Kierkegaard and Impact: a framework for entrepreneurship

I’ve spent what seems like an unnecessary amount of time over the past couple years trying to define exactly what impact means to me.

Every decision that I’ve made goes through this nebulous filter of impact — decisions such as whether to go to college, whether to take a job in big tech or a startup, or what problems to even care about. Essentially everything I’ve done has been defined by my definition of impact.

I think most of us have a colloquial definition for what we think impact means. When asked, most people say something about how it’s the impact our work has on others or the good we leave behind.

The more I think about it, most of this is bullshit.

While I don’t promise to have a better definition now than I did years ago, I’ve found a starting point.

Over the past few months, I have become somewhat familiar with Søren Kierkegaard’s work. Kierkegaard is, of course, a Danish philosopher and the first true existentialist. His work on despair is a freakishly good way to think about progress in entrepreneurship and technology.

The Finite and the Infinite

Kierkegaard viewed the self as having two opposing aspects that cannot exist without each another — we call this a dielectric in philosophy. Kierkegaard referred to one as the infinite and the other the finite, one cannot exist without the other and they are at constant tension. Additionally, he defined a synthesis, a point where these two a balanced — much like two equal masses in orbit about each other.

Kierkegaard defined the Finite as little worldly facts about an individual. It’s the condition in which you exists on a day-to-day basis — your name, sex, gender, race, and all the other things things that socially define you like your political or cultural environment. The finite is everything that is necessary about you. It is the opposite of everything that is possible. It is, simply, everything that is predetermined and preordained for your life.

Opposite this, Kierkegaard defined the Infinite as the part of the self that deals with abstractions, interpretations, different meanings, and ultimately all of the possibilities that could be but are not. Imagination is the primary device of the infinite and, as such, Kierkegaard viewed it as the opportunity to break free from the rigidity of experience defined by the finite.

Kierkegaard believed that if an individual lacked either side of this dielectric, either the Finite or the Infinite, they would exist in a permanent state of despair. You can just as easily become limited to the role the Finite has set out for you, as you could get lost in the possibility of the Infinite, and both would be equally debilitating.

However, Kierkegaard was clear in defining the Finite as the default condition. When you are born, there is a path that is easiest to follow. Like it or not, the vast majority of choices are made for us by our parents, or our culture, and our society. Over the past few years, I found myself following these tracks. After graduation, I went to college, worked my way through becoming an adult, and got a job and contributed as a small part of a greater whole.

Kierkegaard would argue that I had lost myself, for I had ignored the dialectic of self and only existed in the Finite.

The opposite of this is just as deadly. To engage in the Infinite aspect of the self is to balance out the Finite. Essentially, the work of coming up with new ideas or understandings of the world in any way is to indulge in the Infinite. Kierkegaard teaches that unless this process is grounded in reality (the Finite), the self would become too abstract, too fantastic, and too unreal. In short, a person too caught up in abstract knowledge would never be, and I hate to use this word, impactful in the real world.

Finally, Kierkegaard defined the concept of being lost in wishing. For example, setting out to achieve a lofty goal could be identified in the Infinite all you want, but if the goal was so far out of your control, you would just get lost dreaming.

Kierkegaard would argue that you should ground your path to the Infinite in the finite. To not avoid being lost in wishing, you should come up with the smallest possible tasks that allow you to step towards the Infinite state.

I’m sure by now you can see where I’m going with this, but let’s make it explicit.

Inroads towards the Infinite: a Framework for Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship is the means of bringing together the Finite and Infinite to a balanced dialectic. To start a company is to venture into the Infinite — to go into your imagination, understand what you believe is true about the best world, and bring it back to the Finite.

Becoming an entrepreneur is learning to take these small steps towards the Infinite until it becomes Finite. Then repeat. The continued balancing of this dialectic, in the best of companies, is a never-ending process.

Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant later explored this concept in what became known as the Hegelian dialectic, a cycle of development of thesis — antithesis — synthesis. It starts with a thesis. Which then gives rise to its reaction — an antithesis, contradicting or negating the thesis. And the tension between the two resolves through a synthesis.

This was the source of all progress.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense, so let’s get concrete. For an early stage company, there exists a tension between what actually is and what could possibly be. For every startup that is stuck in the status quo, what Kierkegaard would call the Finite, they’re equally as many that are stuck in utter imagination, without any clear actionability.

This framework allows for the easy definition of impact as simply the actions that allow for the quickest iteration of the Hegelian cycle. To have impact is to most effectively reach into the Infinite, and manifest it within the Finite — to come up with the actionable tasks that can be done in the here and now.

On Communist Memes, and their 'real' danger

After finding him on the wrong side of a PZPR member’s rifle, Antoni’s father’s decision to risk his family’s lives and escape Warsaw became clear. He would spend the next year helping his son flee the oppressive communist regime that brought chaos to his family’s life over the preceding years.

My family was lucky, scraping together the financial means to board a ship to start a life in America nearly forty years before Antoni’s, raising two children here — children that would never speak their language, practice their faith, or know the horrors that would come to face their homeland.

I first met Antoni, or “Chief” as he took up in recent years in a small idyllic senior home he and second wife, a second generation Russian Jew, had taken residence in as their growing children worried about their fathers increasing forgetfulness.

As I helped Chief navigate the years old flatbed scanner he had recently thrifted to digitize his photos, I began to understand the reality of the world my grandparents were lucky enough to escape.

Antoni escaped from a government that murdered, raped, and brainwashed its citizens. In the years following his escape his parents would starve from under-packed rations and his sister would be one of the nearly one hundred thousand to lose their life in the Katyn massacre.

I had the luxury of knowing my culture to be pierogi and hulupki, large family dinners, truly American lives. By chance, I had grown up with the privilege to understand Marxism as the source of the memes my friends obsessively tagged me in on Facebook, and the body of literature some of my more bookish friends would incessantly critique class readings with.

Antoni did not not have this luxury: I could see the impact of this horror on his face as he told stories of the past. As he began to learn to use Facebook, he would spend nights forgoing sleep to individually report each of the memes my friends so blindly adored.

The stories of survivors like Antoni give us a picture of communism that is far more horrid than punchy image macros ever could. While we will never fully understand all the true horrors that occurred under communist regimes, we must fight the normalization of the mindsets that lead to them. As such, we must preserve the stories of the survivors and those who would never escape. By trivializing the story of Antoni and those like him, we allow our world to slip closer to our bloody past.

Nearly one hundred thousand people died at the hands of the ideology our families escaped. They do not live to tell their stories. We owe it to them to recognize that this ideology is not a fad and their loss is not a meme.

I have spent the last few years at small private College in the northeast, where you are as likely to see a Hammer and Sickle button on a bag as you are a Harvard sweatshirt by simply walking around campus and the surrounding town. The prep-school I attended ran trips to Cuba, where students returned with bags full of Ché Guevara apparel and looted artifacts from the embargo. For many students, casually endorsing communism is the edgy way to acknowledge the systemic biases of capitalism. Hundreds of Thousands more like communist ‘meme pages’, posting all order of jokes playing off of these horrible regimes.

These depictions that paint the ideology as revolutionary or utopian overlook the authoritarian violence that it requires. Communism cannot be separated from oppression — as it it depends upon it. In any communist society, personal autonomy does not exist, the collective is all that matters. Each human, Antoni’s entire family, is just a simple cog in a machine set to product utopia; their lives essentially valueless.

Our generation, now a century removed from the horrors of communist states, has lost the horrific means of communism for its supposed ends, a classless utopian state. The reality of communism could be nothing further from this falsehood.

After spending their formative years in environments saturated with communist memes and jokes about Soviet Russia, my generation will graduate into the world with the false truth that communism represents an alternative path to utopia, a world worth considering, rather than an inherently violent philosophy that destroyed hundreds millions of lives.

What is not shown in these jokes are the images of Stalin’s secret police torturing “traitors” in black sites by beating their bodies until not a single bone was left in tack. Or the images of families like Antoni’s starving as Lenin seized food from the poor, causing a famine that at points caused mothers to eat their own children, and other families to dig up corpses for food.

The truth was clear in every country that communism was tried: massacres, starvation, and terror followed.

Antoni left behind his parents, his friends, and his family, on the chance of finding freedom. You know his story because he was lucky enough to survive. This is not true of the hundred million more that would never make it out.

Please let us not erase the history of the victims who do not have a voice because they did not survive the writing of their stories with thoughtless memes and mindless critiques.

Most importantly, for Antoni and all of those like him, let us not be tempted to repeat it. No meme is worth that.

Names, exact dates, and details have been changed on the request of my dear friend’s anonymity.

A Girardian Framing of College Pressure

Memes matter-- even off of Facebook. While many colleges today are in brutal competition for the best Facebook meme page, there is another far less recognized and unintentional competition occurring-the battle to proliferate mimetic contagion.

Rene Girard, a French sociologist whose explorations of literature and myth helped establish a generation of philosophy, built his career around the idea that human motivation was solely based on desire. People are fundamentally free, he believed; however, they seek things in life based on what other people want. Their imitation of those desires, which he called mimesis, is imitated by others, leading to escalating and destructive competition.

Girard argued that mimetic rivalry can escalate through a process he called mimetic contagion until a society is almost torn apart by rivalry. Girard expanded his theory through the study of myths and history, arguing that mimetic contagion can be resolved through the creation of scapegoats. Looking at the ways groups often create scapegoats, only to torment and kill them, Girard argued that this sacred murder creates a greater unity. In his 1972 work “Violence and the Sacred,” Girard argued that the death of a scapegoat is essential to creating social order.

It is hard to imagine a more perfect environment for mimetic contagion and scapegoating to flourish than than elite college campuses. Students are forced to compete in brutal zero-sum competitions during the admissions process. As acceptance rates tank into the low single digits, these competitions become even more intense. Schools that once only required better than average SAT scores now pit students against each other on hundreds of axes. From elite sports to international math and science Olympiads, students are brutalized through Herculean trials to earn a spot at any number of so-called elite colleges.

Once within these schools, social dynamics create additional intense competition play. From eating clubs and Greek life on the social side to overworked schedules that accommodate the most desirable classes to earning respect from star professors, students are constantly engaged in a sort of mimetic contagion loop.

With this contagion comes the creation of scapegoats-innate hierarchies that isolate and deprive individual students from opportunity and can curtail opportunity decades after graduation. Many of these scapegoat dynamics are decided decades before a student enrolls through multi-generational family legacies and donor relations. These games are played across generations. 
The prizes of the games are far from insignificant, and are constantly dangled in front of students as prominent alumni celebrate their affiliation with exclusive student organizations decades after they graduate. Promising opportunities exclusively to their in-group, they curtail the opportunities of scapegoats (and out-group members) for decades.

Mimetic contagion forces an artificial obsession with winnable zero-sum games, causing students not to leave campus but instead to fixate on hyperlocal politics and drama. While students could leave campus to take higher risk and novel opportunities that could propel them outside of their original standing, they instead choose to fight in barbarian local wars. The objective extremity of these conflicts as viewed by outsiders is central to our culture and media-from Gossip Girl to The Social Network, the general public adores these narratives.

What is perhaps most insidious about these games is their ability to proliferate outside of campuses. As our society and country are increasingly run by former competitors, they map their sociosubjective realities onto our day-to-day lives, turning government and society at large into additional zero-sum games to be conquered and finding additional scapegoats to be slaughtered.

I would like to suggest an alternative option: Exit.

As Balaji Srinivasan noted in a 2016 talk, we are not just a nation of immigrants, but also we’re a nation of emigrants. We are shaped by both voice and exit: the Puritans fleeing religious prosecution, the American revolutionaries escaping British law, and the many immigrants that entered our country to escape the horrors of communism in the 20th century.

And it’s not just the US that’s shaped by exit. The Ivy League itself is also shaped by exit, an exit from traditional European education. We have the potential to remove ourselves and our children from brutal mimetic competition, and instead to build education systems that create win-win games for all.

From the Thiel Fellowship to untraditional schools and coding bootcamps, the work is underway to build this future — I just hope you’ll join. We cannot afford to let our world to become a zero-sum game.

On AutoML

Google has finally released an early version of AutoML, a service that, according to many within the company, will change the way we do Deep Learning in its entirety. Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, writes in his announcement:

We hope AutoML will take an ability that a few PhDs have today and will make it possible in three to five years for hundreds of thousands of developers to design new neural nets for their particular needs.

Google’s Head of AI, Jeff Dean, goes even further in his keynote at the TensorFlow Dev summit, suggesting that 100x computation could replace all ML expertise. This is a bold vision — and a false one.

Google’s AutoML is a glaring example of hype over product. Although the field of AutoML has existed for many years now, Google co-opted the term to refer specifically to its neural architecture search and surrounding suite of products. Neural architecture search essentially creates a dataset with various unique, highly specialized architectures; this search is incredibly computationally intensive and is used to find a singular best model for that specific data. Once that specific model has been found, it is relatively worthless to all the other data except the exact data it was trained on as it has been, at huge computational cost, tuned for that specific data and that specific data only.

That is not to say neural architecture search is entirely worthless — there have been some incredibly interesting architectures, including during a monumental CIFAR-10 attempt by Google itself, that were discovered by using the technique. However, to say that every machine learning problem should first be tackled by NAS is a farce.

The simple truth is that the vast majority of ML problems can be solved by preexisting architecture, at orders of magnitude less computational cost. Even when NAS may be necessary, there are more efficient methods then Google’s preferred search technique.

It is perhaps useful then to understand why Google has invested so heavily in promoting AutoML. I believe the following to be true:

  1. Google has a vested interest in popularizing techniques that support the lie that the solution to more effective ML is more computing power because they are the providers of that computing power. Some of the most novel ML solutions have arisen from the most heavily computing-constrained environments. And at $20/hr of training time, they’re making a killing.

  2. Democratizing ML so that it is not just the province of PHDs is an incredibly hot idea right now. The ability to sell a turn-key solution to “AI for your business” to large corporations that are otherwise unable to join the AI wave is an easy sell. Even if their business would not benefit from ML, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a hell of a force.

  3. Google knows that their marketing efforts can succeed. Because AI is seen as entirely unapproachable and centralized, journalists are ready for any scoop that appears to democratize the technology.

However, Google’s AutoML does anything but democratize AI. It instead only serves to appoint Google the holder of the keys to the kingdom of the AI age.

Why I learn in public

I can only learn ideas when I have the opportunity to discuss, explain, or debate them with other people. At least for me, learning is a singularly collaborative experience. I see the internet as a way to see if summarizing, writing up, and reiterating the highlights of what I’ve thought about or learned each day can have a similar effect.

I aim to write frequently enough that you don’t ascribe my writing as my opinions, but instead a stream of thoughts. A few things to expect:

  • My views will likely not be internally consistent, however they will be intellectual honest and the truest possible reflection of how my current understanding of the world. 

  • They are liable to change. And when they do, I will note them publicly and explain my errors.

  • I will often write to explore ideas, it is not safe to assume true endorsement of any particular idea or school of thought.

  • They will come from a place of empathy, and when they do not they should be scorned. 

This represents a volume in a long journey of experiments to optimize my learnings. It comes with no promise of results, but instead a promise to experiment.