You’re not changing the world

I mean, in the widest possible sense, you are. Your mere existence is bound to change some of it somewhat. But that’s not what the unironic use of the phrase — WE ARE CHANGING THE WORLD — is meant to convey in Silicon Valley. They’re actually serious.

And look, some of them do end up changing the world. The world is different now that, say, Twitter is here, and the president of the United States can threaten nuclear war from the comfort of his golden shitcan. Seriously, that is different!

But let’s just say that most companies that actually end up changing the world rarely set out with that as the explicit mission. Twitter started as a way of telling your drinking buddies by SMS which dive bar you were hanging out at. Facebook started as a way for Zuckerberg to lure “dumb fucks” into giving him their private information. Modest beginnings!

The odds are that whatever you’re doing is never going to amount to any of the global significance that either Twitter or Facebook has bestowed upon the world. And thank god for that! If everyone in Silicon Valley who proclaimed to be on a mission to change the world actually did, our collective regret would be far deeper.

So ponder this example from HealthIQ’s career page from yesterday (since changed*):

I like to peek beneath the surface of such delusions of grandeur. What on earth would prompt someone hawking life insurance — LIFE INSURANCE! — to posture, and quite possibly believe, that they’re Changing The World™ (or, as here, Healing The World)? Such delusions seem farcical on their face. An Onion piece a little too on the nose. But there we are.

HealthIQ’s former career page was full of Onion-worthy proclamations

My pet theory is that it’s really an existential cry for help. If you’re going to toil your life away on a literal treadmill with meetings at 9pm every night, you’re going to need to tell yourself something different than “I do this such that I can save privileged joggers and kale eaters 10% on life insurance”. Because such a mission just doesn’t warrant the sacrifices proposed.

But the cognitive dissonance between “I sell life insurance” and “I believe I’m healing the world” is so loud that it invites intervention. Someone to slap you across the face, shake you violently, and yell “snap out of it, mate! Snap out of it!!!”. The absurdity of the juxtaposition is the subconsciousness wailing in distress.

Usually the script isn’t this unbelievable, though. But it still follows the same arc. The idea that work isn’t worth living unless it entails the prospect of upsetting the world order. That work can’t just be about making the existing world a bit better, a bit smoother, a bit cheaper, or a bit more joyful. It has to rearrange the cosmos to warrant our time.

Partly, I blame Steve Jobs for this. I know it isn’t kind to speak ill of the dead, but when he asked Scully to take over as CEO of Apple, it was with this grand pitch: “Do you really want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life?”. And as many larger-than-life characters of history, his words have echoed through time, but also ended up distorted after having bounced around enough to be heard by the next generation.

It’s not that “selling sugar water” is a noble quest, and Apple really has changed the world, so Jobs was right. It was more the idea that we all need to think about changing the world all the time, lest our life is bereft of meaning.

For the vast majority of people on earth, including the vast majority of people working in Silicon Valley, existence will not be justified through their work alone. There will be no monuments, no valedictorian speeches, no Harvard Business School case studies. This isn’t cause for despair but for celebration!

Carrying the weight of Changing The World on your shoulders is a tremendous burden. Look at the characters who actually managed it. Most of them weren’t exactly living envious lives outside the scope of their work. Why are you so keen to follow in their footsteps?

I think more people in Silicon Valley would be better served by embracing the mundane. Do you know what, life insurance is a perfectly honorable thing to be selling on its own merits. And if you found a way that makes that transaction a little better for some small subset of companies or consumers, hell, good on you. It doesn’t have to be anymore glamorous than that.

Well, except that you raised $82 million off the hook that you were Changing The World with Big Data, and not on the more earthly promise that you were going to be a bit better at insurance brokering.

I have no illusions that my time in this world is going to be remembered through the ages. When it’s over, I’ll be so fortunate as to have left an impression on my friends, my family, and a few colleagues in the industry. And those impressions will fade quickly, so they aren’t even worth elevating much.

Look. You can’t outrun existential angst. Even if you put actual fucking treadmills in the middle of your office. Eventually the delusions are going to crack, and the more you’re invested in them, the harder you will shatter. And for what reasonable purpose?

Set out to do good work. Set out to be fair in your dealings with customers, employees, and reality. Leave a lasting impressions on the people you touch, and worry less (or not at all!) about changing the world. Chances are you won’t, and if you do, it’s not going to be because you said you would.

*HealthIQ did change its career page last night after the Twitter mob came carrying pitchforks. I think they deserve kudos for that. Although it remains to be seen whether it’s just a matter of changing appearances or actually provoked a real conversation within the company around its values and practices. They still seem oddly focused on banning critical internal feedback (no devil’s advocate allowed!), which is probably how they ended up with that terrible career page in the first place. No way everyone at the company read that and thought AWESOME! SHIP IT!