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It's Time to Build the Builders
Introducing my new Substack newsletter
One of the most heartening cultural developments spurred by COVID-19 has been the rising awareness of our urgent need to build, and with it a bipartisan “progress movement” aimed at studying, financing, and valorizing the builders. These efforts have gained momentum in recent months, with the announcement of a new Institute for Progress and a widely circulated Atlantic article calling for an abundance agenda. With this resurgence of intellectual and economic support for the builders, the time is ripe to develop the moral and psychological supports that builders need in order to grow and thrive.
Builders need to be built. Builders aren’t born. No one becomes a builder by default. Becoming the kind of person who can and does regularly engage in building is a profound achievement. This achievement is the chief source of all human abundance and joy; yet, as I suggest here, it is among the least well-understood of all human achievements. And there is currently no credible, comprehensive guidance on how to achieve it.
A builder, for our purposes, is any human who is regularly engaged in the ambitious, self-directed work of bringing something valuable into the world. This could be a new technology or new ideas or new dance moves—or a refined execution of existing dance moves—or a positive culture amongst a team of new colleagues. It could be valuable only to you and your direct associates, or its value could scale to all of humanity. But the value has to be real and nontrivial, and the work has to be ambitious, relative to your current abilities and whatever else you might be doing with your time instead. Making sound and honest judgments about what counts as real value for you, or what level of ambition you’re capable of, is itself part of the work of building.
Being a builder is morally and psychologically demanding. It requires all the idealism, honesty, courage, self-awareness, and self-discipline you can muster.
Consider Dr. Kati Karikó, who had to muster the patience and intellectual integrity to persist through years of low-level, poorly-paid academic jobs, through grant rejection after grant rejection, to develop the mRNA vaccine technology that has delivered humanity from the worst ravages of this pandemic. Imagine if we had the moral and psychological supports to empower 100 more would-be Dr. Karikós to persist as she did.
Or consider Michael Burry, who had to muster the independence of vision to see what all his fellow investors and financial experts failed to see about the impending 2008 financial crisis, and the self-credibility to stake his reputation and career (and hundreds of millions of investor dollars) on building a fortune off that vision. Imagine if we had the moral and psychological supports to embolden more of today’s would-be Michael Burry’s to act on their vision, and more of the rest of us to recognize and learn from the Michael Burry’s in our midst.
Or, finally, consider Frederick Douglass, born and raised as a slave, who had to muster the inner powers to educate himself against all odds, ultimately building one of the world’s most inspiring oeuvres of abolitionist literature and oratory. Imagine if we had the moral and psychological supports to activate those inner powers within ourselves, that many more of us might harness even our most horrific adversities as raw material for building.
This is not a remote fantasy; the principles, frameworks, and many of the tools relevant to internalizing a builder mindset into one’s psychology already exist. Much of the work at this point is in assembling those raw materials into usable guidance, and then testing and refining that guidance in action.
This is iterative, messy, collaborative work. I’m launching this newsletter so I can share what I (with the help of many collaborators) have assembled so far, and to invite you into the work of testing and improving it.
Care to join me? Then subscribe below, and let’s get building.