When I was just a bit younger, I had dreams of becoming filthy rich. I wanted to do things big. If I were to found a company, it wanted to be a 500-person company. Hundreds of millions in revenue, headed straight towards an IPO.
As I grew older, I found it more sane to focus not on size, but value. What problem do I want to solve? And how can I best engineer a solution? Numbers and scale became irrelevant. A lot of it was philosophically backed. We are constantly told to be happy with what we have. That “this is it”—if you can’t find contentedness with what you have now, you never will.
And so I took that wisdom to heart. Besides, a life of glamor doesn’t seem all that appealing, given we can now live out others' lives vicariously through their social media profiles. Being rich and famous seems like a whole lot of trouble. Simple, humble, and inconspicuous—that seems to be the way to go. But there’s something the buddhist zen masters won’t tell you:
It’s dead boring.
It’s dead boring to be ambitiously unambitious. It’s dead boring to optimize your life around peace and simplicity.
And I’m starting to think…life was never meant to be lived simply. Unending complexity and scale is the basis of all life, matter, and movement in this universe, and yet we devise stories that say: want for nothing, and you shall attain happiness. Let us really quickly say that happiness is a nothing. It’s just a word. It describes a state of mind, maybe, but even then, chemicals are fleeting. There is no fixed chemical state of mind. It’s always brewing up something new.
So then, this idea that wanting less leads to happiness—it’s just an idea. It’s just a story. It’s an experiment. And ultimately, I don’t think it’s founded in any real universal truth. In my experience, it’s been quite the opposite.
I talked in a previous post about the game Factorio, and how I had a flash addiction to it. It is, by all means, the perfect game, and is exactly what I was looking for: something I can get lost in and sink a large amount of hours in. A sort of escape. And it would have been just that were it not for one thing: I wasn’t ambitious enough.
The game is about mastering the engineering of scale, and your output is directly proportional to your ambition. But here’s the thing: if you apply the zen mindset of “I already have everything I need,” then the game is instantly over. There’s literally no more room to keep playing. And that’s exactly what happened:
I stopped playing a game I really loved. Because I saw scale as an evil. I saw the accumulation of wealth, material, and prominence as an evil.
Since then, I’ve downloaded about a game a week to try and find something I can fall in love with the way I fell in love with Factorio. No dice. I can’t get captivated.
So what have I gained, by being zen? Nothing, it seems. Instead, I’ve lost something I really loved. Zen teaches you not to play the game, but what if the game is all there is?
I’m starting to believe that may be the case.
In the past few weeks, I’ve tasted the result of this slimmed-down zen philosophy: support emails and bug reports for Standard Notes are lower than they’ve been in quite some time. This was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build a product that was so simple, that bug reports would not exist. Support emails would be minimal. And it seems...I’ve done that? Don’t get me wrong—still lots more work to do. But if this was the grand goal, which I thought would take a decade, and I’m already seeing a preview of what it’s like, then my human mind can’t help but think: what’s...next?
My zen mind says: nothing’s next. Enjoy this. My game mind says: move, scale, grow, build, act, collaborate, accumulate, and ultimately: play. Play the game.
I think…I think the zen story is a fiction. I think minimalism is a fiction.
I think life is a game, and it’s meant to be played. You can definitely avoid a lot of problems and minimize your burdens by sitting the game out. But that takes us directly to my favorite high school motivational poster:
A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.