, no ideas, free will, or desires of their own, and who exists solely to execute your brilliant biznisss vision in exchange for a generous, generous 10% equity stake;
Spray-and-praying a generic copy-pasted message that doesn’t even use your first name, despite having a limited daily quota of invites;
Currently in a “committed” post week-8 team at EF but quietly
installed Tinderjoined YC cofounder matching anyway. I get an email every time one of you joins the unofficial Toronto Slack channel, ok 👀? WE CAN LITERALLY SEE YOU.
It’s madness out there, folks. These co(founders) ain’t loyal. Good luck swiping. 🤳
🪨 Lost arts: stubbornness, faith, and commitment
YC Startup School had a fun session last week with Amjad Masad and Haya Odeh of Replit. They talked about getting rejected from YC 4 times, using a rickroll video in their final application because they were so fed up (“screw YC we don’t need them”), marrying each other, and committing to working on their dinky little in-browser IDE project for over a decade. If your values aren’t real until you’ve sacrificed something for them, then turning down a $1B acquisition offer from a competitor, because it would have “compromised their vision” - sure does pass the sniff test.
Stories like this are always inspiring after the fact. What we don’t see is the millions of people making sacrifices for what they believe in, who may never get what they believe in. Such is the definition of faith. If it’s self-evidently going to work out, then it’s not faith - simply self-interest.
Losing faith has been a theme of the human condition since forever, starting with the book of Job. You don’t have to be a religious person to stare up at the night sky, wondering if you are the sucker in a world full of optimizers and optionality-chasers.
VCs will tell you that funding has become a commodity nowadays, and that in order to find outsized returns, you need to believe - and do - something different. For example, EF has an interesting thesis that great co-founder pairs are simply not meeting each other. (Time will tell whether or not they are right.)
An equally plausible thesis could be this: the greatest things holding back our generation from incredible outcomes is 1) that we are too jaded to really believe in anything anymore and 2) that we are terrified of commitment. We are godless people, and we can’t even consistently show up for brunch. 🥑 What happened to us?²
🌌 If you meet a romantic, give them a hug
…for they are saving us from our nihilistic selves with their useful delusions.
People are often accused, for example, of romanticizing Paris. In reality it is a dirty and smelly place, with unfriendly people who hate tourists, and the food is overpriced. But people love the idea of going there: they plan a trip with their favourite human being (at least for the moment), they look forward to it with great anticipation, and the whole thing takes on a compelling sheen of symbolism and meaning that is honestly miraculous for a city covered in piss.
Romanticism is delusion: whether it’s useful or pathological is never quite clear. Read the literal lyrics of any chart-topping love song: they usually describe behaviour that, if actually executed, would land you straight in jail. Delusion is looking at a stranger and seeing a future unfold. Delusion is looking at a shitty MVP or a slide deck and calling it a company. One is the basis of every Taylor Swift song; the other is how the VC landscape works. Fumes, vibes, and a feeling.
Romanticism creates meaning and potential out of ugly, incomplete things.
It’s one of the few ways that we can get past the pain of the first draft.³
💩 Startups are like babies
Everybody’s baby is ugly, but everyone thinks their baby is special and deserves the best
teachers engineers and will go on to cure cancer and save the world. And nobody really cares about anybody else’s baby either, though they wish you well, or at least don’t wish you ill.
A certain degree of romanticism and oxytocin-fueled delusion is required to get past the pain of having no sleep for 72 hours and
wiping snotty noses refactoring the horrific React code that your first “front-end dev” wrote, putting something in front of the world, and not thinking that it is just utter, utter garbage.
But we were all badly put-together messes before we were humans.
🙏 Thanks (for the love and the hate)
Thanks to Ben Parry, Andrew Matte, Junyuan Lau, Joe Perkins, and Archie Wood for commenting on a draft of this essay. Good ideas are theirs; bad stuff is mine.
I’ve also received completely contradictory feedback on this essay: love the painting / don’t get the painting; the strikethroughs are funny / the strikethroughs are overused; this is concise / this is incoherent.
At this point I’m going to say thanks, accept some stuff, ignore the rest, and just hit publish. See footnotes #3 and #4.
1 - The First Cloud, currently on display at the Tate Britain, is a cautionary painting about the pitfalls of marrying for money instead of love. Or, you know, forming a company for VC funding instead of an inextinguishable desire to bring something into existence. 'It is the little rift within the lute / That by-and-by will make the music mute.'
2 - Ben’s Intro to Buddhism professor posited that before cell phones existed, we’d never dream of standing someone up for coffee because the prospect of leaving them stranded at the cafe would be considered unconscionably rude. Now we can message someone 5 minutes beforehand to apologize for being late, or not showing up at all. And it’s ok, because, you know, we messaged them. 🤷
3 - “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” - Ira Glass
4 - As someone who’s been writing bad blog posts since the age of 12, I now have some unfounded confidence in my writing. (Blame the one person in a blue moon who pops up and tells me that this stuff is actually ok.) I now know this: you would never pick a topic to write about, interview 15 different people for their thoughts on it, and then try to craft something that appeals to all of them.
I.e. if you had asked 15 people what they would have improved about email, you never would have created Slack.
That is a surefire way to create a mediocre thing that absolutely nobody likes or feels anything about. Think B2B SaaS products with zero sense of identity, violently lurching from large client to large client, becoming an incoherent mess of poorly thought out features that are rushed to production for the sake of the next funding round. Or…serial monogamists who leap from partner to partner out of fear of being alone, absorbing aspects of other people’s personalities instead of becoming their own person.
Beautiful things are (made by) people with conviction. (Ugly things too - but hey. It takes time.)
Thanks for reading, fren. 🐾 If you enjoyed this, find more posts at casey.li.
It seems like there's no clear expectations of what a good team-making/co-founding experience is supposed to look like. One problem with the online/tinder dating model is that it makes people very disposable. On the one hand, this person may be the most important factor in building a successful business, BUT you can totally just remove them from your life in one click/swipe lol. It feels so wrong. There's no little opportunity to earn each other's commitments. And that takes time, which goes against our instant gratification urges. But maybe this is a situation where "slow is smooth, smooth is fast".
Love the Ira Glass quote, and agree with the caveat that your taste might also start out awful but hopefully refines and changes over time. It's the commitment that really gets the momentum going. Honestly, people that can't commit to finishing things annoy the