How to build a worldview
A pattern language for understanding the world and my place in it.
I will never forget when I flipped through the final pages of Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. I was at the beach in my hometown. Most of my time spent reading the book was at the beach, on one of those vinyl strap lounge chairs, the ones you can find on basically every beach in the world. They make good beach chairs and have a very honest, timeless quality to them.
I bought the book immediately after a conversation with a friend where he described it as “truly life-changing.” I paid fifty dollars for it, presumably because it’s out of print. I figured it would be well worth it, if it did in fact change my life.
When I left the beach that day, I felt like I was speaking in tongues. I often describe reading the book as a religious experience of sorts. Had I seen God? I had come closer to understanding the fundamental nature of the universe.
Among other things, Christopher Alexander introduced me to the notion of a pattern language: a complex system of patterns, or “things in the world”, that together form a language:
These patterns in our minds are, more or less, mental images of the patterns in the world: they are abstract representations of the very morphological rules which define the patterns in the world.
We can create patterns to describe the world or, in other words, build a worldview. A pattern language is a tool that brings us closer to understanding the secrets of the universe and the nature of order.
What follows is my pattern language: the set of patterns that I use to describe the world and my place in it.
As you read this essay, try not clicking any links on your first pass. Follow the links later as you revisit patterns that resonate with you.
→ Identity is created. Identity is a leading indicator for the life you want to live. Our selves are something we construct, not something we discover. Your job is not a caste. If you are waiting for the right conditions, you have already failed. Think of yourself as the person you want to be and watch yourself become that person.
→ Do meaningful work. Most of us spend at least 35% of our time working. Imagine disregarding 35% of life as unimportant. If that is not convincing enough, consider that energy is finite and work probably “takes up” closer to 70% of our time awake. That is a lot of time: work hard to make it mean something.
→ Work with technology. Technology is where the frontier is moldeable. The rest of the world is largely cemented in-place by bureaucracy but technology is permissionless, democratic, and malleable. This is true by definition. You, by yourself, can literally change the world (or even just your life) if you work in/with technology.
→ Work alone. The muses visit in solitude. Creativity is subconscious communication with the divine. It is literally magic. Profound insights come from time spent thinking alone.
→ Work on big, evergreen ideas. A little bit of irrationality is required to work on giant and difficult problems, but these are the important ones that move the world forward. It takes humility to dedicate your life to an idea you didn't come up with—hence the rarity. The world was built by people no smarter than you are.
→ Work in small groups. Many problems only become problems at scale. Kindness, compassion, and empathy are simple concepts in tight knit communities but impossible feats in large groups. Keeping things small is the easiest way to foster meaningful, non-transactional relationships built on shared growth and experiences.
→ Work in person. Touch some grass. Spend time in the real world with real people. Again, it is the only way to connect meaningfully with other humans beings. Leverage technology to get access to opportunities you would not otherwise have with the goal of eventually making them real, in-the-flesh experiences.
→ Work in curious environments. Stay out of environments that optimize curiosity away. See Work in small groups—large groups become silos of ingroup politics and culture. Surround yourself with curious people who are interested in everything you have to say. Be a whole human; do not let your environment compartmentalize you.
→ Make art. Art requires wanting, feelings, and desire by definition. Have you ever tried drawing something on a piece of paper? You have to want to draw something in order to get started. Try writing a poem: you need to feel something in order to do so. Art without individual desire is not art, it is propaganda. Art is subversive by nature. Art is about human experience: make something and notice how much you learn about yourself and your feelings. It does not matter what you make, just view it as art.
→ Read, evaluate, print, loop. A program that only runs once is a largely useless program. Life calls for constant reevaluation. Live an examined life. Maintenance is a living process. Actively maintain your life.
→ Have a direction, not a plan. Only communists have 5 years plans.Think intentionally about your future and stay flexible. Quit your job.
→ Work in small increments. Build momentum. Do not waste time fighting the laws of physics—instead, prevent the unnecessary buildup of inertia.
→ Compound your returns. You can measure speed but you can feel acceleration. Make impact easier over time. Increase the layers of abstraction (this is what it means to evolve). One day, you will look back at all of your hard work and find yourself rather surprised.
→ Do things for the first time. My favorite piece of advice from Kevin Kelly: “Most really amazing or great things are done by people doing them for the first time.” Become foolish.
→ Portfolio of small bets. Create the possibility for outsized returns. Creativity rewards consistency: do small things over and over again. Have multiple horses running the race.
→ Read books. See Work in a curious environment and Do things for the first time—reading is a shortcut for both of these. There is no other way to get exposure to ideas, environments, and time periods that are outside of your immediate reach. Reading is no substitute for real life but it is the next best thing.
→ Find a partner, build a family. A loving partner is the best sounding board and the ultimate critic. Marry well: love is the ultimate motivator. It feels deeply biologically true to care about a better future for your own children (one reason why I’m excited to have kids).
→ Optimize for meaning, not ease. Meaning anchors your life during difficult times and difficulty in life is inevitable. Happiness springs forth from integrity.
→ Live on the edge, jump in when the car passes by. Let the idea drive. Answer when the muses call. Strike while the iron is hot. Embrace the fickle nature of creativity. Do not fight the laws of thermodynamics: when other-worldly energy makes its way over to you, be its vessel for the real world. Embrace the unconscious.
→ Make bets. Chess is a game with perfect information, life is not. Be comfortable with making bets and make them with conviction. Adjust accordingly. A life with zero risk is not a life, it is a very slow death.
→ Make commitments. Commitment is required to build anything meaningful over a long enough time horizon. Relationships are committed bets. Love is born from a commitment and nurtured in growth and shared experiences. Commitment is the only way for compounding bets to reach escape velocity.
→ Practice creative leisure. Rest does not come from doing nothing and burn out does not come from doing too much. Leave rich and fertile land alone and soon it will be covered in weeds. Creativity is a source of energy.
→ Be honest. With yourself and with others, but especially with yourself. Anxiety comes from a pervasive, low-grade lack of honesty and crippling fear of vulnerability. Growth requires change and change requires honesty about the need for change. Dishonesty ossifies you in unhappy circumstances.
In my heart, I know these things to be true.
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A note on this essay
This is not advice, it is my worldview.
If this seems like a shoddy post hoc justification of my life choices thus far, that is an indication that I have failed as a writer. Each pattern should be fully valid and if that is not the case then I am being dishonest.
We only have one life and I’m trying my best, you should too.
A note on pattern languages
This is not an exhaustive checklist, it is a pattern language. It is not about strictly following every single pattern, per say. Instead, the idea is that you can arbitrarily compose individual patterns into larger ones.
For example, I can create a new pattern called Work at an ambitious startup by composing a handful of existing patterns:
Work at an ambitious startup
Do meaningful work
Work in technology
Work on big, evergreen ideas
Work in small groups
Work in a curious environment
Work in small increments
This pattern is very carefully constructed. For example, including Work on big, evergreen ideas tells me to work at a sufficiently ambitious startup, not just any startup. The line of thinking born from this pattern is why I work at Primer.
Consider another pattern:
Identity is created
Work in small increments
Do things for the first time
Practice creative leisure
Compound your returns
Read, evaluate, print, loop
This is my north star for a life of creative flourishing. I started writing essays because I started to view myself as a writer (the identity pattern is the ultimate meta-pattern). I continue to write essays because of the way I view the process of writing essays. Some of them turn out better than others and that is ok because I am working in small increments and my efforts compound overtime. I’ve found it helpful to be alone when I’m writing. I’ve also found that honesty is the most important thing to never lose sight of when writing (or really just living, in general).
Most people work something like 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Assuming 8 hours of sleep, that is 35% of our “awake time” spent working. The 70% number comes from assuming that all 5 workdays are fully spent, not just the 8 hours at work. I think this is a more realistic number for most people.
A long time ago, I wrote a thread on this. It is not very good. Soon I’ll write an essay to fully flesh out my thoughts here.
I don’t remember where I first heard this quip, it may have been in an interview with Marc Andreessen.