Existential Optimism

Or what to do when you control your own destiny

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Hi friends 👋, 

Happy Monday! I hope you’ll excuse me if we wax a little philosophical today. 

Let’s get to it.


Existential Optimism

Over the weekend, after more than a decade since my last philosophy class, I re-read Jean-Paul Sartre’s, Existentialism is a Humanism. In the 1946 work, based on his 1945 lecture to the Club Maintenant in Paris, Sartre lays out his clearest overview of the philosophy and dismantles critiques against it. It’s a twenty minute read, and I highly suggest it. Paul Millerd recommended At The Existentialist Cafe as an easier entry point. Whatever your entrypoint, I think we’re living through a time in which existentialism can be particularly useful. Why?

Power is shifting away from institutions and towards individuals. If we’re going to have more control over our own lives, working from anywhere, owning the internet, governing the institutions that support us -- then we need to figure out how to handle that responsibility. We need a self-governing philosophy. Existentialism is a great place to start.

Existentialism

Existentialism has always resonated with me. French Existentialism was my only A+ in college. Right now in your head, you may have a vague black and white image of a French person smoking a cigarette at a café. When normal people think about existentialism at all, they typically think about it as a pessimistic philosophy, full of angst, despair, and meaninglessness. People confuse Existentialism with Nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless. 

In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre disagrees wholeheartedly with that classification:

No doctrine is more optimistic, since it declares that man's destiny lies within himself.

The Ancient Greek philosophers believed that everything, including humans, came with an essence pre-installed. Essence, and then existence. In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre proposed that existentialists share the opposite belief: existence comes before essence. We are nothing until we decide what to be. Or as Sartre put it (he went heavy on “man,” it was a different time): 

If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men

Existentialism was a product of its time. While Sartre was the first philosopher to identify as an Existentialist, in the mid-20th century, the philosophy dates back to the mid-19th century with Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who believed that each individual is responsible for giving meaning to his or her own life and for living it authentically, or passionately and sincerely. 

On a 2001 BBC Radio podcast, In Our Time: Philosophy: Existentialism, University of London Reader in Philosophy, Dr. A.C. Grayling, described the conditions from which existentialist thought was born: 

Scientific history, which was a product of German scholarship in the 19th century had called very very many things in question. That sense, also, that religious verities and religious sources for morality were under threat by the view that the whole universe was governed by natural laws, not by transcendent ones. Then of course the development of Darwinian theory. All that conspired together to give some of the philosophers of the 19th century the sense that they had to look for a different ground of value.

As Nietzsche put more succinctly, “God is dead.” The Enlightenment, to Nietzsche, closed the door on the possibility of the existence of God. Until that point, people derived meaning and a set of rules from the existence of God and from religion. Without God, then, from where were people to derive meaning and purpose? 

Existentialism assumes that there is no God, and therefore that our existence comes before our essence. We exist, and then we make meaning. If no one designed us, then we define ourselves by our actions. Now, I’m not dumb enough to weigh in on the existence of God in public -- this piece isn’t about God -- but I think that we’re in the middle of an equally profound shift, and that it’s worth pausing for a moment to solidify our philosophical and moral footing before everything spins too fast and runs away from us. 

“Institutions are dead.”

If existentialism sprung from the need to make sense of a world in which scientific progress called God into question, it may also fit a world in which technological progress is calling institutions into question.  

In 2017, Pew surveyed Americans on what provides them with a sense of meaning.

Family won by a landslide, but career blew everything else out of the water, showing up in 50% more responses than the next closest, money, and 70% more than spirituality and faith. People love complaining about their jobs, but they also love the purpose a job gives them. The Wall-E future, in which we don’t need to work because robots do everything for us, is a terrifying dystopia.

Like religion in the 19th century, though, the notion of career is under assault. We’re in the middle of what the media is calling The Great Resignation. 

  • Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that 40% of Americans are considering quitting their jobs this year. 

  • PWC’s Next In Work put the number higher -- 65% of employees they surveyed were looking for a new job; 88% of executives said that turnover was higher than usual. 

  • In July, 4 million Americans, 2.7% of the workforce, quit their jobs

It’s not just white collar jobs, either. Practically every restaurant in my neighborhood is looking for workers. Many have shortened their hours because they’re short-staffed. 

For those who are working (which, to be fair, is still the vast, vast majority of the population), 13.4% were still working from home as of August. Many of them are never going back. Not being tied to a career, or an office, can be a great and liberating thing. But it also removes a source of stability and meaning. 

At the same time, Americans’ confidence in institutions is declining across the board. 

According to Gallup polls, the percentage of Americans who have “A Great Deal” or “Quite a Lot” of faith in institutions has been declining steadily (aside from the Military and Supreme Court) since they started polling in the early 1970s. Since 2000, the average high trust score across institutions has dropped from 42% to 35%. 

And then there’s web3. The promise of web3 is that it will put ownership and control back in the hands of the people, combining the best aspects of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. 

Down with institutions, up with individuals. 

The Sovereign Individual, written by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg in 1996, predicted that we were about to enter the fourth stage of human society: 

  1. Hunter-Gatherer Societies (Pre-10,000 BCE)

  2. Agricultural Societies (10,000 BCE)

  3. Industrial Societies (1760 CE)

  4. Informational Societies (~ 2000 CE)

The book’s authors got an eerie amount right about the future, including the prediction that “The building blocks of the cybereconomy—cybermoney, cyberbanking, and an unregulated global cybermarket in securities—are almost bound to come into existence on a large scale.” As a result, it’s become somewhat of a bible for crypto people. 

Of particular importance to our conversation is the idea that power shifted from the church to nation-states in the transition from Agricultural Societies to Industrial Societies, and that power will shift from nation-states to sovereign individuals in the transition to Informational Societies. That is happening. After I wrote Power to the Person, my friend and now-collaborator Lillian Li called me out:

It’s a testament to Davison and Rees-Mogg’s prescience that I accidentally recreated their argument, 25 years later, with all of the current facts at my disposal and without having read their book. But The Sovereign Individual is about why and how individuals will take power, and how to take advantage of the shift. It didn’t help with how to create meaning once we have it. 

We’re still very much in a transition phase now. Institutions still hold significantly more power than individuals. This is the fun, carefree part; the part when others still have the responsibility, and we can position ourselves in opposition to those others. The office, big government, centralized corporations, full-time jobs… those are the things we don’t want. We’re still the dog chasing the car, and not yet the dog that caught the car. We can operate on vibes, engage in silly tribalism (office vs. remote, Bitcoin vs. Ethereum, etc…), and put off concretizing what happens when we no longer have the things we don’t want. Rebels don’t need philosophy; rulers do.

Individuals’ power is growing. As Spiderman understands so well, with great power will come great responsibility. 

A Philosophy for Freedom and Re-creation

What became existentialism was born out of the transition from Agricultural Societies to Industrial Societies, from church to nation-state. When many could no longer put the responsibility on God, existentialism offered a way to think about taking responsibility for themselves. 

The version most are familiar with today, Sartre’s existentialism, sharpened during World War II. Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir became celebrities in Europe as existentialism spread. “After WWII ended,” Existential Comics’ Corey Mohler explained, “there was this atmosphere of ‘We can recreate society. We can recreate ourselves. We can do anything we want.’” 

You might hear those very same optimistic calls today. We’re in the transition from Industrial Society to Informational Society, from nation-state to individual. We’re emerging from a global catastrophe, a pandemic this time instead of a war. There’s a strong “we can recreate society and ourselves and do anything we want” breeze blowing. 

But there comes a point in every story when those who were fighting to gain power gain it, and need to begin the hard work of ruling. When they’re no longer the underdog, but the ones in charge. My guess is that existentialism is going to make a comeback as people realize that self-sovereignty is a double-edged sword.

There is no one else to blame. “We are left alone, without excuse.” That is what Sartre meant when he said, “Man is condemned to be free.” 

At the time of Sartre’s lecture in 1946, that was potentially fundamentally true -- people could choose what to do at any moment -- but not very practical. If people wanted to stay alive, they needed to find work and do as they were told. If they wanted to fit in their communities, they needed to attend church. Sartre would call this living inauthentically, but it was the practical reality. As a well-educated person from a well-to-do family, he could afford to “live authentically.” Many couldn’t. 

Even today, the ability to not have to rely on oneself for employment is reserved for the lucky ones. The richest countries in the world have the lowest rates of self-employment. The United States has the lowest self-employment on the list at 6.3%

With the rise of the creator economy, entrepreneurship, remote work, and web3, more people are pushing for the right to fend for themselves, to set their own course, make their own decisions, and bear responsibility for their own actions. I’m all for it. I work for myself, as a creator, from home, and I am putting more and more of my time, net worth, and energy into web3. 

If these trends continue, and if web3 challengers disrupt more incumbents, if better APIs and infrastructure make it easier for anyone to build their own products and businesses, if more people work at home, away from bosses, individuals will have a greater ability to shape how the world works than at any point in modern human history. If you’re reading this, you’re likely going to be involved in that shaping. That’s an immense amount of freedom, and with it comes an immense amount of responsibility. 

We’re going to need to make the transition -- maybe in the next couple years, maybe in the next couple of decades -- from plucky, YOLO-ing underdogs to the people responsible for how things work. We’ll rely on, and get to blame, others less than we ever had. We’ll get to make our own decisions. 

This is one of the reasons I’m a maximalist minimalist. Fighting over whose blockchain better serves the under 100M people in web3 today instead of figuring out a responsible path towards working together to onboard the next billion users feels silly and inauthentic. And it’s not just blockchain maximalism, but maximalism of all sorts. Whenever I see maximalism or dogma, I see people who aren’t ready to handle their freedom and make their own meaning. 

That’s not to say that we should all act in our own self-interest with disregard for others or that we shouldn’t join communities. Existentialism is not a selfish philosophy. Particularly after the war, Sartre realized that existentialism needed to cope with togetherness, community, and even morality. In Existentialism is a Humanism, he wrote that people should make choices as if they’re making that choice for the whole human race, asking, “Am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do?”

Any philosophy for the modern era will need to cope with the idea that our freedom is embedded together, that more than ever, society will be bottoms-up versus top-down. If we want to decrease institutional power, we also lower institutional responsibility. We’ll need to be responsible for each other. A modern philosophy will need to confront the fact that we need to create meaning for ourselves, but that life is not meaningless. I hope that nihilism and hedonism don’t rule the day. 

Last week, there was a meme on twitter about whether DAOs can fire people, kicked off by this tweet:

Turns out, people have been fired from DAOs, but I think it highlights the kind of challenges we’re going to face as things get more decentralized, liquid, and chaotic. New norms, rules, and technology, like something that tracks contributions on-chain, will help, but it will be more important than ever for people to think about what it means to take responsibility for themselves.

Existentialism isn’t perfect. But I think it’s a good starting point. In the parlance of composability, it’s a philosophy lego on top of which a distributed group of individual leaders can build. We need modern philosophers -- much better philosophers than me -- to wrestle with modern questions. It would be foolish to be the generation with the most individual agency and the least intentional thought about what to do with it. 

No quest is more optimistic, since it declares that our destiny lies within ourselves.


I’m fixing the survey, it’ll be back next week — in the meantime, let me know what you thought about today’s piece on Twitter.

Thanks for reading, and see you on Thursday,

Packy