September 25, 2023

September 25, 2023

Fundamental Properties of the Universe

A Stanford friend (@jacobrintamaki) sent me this piece after a conversation we had recently. So many elements that struck me deeply (simplicity is the ultimate sophistication / complexity, no "right" answers), but I'd like to focus on this one: we run into a fundamental property of the universe and mistake it for a personal failing.

I've been off grid the last few days with a group of founders at a navy seal bootcamp (s/o @cory). In this environment my mind continues to fix on this idea of fighting vs. accepting the forces of nature — existential truths of the universe that are out of our control. The earth revolves around the sun. The invisible hand sets market clearing prices, the normal force acts in opposition to gravity, evolution is darwinistic. It is naive to think that these phenomena can be manipulated. There is no choice other than to play for leverage.

Arguably the most powerful force in the context of company building is market timing, i.e. "why now." At any given moment, there are a set of catalyzing points which warrant new creation. Harnessing these points and transforming their potential energy is where the best artists, founders, inventors excel. Examples of these points today are (1) transformer models, (2) high DEFCON levels and Palantir / SpaceX successfully suing the government, (3) new computer interfaces i.e. Apple Vision Pro. Does the universe (markets, people) pull your idea into existence? Is there a reason for this product to work / exist now, when it could not have been possible before? Without a substantive answer to these questions, it is hard to justify why something should hypothetically come to realization in the world. It is impossible to fight reverse momentum.

I've noticed this idea recently in the context of aspirational / personal moral logic applied to inevitable progression. With the invention of new technologies, there is a natural instinct to maintain the status quo… the popular anti-digital / anti-metaverse discussion, for example. When it comes to these debates, it doesn't necessarily matter whether the shift is "good" or "bad," it just is. Whether you want it to happen or not is beside the point. The wave is building, up to anyone whether they decide to ride it forward. Bet on the things that the mainstream doesn't want to exist but are happening anyway. That force is so strong that it charges forward despite opposing forces (legislators, incumbents, parents) trying as hard as possible to hold it back. Anything in this realm is probably a good “why now.”

Rick Rubin articulates this concept beautifully. He even stretches to emphasize that these forces are so strong that the channel through which they manifest does not matter. You will never be as integral as the higher laws of the universe.

These rhythms are not set by us. We are all participating in a larger creative act we are not conducting. We are being conducted. The artist is on a cosmic timetable, just like all of nature.

If you have any idea you’re excited about and you don’t bring it to life, it’s not uncommon for the idea to find its voice through another maker. This isn’t because the other artist stole your idea, but because the idea’s time has come.

In this great unfolding, ideas and thoughts, themes and songs and other works of art exist in the aether and ripen on schedule, ready to find expression in the physical world.

These properties can be hard to come to terms with. They are restricting, unwavering, and subsequently can feel like reflections of personal ineptitude. Reaction leads to explosion, water freezes and cracks the vessel. On a more human level, things like death and heartbreak are truths we wish were not, but must be accepted as is. Instances like these – where you feel the weakness of your own agency, are humbling. Learning to deal with hardship is important.

Yet these properties are also fundamental advantages. How could we function, understand the world, otherwise? This morning we did a long run in the rain… van driving behind us so no stopping. After hitting what felt like a breaking point, I cracked and reached what I can best describe as internal peace. Operating on autopilot… didn’t think about what I was doing or where I was going, I knew I was moving forward and felt a trust that my body would move me in that direction. This was a point of crazy mental clarity. When I stepped outside of my own focus, I realized the entire group was in the same mode. Moving in complete silence, loud breath, tacit communication that we wouldn’t give up. Instinctual for us to move in this way, a feature of the universe. I could not have done it alone. Last night, @aspiringpeasant told us stories from Hell Week… this trip is nothing compared to that, but I’d like to think there is crossover in terms of what it means to push yourself to a point of subconscious execution. How lucky: by design we can function well past what we perceive is innately comfortable, safe. In this, there is power to cross boundaries in terms of what we can mentally, physically, emotionally withstand. Most of the time it is beyond these lines where real breakthrough happens. I like the feeling of being on this edge.

There is a blurred space close to this line, in which our ability to question / push converges with the properties of the universe. This is where man can flex – feats like nuclear energy, space travel, chips. Some of the current research in longevity I think touches on this too. There are also fitting examples outside of technology. Artists who use less concrete mediums of expression, playing with the properties of the world around them as a sort of game from the outside in. Turrell with perception, Hirst with greed. His medium is the art market… human desire for power, and the work itself presents this tactically. Different formats of preserved animal carcasses (my favorite are his butterfly kaleidoscopes, I’m a willing player in this game)… man over nature. 

There is something freeing, and motivating, about realizing that the systems around us are immutable, yet simultaneously are what give us the power to (attempt to) defy them anyway. This tension fuels progress.

(art by Damien Hirst)