Things In Real Life
Meaning, purpose, and how we choose what to work on
A few days ago, Josh Pigford, “maker,” “dabbler,” his profile pic an NFT, Twitter followers = 27.3K, offered a prompt:
In a second Tweet below, because he apparently knows his audience, he added: “Bonus points if it doesn't involve coding consulting.”
Still, among the hundreds of responses, many added ideas for software products, websites, lead gen tools, funneling to digital downloadables, the “placing of small bets,” starting various consulting businesses, or various coaching businesses, and also the creation of “productised” services (“hands down”).
My favorite response, though, came from one Michael Alt, “Software Engineer and Entrepreneur,” Twitter followers = 24. Michael replied:
This, in my opinion, is the correct response. If you want to be making $3,000/month inside six months, do something in real life. Anything. Right now, you can become an apprentice in any trade and be making more than $3k in one month, let alone six months.
I’m reminded of a Tweet from a home builder that went viral earlier this month:
$20/hour works out to $3,466/month, or $41,600/year.
Plus you get the added bonus of building houses for people. Not software tools, not coaching businesses, or consulting businesses: homes. Where people live.
A home builder is one of the noblest professions you can have. Heard of the housing crisis? The affordability crisis? Spiraling rents? An entire generation being shut out of homeownership? I’ve got news for you: you can buy land in New Hampshire for $30,000, and get to work building your own home. Home Depot will even deliver the lumber to your driveway for a flat fee of $79/order.
Every New England ancestor of every one of your neighbors built their own house when they settled there two hundred years ago — you can too.
But fair warning: it’s way more hard work than coding a productised service.
Why I skip writing some weeks
Last weekend, I didn’t publish because I was building stuff. Like, In Real Life.
I spent the morning with a spade shovel tearing up grass from its roots in my back yard, then moving slate stones from the front to the back. My partner arranged them evenly and prettily along the dirt, while I carried the ten bags of pea gravel from the Honda Fit and emptied them along the new path:
A few days later, I dug eight holes down to two feet deep, banging the shovel against stones, and on my knees prying them out of the wet dirt, so I could mix and pour concrete and sink posts for a fence, which I also transported from the lumber yard in—wait for it—the Honda Fit.
And while I’m on the subject: if you fold the passenger seat down in that thing, you can fit 8-foot lumber diagonally across the car no problem. Roll the window down and you can haul 10-foot lumber without breaking a sweat. Not that I still don’t want to own a pickup truck, but it wasn’t lost on me that the Fit can do 95% of the tasks that 95% of pickup truck owners do with their trucks 95% of the time, and do them with half the gas.
After sinking the posts, I used every saw I own to rip and chop and miter out rails and frames with slots for the fence lattice to sit in. Then, I shoveled back the gravel I had cleared earlier and added another eight bags from the Agway. Then I used the remaining lumber to build a gate.
Anyway, that’s why I didn’t write last week. I was building a patio:
It was very hot out two of the days I was working—over 90 degrees—and my back was aching and tired from all the digging and shoveling and bending over. At the end of the day, I would peel my sweaty clothes off, check for ticks, go dip in the river, and then collapse into a chair inside where it was cool, beer firmly in hand.
It was hard work, and also more fun, more satisfying, and possibly added more value to the world than if I’d written a thing and published it to Substack.
Adding value to the world
It’s cliché by now to criticize the tech sector for failing to add much value to the world. We all love the Internet; the Internet is good; the Internet is the greatest tool for learning the world has ever known.
But we largely had everything we needed from the Internet a decade ago. And sadly, we seem to have lost a whole generation to the idea that success = learning to code and also that the surest “path” to riches is to launch and sell an Internet company (which is wrong on the facts, by the way).
Instead, for the last ten years, what we’ve really needed is to get back to building things In Real Life. Like many, I was energized by Marc Andreesen’s viral 2020 essay, “It’s Time to Build,” written just after the start of the pandemic. In the essay, he talked about how we don’t have the things we need because we haven’t put in the hard work and time to build them.
This isn’t entirely correct. There are other reasons we don’t have the things we need, whether it’s more homes, better universities, or more clean energy. There is regulatory capture. There is rent-seeking, monopolistic, anti-capitalist behavior by gigantic firms. There is dysfunctional government, NIMBYism, and my chosen catchall: bureaucratic inertia and rot that we complacently tolerate because—let’s face it—this has been an enormously rich and successful country for at least a century by now.
Essentially, we’ve grown decadent.
So on another level, Andreesen was right, and the responses to Josh Pigford’s Tweet all but prove it. People would rather sit in their climate-controlled apartments and use their God-given talents to write the next app than get off their buts and go work in the heat to mow a lawn or hang some drywall, or, better yet, use those God-given talents to go navigate the regulatory barriers and put together the financing needed to build some people some modest homes they can live in and afford.
Searching for meaning
When it comes to searching for meaning and purpose in life, I’ve been thinking more about something that Viktor Frankl said in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. It is, in my opinion, the one missing component to Hunter S. Thompson’s Ninth Path letter, the one I’ve written so much about previously.
First, what Thompson said:
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES.
But will this formula really give us all the meaning we need in life? Let’s say you like to code; you also like pizza; therefore, following Hunter S. Thompson’s advice, you decide to use your talents to code an app that lets people order pizza better?
I think what’s missing is Viktor Frankl:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
In other words, you must open your eyes to the world and discern what is being asked of you. Not what the world needs in a general sense, but what is being asked of you, specifically in this time and place, that you can provide, that you can commit to and accomplish.
You must choose to work on something, not just something that will satisfy your desires, but something which meets the moment you are in. As I wrote when the war in Ukraine started, about a young man who wished to escape the war to continue his career as an illustrator:
But what is needed of Ukranian men right now is that they go fight. This is a moment where history asks something of you — not a moment where you get to write your own story however you wish. Whatever previous story you had, it is now changed.
For a long time after first reading Frankl, I resisted this idea that the world could be calling me to something. It sounded like a religious idea, and I am not religious. We are not called to Paths, I thought: we Wander in the Wilderness.
But I’ve come to realize it’s not necessarily a religious idea at all. It’s simply a recognition that we live in the world, and the world is a certain way, and if we decide to arrange our lives and work and find meaning and purpose solely in pursuit of selfish desires, then we fail to acknowledge the basic reality that we exist and live alongside other people. I’ve come to see Frankl’s words not as a religious idea, but as a deeply Humanist one.
For my part, I have always thought of writing as something which I can give, first through my journalism, but now by writing pieces like this, in which I say something that hopefully others will get value from. I am no Andreesen, no inventor of new technologies or builder of great companies. But I can write, and it really matters how I choose to use that skill that I have worked on and cared about my entire life.
Choosing what to work on
I once heard it said (or saw it written, I’m not sure) that the hardest thing to do in life is choosing what to work on next.
Most knowledge workers are insanely bad at this. They check email. They get distracted. They go to meetings. They let the day carry them away instead of really thinking about what the next, most important thing is.
I don’t think home builders have too much of this problem. The next most important thing is the thing you need to do to get the house built. Design the plans; get the permit; hire the labor; deliver the materials. Foundation, frame, electrical, plumbing, and so on. Insulation, drywall, paint, floor, finish carpentry.
Choosing what to work on is one of the most important things we do. You can think of labor as sacred, as one of my old College friends did, or you can think of it as the most Human and important choice you have to make, and keep making, every day, month, and year of your life.
It’s really hard to do. You can’t learn how to do it in Coding Boot Camp, or at Harvard business school. Choosing what to do next—what to work on—is the realm of philosophy, not fodder for courses on project management.
And what more people should be working on this: Things In Real Life.
Meeting and socializing in real life. Moving real atoms around to make things in real life. Growing and fixing things and playing and learning, all in real life. That’s what I’m going to be trying to do more of when I’m not writing. Things In Real Life.