Last year I created my first annual theme, Optimism 2020. What started on a whim ended up being an incredibly fun, useful, and public project.
It was so effective at changing my daily attitude that now I’m making the creation of a theme an annual tradition. You can read more about why I’m doing this, how Optimism 2020 went, and why I recommend everyone create their own annual theme right here.
With that, let’s get into it.
This year’s theme is Build 2021.
1. Building always beats talking.
2. Failure is defined as not shipping.
3. Don’t ask for permission.
4. Defend the builders, even when they make mistakes.
5. ”Give yourself permission to work on things that are harder than you think is reasonable”
6. Take creative risks & try crazy ideas.
7. 10% aim, 90% shoot.
8. Grant status to creators.
9. ”This week instead of next week. Today instead of tomorrow.”
10. Say no to the chorus of vetos
Build 2021 is for me. But I wanted to talk about why I think it’s an important idea and has much broader applications.
There is so much chatter today. Twitter, Facebook, the news, all the talking heads, Clubhouse - oh my god everywhere I look and listen I’m taking in more opinions, more candy content, more dopamine hits.
I see too many people talking. And, almost by definition, I don’t see as many people building.
In 2021 I want to celebrate the builders. I want us all to get back into making amazing things.
I’m as guilty of consuming the chatter as anyone - it’s easy to scroll in bed and kind of watch your life go by. We’ve all had those moments where you wake up from a 45-minute scroll session and think to yourself what did I just do? And you look around and wonder if your life is any better, or whether you could have invested that time into something more permanent, enduring, and personally fulfilling.
And while I’m talking at a very personal level, Build 2021 also applies to society at large. We need to start making more things! Housing, better healthcare systems, cheaper educational operations, art, cities, transportation, cheaper energy… the list is endless and only limited by our imagination.
And we are so capable of doing these things! Covid has reminded me that we have some incredible human capital.
Seeing people spin up various operations to solve various problems has been inspiring. Companies are stepping in where others have failed and are performing remarkably. And we’ve all heard the story by now of how the vaccine was created before Covid was even acknowledged as a serious threat by much of the media.
We can do amazing things! Let us go do them!
To make this type of progress though, we need to shift the culture. We need to get back to a place where fewer people have veto power, and where the makers are the ones we listen to.
Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech is worth quoting:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Build 2021 is about prioritizing the people in the arena and making the arena sacred. The people in the arena shouldn’t have to ask permission to do their work, and the critics in the stands shouldn’t each be able to veto the work of those in the arena.
We’ve forgotten these norms, and we should want to bring them back.
Build 2021 is a mindset, an ethos, and a culture that gets us there.
It’s a mindset that says I’m going to make this myself. I’m not going to talk about it, or complain, or do research. I’m going to go and do.
It’s an ethos that celebrates creation over critique.
And it’s a culture that empowers creators to build without asking for permission.
If you can not roll your eyes for a second I’d like to point to Elon Musk as a surprisingly good example.
There’s plenty we could probably say about Elon that wouldn’t be positive. He’s made a ton more mistakes than most people. He says weird things, he’s quirky. Most of his products aren’t delivered on time, etc.
But guess what…. one day he got tired of waiting in traffic and actually went and did something about it.
How many people before him do you think complained about traffic and sighed (or screamed) in frustration, not even remotely entertaining the thought that something could be done?
It’s not solved yet, but at least he did something about it. He’s trying to make a dent.
I need to point out that even you read this many of you probably aren’t happy that Elon did it. You might prefer alternative solutions from local or state government. Or you think he’s overhyped. Or you believe Boring isn’t actually doing something productive. There’s any number of reasonable complaints one could make.
And that’s where the rub is, and where Build 2021 comes in.
In this new culture we defer to the people taking action. Of course we follow the law, but we don’t allow the chorus of vetos to stop us. We don’t let perfection be the enemy of good. We make progress the best we can, by taking action today, not tomorrow.
The State of California approved vaccines for anyone older than 65, but vaccines are still going bad. My friend’s mom had to throw out 200 vaccines even after she offered to drive to nursing homes to administer them.
Part of the problem is the huge amounts of friction that exist between someone who wants a vaccine and actually getting the vaccine.
It occurred to Patrick that, you know, there aren’t actually that many hospitals and pharmacies in California. In fact, the actual number is a very “human” type of number, where by human we mean “you could literally have a classroom of high schoolers call all the CA vaccine locations in a day” if they were so directed.
So that’s what Patrick and Karl did. They built the tools and the team (200+ people that I last saw) that is calling every vaccine location in California & reporting that data to the public in a very consumable way.
With every day they make new discoveries that make more vaccines available. They’re now gathering enough data where they can begin optimizing their call queue prioritization to maximize the # of new new doses made available.
The project is so successful, and the need for it so great, that Patrick is now the CEO of this volunteer operation. To quote Patrick: “for the foreseeable future, my job will be supporting the teams building the systems to allow our professionals to distribute accurate information about the availability of the coronavirus vaccine.”
I have no info other than what’s on Twitter, but what I imagine happened is Stripe (Patrick’s employer) saw what he was accomplishing on the side from his home in Japanand institutionally believed two things: 1) Society would be better off on the margin if Patrick could spend his entire working hours budget on VaccinateCA, and 2) That of course Stripe should sponsor his payroll to allow him to do that.
This top-down, institutional support and backing of a new project is critical. The additional resources and institutional validation help projects like this get much bigger distribution and grow faster.
But note the important distinction here - Patrick didn’t ask for permission from Stripe to start this. He didn’t kick it off by applying for a grant. He didn’t even ask other people if this was a good idea.
He just… started. He tweeted the idea, and 44 minutes later Karl had a Discord server up and running with 70 people joining the first night alone.
I don’t know Laura’s work as well as Patrick’s but I wanted to highlight her as an incredible example of Build 2021 because of her ambition, audacity, and “nothing is too hard to do” mindset.
The Longevity Fund’s goal is to increase human lifespan.
There’s an infinite number of reasons and excuses one could give to not do life extension research. You think fixing LA traffic is hard? Try solving death. No matter - she just kind of got started anyway. And she’s been doing this since she was 12.
Her investments are making real progress, and her writing is wonderfully accessible if you’re curious about biotech but have no clue where to get stared.
If you’re interested in this space or learning more about her work I highly recommend you check out her Longevity FAQ or read her guide on how to help work on longevity.
Scott represents Build 2021 not just because he’s an amazing writer, but because he does it for no other reason than he thinks it should exist.
Part of what makes it great is Scott is 100% his own person. His writing is very much hisown thing. He wrote when he had no audience and he just happens to write now with a bigger audience. I don’t think he does it for any reason other than he feels compelled to.
And of course he never asked for permission. He didn’t apply to be a writer or an author. He’s a writer because he writes.
Importantly, he never had to ask for permission. The Internet enabled him to publish his ideas.
Which is why Scott is a high quality example of who we need to be guarding the arena for. He’s the type of person who, had he existed before the Internet, we never would have known about. He never would have made it past the bureaucracy of permission required to get his writing out into the world.
Which is why part of Build 2021 is creating a culture where more people like Scott feel comfortable creating publicly. If we want more Scotts, we have to make it safe for them to create.
The Internet has enabled some untold number of experiments, Scott Alexander being one of the successful ones. We should want to see more experiments.
And Build 2021 is about celebrating the culture that will give us more Scott Alexanders.
If you’d like to add to Build 2021, please go make something. If you do, I’d love to hear about it (my email is my first name @ this domain). I might even add it to this post as an example.
Type image caption here (optional)
Then consider signing up for my newsletter, How It Actually Works. It contains the best material I find anywhere – this means books, articles, podcasts, research, videos, Twitter threads... the most interesting stuff that will give you something to say.1,000s of Silicon Valley executives, investors, and leaders read it every week.