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Choose Good Quests
ready player one. what did you get done this week?
Today, Silicon Valley faces a crisis of nonsense. With no shortage of problems, and no shortage of both young technologists and well-capitalized former founders capable of solving them, our best and brightest have largely lost themselves to easy money, the attention grind, and early retirement. In tech especially, for all of the industry’s rare potential, such abdication of responsibility does not only constitute a failure of progress, but a moral failure.
Trae Stephens is a partner at Founders Fund, and cofounder of Anduril. Markie Wagner is the founder of Delphi Labs, a frontier tech research and advisory firm with a focus on applied AI. They are also both wonderful, committed nerds, and they guest this week with a helpful framework for parsing the problem of problems —
Where do you choose to dedicate your life?
Choose Good Quests
At the dawn of the 20th Century, the Wright Brothers embarked on a quest to build the first controlled airplane. A half century later, NASA embarked on a quest to put a man on the moon. Combustion, penicillin, nuclear fission; the discovery of America, the drafting of the Constitution, Normandy — history is defined by protagonists pursuing good quests.
What’s your quest?
Quests tend to manifest as an objective we center our lives around. Your quest might be to reach a specific milestone: to become a senator, to publish a book, to make a million dollars. But not all quests have an end state. You might be on a quest to maximize your net worth, or to bench-press more weight than anyone else at the gym. Maybe you’re just on a quest to have the most fun possible before you die. A far cry from refrigeration or running water, but a nice life. As you’ve probably already intuited, not all quests are created equal.
In the most simple terms possible: a good quest makes the future better than our world today, while a bad quest doesn't improve the world much at all, or even makes it worse.
Today, we are in a crisis. Silicon Valley's best — our top operators, exited founders, and most powerful investors — are almost all on bad quests. Exiting your first startup only to enter venture capital and fight your peers for allocation in a hot deal is a bad quest. Armchair philosophizing on Twitter is a bad quest. Yachting between emails in de facto retirement at age 35 is a very bad quest.
Even among the talented who choose a path of building, most take safe, incremental bets — another SaaS company, another turnkey consumer startup, another digital Beanie Baby. Such pursuits not only fail to push the world forward, but pose a cost in opportunity. There are important challenges facing humanity that no one is working on, including critical, and even existential challenges. In other words, if you are an exceptionally capable person, failure to pursue a good quest is not neutral. It constitutes a loss for humanity.
Among our very best, dropping out, or chasing nonsense, is actually unethical.
Most Good Quests are Hard
Quests vary in difficulty.
A hard quest is high-risk and operationally complex, with a low chance of success. Reversing aging, going to Mars, curing cancer, building a supersonic plane, creating AGI, or founding a new country — these are all hard quests, and most players attempting these quests will fail.
An easy quest is typically more straightforward, with a well-understood playbook for success. Achieving top marks in your high school class is an easy quest. Losing or gaining weight in accordance with some modest personal fitness goal is, for most people, an easy quest.
There are certainly bad quests that are hard, and (a few) good quests that are easy. But most of the remaining good quests are difficult to make profitable, require heavy research and development spend, or are just incredibly technically challenging, to the point of near impossibility.
Log scale. It's worth noting that the hard, good quests here are also significantly more consequential than the easy, good quests.
Since it is difficult to find a quest that is easy and good, most people optimizing for an easy goal will end up on a quest that is both easy and bad. Now, the degree of “bad” varies depending on who you are, and what you can do.
Your Player Card
In the context of your quest, you can think of yourself as a player with specific resources, skills, and powers. These attributes influence the likelihood of you succeeding on your quest.
For example, if you are a recent engineering graduate, you might have some computer science skills, and a lot of energy. On the other hand, if you are an older repeat founder, you might have less energy, and more familial commitments, but a large network of potential employees, management experience, and enough social capital to raise a large amount of money for an unproven idea.
A player's ability to complete their quest is a function of the quest and their own skills, resources, and powers. Quests that are easy for certain players are nearly impossible for others: Olympic runners will regularly run sub-5 minute miles during training, even though this would be an incredibly ambitious goal for most people.
The impact of a player's abilities particularly matters with hard quests, where the likelihood of success is already slim. If someone with no background in nuclear physics, no money, and no network chooses not to work on nuclear fusion it doesn’t really matter. In fact, their chances of success were so low that pursuing such a goal would have actually been bad — an opportunity cost, where they could have worked on a more natural fit that would have enriched their lives and the lives of those around them. But if a talented nuclear physicist with compelling insights into the field, ample resources, and many well-connected peers decides to open a tiki bar in Bali that is an extraordinarily bad quest.
The Allure of Bad Quests
A few common traps lead our most skilled, resourced players to select bad quests after achieving their first big success.
One of the most dangerous traps: in Silicon Valley, many top players are lured by the prospect of becoming an investor, either by joining an existing venture capital firm, or by starting their own fund.
In the 1980s, a venture capitalist could truthfully say their investment was the difference between life or death for an important, generational technology company. Funding such companies, in this way, was absolutely a good quest. But today there are more people "helping the builders" than actually building, fighting one another in a zero-sum game for allocation in competitive deals. Incredibly, being an investor has become one of the highest status jobs in Silicon Valley — higher even than playing an important operating role at a great company. This has led to an overproduction of venture capitalists without enough companies to fund.
Beyond investing, many former founders leverage their success to become public pseudo-intellectuals, speaking on podcasts and broadcasting their thoughts on popular tech Twitter accounts. But unless you are a truly generational thinker, proselytizing is far less impactful than building a specific, better version of the future. To the public intellectual, one must ask: if your ideas are so good, why aren't you executing on them? It is much easier (and less impactful) to write about the importance of “green tech” than to build Tesla. Moreover, many self-titled public intellectuals are not even particularly intellectual. They are just… public.
And for the rare successful operators who do go on to start a new company, most opt to copy a successful product and compete for market share. Today, the market is overrun with luxury credit cards and task management tools. While often lucrative, these are also generally bad quests. While the players may profit from winning market share from existing companies, they've allocated talent (including their own) and resources away from hard, important problems.
Case Study: The Bad Quests of the Facebook Mafia
We could choose from any number of tech success stories as our case study in bad quest selection. But perhaps the best example of an alumni-network “random-bad-quest-generator” is Facebook.
In 2012, Facebook had one of the highest-profile IPOs in history. Overnight, dozens of its executives became simultaneously wealthy and famous. The question of the day was what they would do with all of their newfound social capital and leverage. Would this be a sequel to the Valley’s legendary PayPal Mafia, in which the founding team of a paradigm-altering technology company continued on to found and fund an entire generation of paradigm-altering technology companies?
It would not.
Despite the rare and precious opportunity to embark on ambitious second acts, almost everyone in the Facebook Mafia played it safe. Most alums started venture capital funds (i.e. Slow Ventures), or worked as GPs at existing funds (Kleiner Perkins, or General Catalyst). Alums who started new companies nearly all built derivative software products. Such quests would never be remembered. Today, even the name “Facebook Mafia,” once in vogue for all of its potential, has nearly been forgotten.
The Moral Imperative
History is the record of top players completing good quests.
The vast majority of quests, even during times of great progress, constitute what functionally amount to economic noise. At the same time the Wright brothers were experimenting with flight, a sea of successful financiers filed paperwork that shuffled numbers on the global spreadsheet. Such men worked hard — maybe — and still their efforts were forgotten. But from planes and power plants to medicine and light, the achievements of those men and women who embarked on good quests built the modern world.
For our best players with exceptional fundraising and hiring superpowers, hard quests are difficult. But for everyone else, they are nearly impossible. Therefore, there is a moral imperative for our best players to choose good, hard quests.
The Good News
Despite many examples to the contrary, there are still successful players who are using their position to embark on good quests. The quintessential example of successful founders using their social capital for good are the billionaire space cowboys — Musk, Branson, and Bezos.
Less discussed examples include Sam Altman taking over OpenAI, where he and his team have delivered mind-bending AI products like GPT-3 and DALL-E, after serving as the President of YCombinator. Palmer Luckey used his earnings from selling Oculus to Facebook to launch Anduril, a new-age defense prime building innovative technology for national security. After Peter Reinhardt exited from Segment, his (admittedly somewhat boring) enterprise software company, he founded Charm Industrial, a complex carbon removal tech company. Jeff Kaditz left his fintech startup Affirm in 2015 to start the full-body scanning company Q Bio.
Almost all of these founders have deep personal motivations to keep building, even while they have no financial incentive to do so. Throwing yourself into another decade-long project of frenetic building can’t just be about making more money, especially when you already have more money than you can spend in a single lifetime. Some find motivation in revenge, others in a “higher calling,” and still others in a compulsive need to build. Innovation is a business for the imbalanced and troubled more than silver-tongued politicians and gala-attending thinkfluencers.
As a culture, we have a tendency to celebrate status that emerges from net worth and network signaling rather than the work ethic of a second-act founder using his net worth and network, while he grinds on a project, to drive the world forward. This is totally backwards.
The world is filled with good quests that require massively leveled heroes to complete: semiconductor manufacturing, complex industrial automation, natural resource discovery, next-generation energy production, low-cost and low-labor construction, new modes of transportation, general artificial intelligence, mapping and interfacing with the brain, extending the human lifespan. These future-defining problems are hard to recruit for, difficult to raise money for, and nearly impossible to build near-term businesses around, which is why they are exactly the types of problems we need the most well-resourced players pursuing.
If you are an experienced founder with lots of money or social capital, leave the next food delivery startup to the Level 1 neuromancer, and ask yourself: what would the world look like if our best players took on good quests?
Are you on a good quest now? Be honest.
-Trae Stephens and Markie Wagner