The Future and Why We Should “Work on Stuff that Matters.”

Portrait of Tim O'Reilly

Tim O’Reilly is the founder and head of O’Reilly Media. Of all the people writing and speaking about the interrelated issues of emerging technology, media, work, and government, he is one of the most thoughtful and far-sighed.

His new book just hit the shelves. WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us is a combination of memoir, business strategy guide, and call to action related to the future of technology — and the future of all of us.

I was interested to hear his views on habits, happiness, productivity, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier?

Tim: Every morning, before I plunge into work, checking my devices and getting pulled into the digital whirl, I do some yoga or go running, and do morning chores — feeding my backyard chickens, emptying the dishwasher, hanging the laundry that I ran overnight, making tea for my wife and for myself. I treat morning chores as a kind of meditation. Hanging laundry on the line is especially like that for me. It’s a wonderful practice that saves energy, makes clothes last longer, and gives me a chance to watch the sunrise over my back yard.

The clothesline is also the subject of one of my favorite poems, Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and one of my favorite thought pieces, Steve Baer’s “The Clothesline Paradox.” Back in 1970, Baer described how in our metrics-obsessed society, we ignore what we can’t measure. When we put our clothes in the dryer, our collective electric bill goes a bit higher. When we put them on the line, we don’t say “look, a win for renewable energy.” It just disappears from our accounting.

I’ve used this wonderful thought experiment over the years to talk about the economic value of open source software and internet enabled collaboration, and more recently, in my book WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, as a way of talking about how we might get to a “caring economy” in which machines do more of the routine work, and what humans do to care for each other becomes more deeply valued.

Lots of folks are worried about robots and the “jobless” future. I’m worried that we won’t use the fruits of machine productivity to give people more freedom to spend their time caring for each other, being creative, and yes, getting work done (though not necessarily through the limiting 19th century construct of the job, as something provided by someone else.)

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Tim: There are a lot of things you learn as you get older, most of them having to do with the interrelated values of discipline and moderation. Irving Yalom once wrote “First will what is necessary. Then love what you will.” This is incredibly good life advice. Decide what you need to do, make a habit of it, and come to love it rather than resent it. That applies to the habits of householding, to exercise and diet, to work, and to taking the time to reach out to friends and family. It is so easy to be full of resentment against the things that we feel are keeping us from our joy. Finding joy in what needs doing is magical.

Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Tim: Being tethered to a phone or the internet. When I am out of cell range, or leave my phone at home, I feel unaccountably freer. I don’t realize how much the simple presence of the device pulls on me until it is out of reach.

I have been thinking more and more about setting out big blocks of time when I put it deliberately out of reach.

I remember vividly when I first had this experience, around 1984. I had my first internet-connected Unix workstation in my home office. Unlike a PC, which you tended to turn off when you were done. This was always on, always connected. My office was in a converted barn next to my house, and I could feel it calling to me. Everyone now lives with devices all the time, and they are changing us in ways we don’t entirely understand.

Clay Johnson gave some good advice years ago in a book called The Information Diet, which turned out to be quite prescient. He urged his readers to manage their information intake, and to take the time to produce thoughtful content, rather than just mindlessly sucking it in.

Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Tim: In addition to my aforementioned morning routine, probably the most important habit is one that I had dropped for some time in favor of time with my phone, but which has now regained its place in my life, with great results: reading books. Sustained time with another mind rather than constant media snacking is so important!

Poetry is one of the joys of my life. There are more tools for living in a good poem than most people realize. When I was going through a midlife crisis, I found enormous guidance in T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” which is a poem about the necessity for things to be torn down so that something new can be built.

Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Tim: I ran in high school, and at a few times after that, but I’d lost it as a regular habit. What brought it back was doing it together with my fiancé (now my wife). Working together to maintain good habits is incredibly powerful. 

Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Tim: When I took the test, I came out as a Questioner, but I find myself with so many elements of the others. In my personal life, I’m a strong Obliger. In my public life, definitely a Questioner. In my business, a mix of questioner and upholder. I even find streaks of Rebel, which mostly comes out when I find myself “bitten to death by ducks”–beleaguered by constant requests for attention from my over-extended network. [Yes, this response absolutely confirms that you are a Questioner.]

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Tim: Travel definitely makes it harder to avoid eating too much, especially when it’s coupled with business meals. One “hack” that my wife and I have used to reduce this burden is to share a single meal whenever possible. Restaurant portions are so large!

As to exercise, it’s important to make time for it even when you travel. So I always bring exercise clothes with me. And if it’s possible, I try to incorporate exercise – and not necessarily vigorous exercise, but just movement – into my daily routine. On my recent trip to New York City, I used Citibike (bike share) or walking to get to all of my appointments. I try to do that at home as well. And if I can do a “walking meeting” that is almost always preferable to sitting around a table.

Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Tim: Absolutely. Around 2010, I read a line in a novel, Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, that set off a mid-life crisis, and led me to change my life in major ways. “Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us, what happens to the rest?” This really struck a nerve. When I was a kid reading science fiction, I thought that I would one day write a book that involved a character who was able to live out the consequence of different life choices, different branching futures, rather than being stuck with the consequences of a single choice. Living in another country for a while can give you this kind of completely new experience, or changing your job. It’s so easy to get into ruts, and forget how to let go. The year before I read that, I kept having a line from the Tao Te Ching keep going through my head, but I didn’t know what it meant: “Keep stretching the bow, you repent of the pull.” I didn’t realize how stretched thin I was by the constant demands of work, and this odd new compulsion to feed a social media following on Twitter. That was the beginning of my wrestling with the social media sickness that has pervaded so much of our society.

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media for the ways it lets me keep in touch with people. But in the same way that abundance of calories and a lack of exercise can make us fat, an abundance of empty social calories and lack of vigorous mental exercise and true social contact can make our minds and our feelings flabby and lacking in lustre.

Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

Tim: There are so many. I am full of quotations that spring to mind on every occasion. But I want to share the goal that animates us at my company, O’Reilly Media: “Create more value than you capture.”

At a company management retreat around 2000, I remember telling the stories of several internet billionaires who’d told me they’d started their company with the aid of an O’Reilly technical book. We got $35, they got $Billions. That seemed like a wonderful thing — that the work we did could have such an impact on other people’s lives. Brian Erwin, then our VP of marketing, said our slogan ought to be “We create more value than we capture.” We’ve been using it ever since, though as a call to action rather than a self-description.

Another similar sentiment that I’ve use to shape my company has been widely posterized on the internet:  “Money in a business is like gas in your car. You don’t want to run out, but your business is not a tour of gas stations.” And of course that ties to another one of my mantras: “Work on stuff that matters.”

We really try to live by these principles in our business decision making at O’Reilly, and our economy would be better off if everyone did the same. In my book, WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, I share lessons from the great technology platforms. There’s a lot in there about how AI, and on demand networks, and other technologies are reshaping the business landscape, the economy, and the future of work, but there are also lessons about generosity that I’ve taken from watching the rise and fall of technology platforms. New waves of innovation that I’ve been part of — the personal computer industry, open source software, the internet, the maker movement, even AI — have been kicked off through a gift to the world. IBM published the specifications for their personal computer, and let anyone build one. Tim Berners-Lee put the web into the public domain. But then I’ve watched again and again as companies come along, gain control of the new technology, dry up the innovation, taking too much of the value for themselves and forcing entrepreneurs to go elsewhere. Right now, Google and Facebook and Apple are following in the footsteps of Microsoft, learning none of the lessons that brought Microsoft down from its peak of control over the industry.

Those same lessons apply to our broader economy. Our financial markets have become extractive rather than a support for the real market of goods and services. “Investment” no longer means investing in people or factories. It means placing bets on stocks, and trying to manipulate them so they go higher, whether or not any value has been created. When Carl Icahn bought $3.6 billion in Apple stock, Apple didn’t need his money. They had billions on hand. He was hoping to get them to do stock buybacks to artificially drive up the price, in fact extracting value from Apple rather than creating it.

This is what’s wrong with our economy writ large. “Investors” are not really investors. They are bettors in the financial market casino, while the world’s great problems — and the people who could be solving them — are no longer seen as the proper focus for investment. We have told our companies to optimize for “the bottom line,” while treating people as a cost to be eliminated. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can build an economy that treats people as an asset to invest in.

I think that we’re in a wonderful teachable moment because of what is happening with Facebook. People can see that Facebook created newsfeed algorithms that didn’t quite do what Mark Zuckerberg and his team expected. They thought that by showing people more of what they liked and re-shared with their friends, they’d create an engaging social platform that reinforced the connections between people. They didn’t expect that it would increase hyper-partisanship, and that spammers and foreign governments would exploit the system. We can see that they need to fix their system. In a similar way, the economists whose theories shaped business and politics didn’t mean to create an opioid epidemic, but they did. When, in 1970, Milton Friedman said that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits, and when, a few years later, Michael Jensen began to preach the gospel of shareholder value maximization and the need to align executive compensation with rising stock prices, they didn’t mean to create the devastation they wreaked on the economy, but it’s time to recognize it.

I believe that we can create an economy where people matter.

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