The power plant is not the machine

startups mindcraft

NOTE: this is about Daniel Gross’ interview on World of DaaS which can be found here: LINK

What do we mean when we say that a person is energetic? We’re not literally talking about physical energy of course–after all, we’re more or less eating the same 2000 calories everyday, and the image of a founder eating a dozen pizzas and several blueberry pies a day to move faster is almost comical. But if it’s not that, then what is it?

Daniel talked about how being an energetic person is culture-neutral and I think that’s true. All cultures have a concept of ‘doing’ and ‘quantity’ and all you need to do is to turn both of those up to 11 in a single person to get the idea. But I’d like to point out that this framing and all the others like it suffer from the same problem that they all need an object: that is, you have to do something or count something before you can see atoms moving in the real world.

I’m not trying to pull a linguistic trick here: I really think energy as it applies to people is not a fully general thing that we can average across goals and actions. Energy depends just as much on what is being done as on the person doing it. Imagine if you’re sentenced to spend the rest of your life in a room taking care of old ladies who have weak hearts. You can’t do anything too exciting or you’ll net them a visit to the clinic. You can’t pull off a daring escape without risking what remains of their wonder years, but you can’t completely disengage because you’re being watched by some faceless prison guards checking for good behaviour. Would you keep your enthusiasm intact after a decade of this? Do you think you’ll still maintain a violent internal world?

This to me is what it feels like to work on something I don’t find interesting, and I’d wager I differ from everyone else only in degree. And it’s not just about what is being done but where, when, and how. For example, I’m plausibly two different people when I’m up and about versus when I’m lying down on a soft bed. I can spend physical energy to get psychogenic energy, and so at the very least this suggests that it is something we can affect beyond our natural inclination.

Filial cultures such as my own tend to be firmly in guess culture mode. We get our safety net from kinship rather than from our votes so there is a much stronger incentive to keep the peace in the family: from being polite to seniors to being more forgiving of relatives’ mistakes. After all, if the only thing separating us from rock-bottom is our family, then expelling say a troublemaking cousin is essentially the same thing as sentencing them to death.

Navigating guess culture is an exercise in frustration for energetic people because there is so much indirection you have to do to be able to do anything. All the traits we associate with energy and vitality: confronting problems head on, taking the shortest routes to goals, etc. are beaten out of you from the moment you are born because they mark you as a clumsy oaf1. And so you have a lot of unlearning to do on top of what you need to keep up with your field if you want to do something useful.

Another way that culture mediates energy is how it’s possible to siphon it out of plucky protagonists from books in the same way that we all secretly wanted to be our favourite superheroes when we were kids. There is always some figure or ideal that we came to know in our formative years who still affects us to this day (and yes, it’s whoever you were thinking of while reading the last bit). Some of us just straight-up imported their quirks and mannerisms2 without even thinking about it because our ability to imitate others is one of those species-defining things that go all the way back to our evolutionary history. And because you wouldn’t be thinking about these ideals if they weren’t paragons of “doing actual stuff instead of wallowing in self-pity”, they’re already pre-selected to be somewhat energetic in and of themselves.

Every founder should have an aspirational character they keep close to their chest, a hero they can consult in the privacy of their thoughts or in a judicious re-read of their favourite book. Part of being energetic is being able to cut off your lowest lows, and what better way of doing that than to worm your way into your self-image and graft to it the best bits of your favourite people in times of need?

Now, level with me here. I’m not saying that culture is an all-encompassing constraint on being energetic. I think biology almost always trumps culture, and it’s hard to swallow that pill when we’re all more or less trying to become Elon Musk. But the same substrate can lead to wildly different outcomes. Example: suppose I’m a dyed-in-the-wool human power plant whose thoughts average two dozen a minute. If I grew up in a nurturing environment where people gave me social brownie points for being proactive, I’ll probably develop a habit of speaking my mind because that’s what keeps mountains moving. But if I grew up in an environment where subtlety and finesse are much more prized, then I might probably do something like simulate entire conversations in my head and so end up being rather quiet.

It’s not as if energy is the same thing as “willingness to risk social status” or “not caring about social cohesion”. While Daniel correctly points out that energy is more or less a universal phenomenon, its manifestations can differ wildly across cultures and environments simply because the incentives controlling what comes out of it are also wildly different.

I think, what all this tells us is that being energetic at its core is an internal thing. Really, if I’m being frank I’d say it’s just being able to access a certain state of mind frequently and reliably. This monomaniacal, “I will do a ton of X because I don’t have the bandwidth to think of anything else” is a trick that can be learned even if you don’t do it as naturally as walking.

It’s like that apocryphal story of Marilyn Monroe but for everything. You too can have more energy if you put on an act, and the great thing about it is that the act can eventually become the person.

I like how Daniel put it in the interview actually, about asking ourselves who we’re performing for. Part of what makes us tick is who we choose to be in our own circles, and I’d wager a bunch of people who we’d think are highly energetic started out by cultivating this image–consciously or not–of being the Doer or the Highly Enthusiastic Leader in their troupe.

Of course, I don’t want to turn this essay into a Hansonian diatribe accusing everyone of deep-down being only motivated by status games, but no one3 is immune to them. A cursory glance at how discussions on static vs dynamic typing goes on Reddit or Hacker News will disabuse anyone of the notion that, say, us engineers are only motivated by the pureness of our hearts, and indeed part of the game is to explicitly say we’re not playing it.

But again, energy needs an object, and part of how we transcend status games is for us to have a worthy one. Just as our fictional (or mytho-biographical) heroes need to fight some great evil, we too can only bear arms if we have a chip on our shoulder about something.

It doesn’t give us a clear escape hatch, though. Most people would say that e.g. choosing to drop out of high school to start a crypto company is a scary decision. But it’s also not, right? Because in a way, it elevates us. It frees us from the dull social status olympics in our home town and let’s us start afresh in a completely different ladder. The act of being mythologised once you leave the fold to slay dragons, whether by yourself or by other people, is a performative one, but there’s also no other way to do it. Better save your energy fighting what needs to be fought than to go against an innate gradient that’s been with us since we started cooking meat on sticks.

Like all emotional states, energy lets us multiply our actions along different dimensions. Whether or not it translates to stuff being done in the real-world is another thing. So maybe the better question to ask is what we really care about: who can output volume? Who is prepared to water all the plants, or do 100 drawings, or record 100 videos?

Or put in another way, given a worthy object, who can generate the most energy out of it?

  1. Which is not at all to say that this comes from personal experience. I lucked out that my dad was in the construction business and there was a palpable energy in that side of my family even if it wasn’t necessarily spent on the most productive of things all the time.

  2. There was a moment in my life when I thought Death Note was the coolest thing ever, and in eight grade I made the conscious decision of imitating every single one of the antagonist L’s mannerisms, including crouching on chairs and holding things with my fingertips. One mother in our community expressed concern about whether or not I “started doing drugs”.

  3. Except of course, people who are clinically unable to perceive social cues. But even then, you can still develop a theoretical understanding of something that moves the world in such predictable ways.