Professionally, I should have all the reasons to be content. I’m in a high-paying, white-collar field of software development. I have a PhD in computer science and almost 20 years of professional experience. I have experience in entrepreneurship: I founded instaGrok (an educational search engine), and a few other technology projects.
Experientially, I actually really like the process building software. It’s one of the best ways for me to consistently get into a flow state. I love the purity of the logic of software. I relish in designing and building complex systems, especially working on AI projects.
I could easily be happy working at Google or Facebook. But I think something would be missing there. For one, I think a lot of technology built today is rather short-sighted. Looking through the job postings of the newly-funded startups, I can’t help but cringe sometimes – they often look to me like this:
I think computer programming is so intrinsically fun that for many programmers the activity of programming may obscure the question of why they are working on a particular project. For many shy, introverted people (of which I am one), the elegance of software code may actually become a safe haven from the the chaos and stress of the real world.
I’d like to develop technology with a purpose, a tangible social impact. instaGrok was one attempt at this. I really enjoy and appreciate learning, and I wanted to create something novel and useful in that space. The entrepreneurial journey has been incredibly transformative for me, developing and stretching me in a million different ways. It didn’t always feel fun or easy. In fact, anxiety and stress have been a big part of the journey. And while instaGrok has enjoyed reasonable success (hundreds of thousands of users, grant from US Department of Education, various awards), it has been a struggle to make it thrive financially (the education market in the US is a tough nut to crack). Nor did I get to spend as much time as I wanted doing what I really love (building the technology). Instead I spent a lot of my time and energy raising money, finding people to join the team, marketing and hundreds of other things that a young startup needs to do. Yes, I have learned a ton, and my experience and ability to execute has increased tremendously. Nevertheless, as I contemplate future start-up venture, I wonder whether I’m willing put in the kind of single-pointed dedication that may be required to make it succeed.
In addition to instaGrok, I’m currently working on a few projects related to literacy: TextGenome and EvolvingLiteracy, as well as participating in the Adult Literacy X-Prize. At least from the intellectual standpoint, helping people learn to read better feels like a great way to make impact in the world. Yet, sometimes it feels more like a good idea in my head, rather than a calling that fully resonates with my mind-body-soul. How do we know if the calling is truly authentic to who we are, or is just an idea?
The other thing I’m really interested in is consciousness. I have had a daily mediation practice for many years now, and have studied with different teachers like Craig Hamilton, Thomas Huebl, and Dan Brown. I’ve had tremendous mind-opening experiences and deep transformations through this work. I even met my wife Lucy through consciousness work, and it continues to be the foundation of our partnership. I really think that consciousness is the new frontier, and has the benefit to profoundly transform our inner psychology, as well as lives, relationships, and societies.
I’m still wondering about how to make impact in the space. Last year I started the Startup Shaman project, hoping to bring together my two passions: tech entrepreneurship and consciousness – by doing deep inner work with technology entrepreneurs. Though I haven’t yet put a whole lot of energy to bring it into the world, the few things that I have tried have not yet yielded huge results in terms of bringing it into the world. This is one of the questions I’m exploring right now: is it just a matter of trying harder – tweaking branding/marketing, networking more, getting more speaking gigs, writing a book? It will most likely involve “grunt work”: doing things I don’t love, like marketing and networking. I don’t doubt that eventually this effort will pay off. But what I’m exploring is: does one’s purpose need to require effort? What is the right level of efforting as opposed to letting things unfold authentically?
Or to quote from Kung Fu Panda:
Perhaps relying on “if you build it, they will come” is a bit naive; but I wonder: is it possible to conceive and manifest our purpose with such elegance that we only get to do only what we love, and people/opportunities naturally coalesce around what we do, without us having to endlessly self-promote?