Trees, Sharks & Change

Posted on February 11, 2010. Filed under: startups | Tags: , , |

My last post on this blog was 5 days ago (my 28th birthday).  My lull in activity since then stems from the discussion that ensued both on and off line surrounding the subject matter of that last post.  In short, that post articulated my feeling of racing against the proverbial life clock to accomplish my dreams. Many people were concerned that measuring my progress in life against the metric of age was a potentially harmful school of thought, and the voices expressed in the comments of that post were interesting enough that I thought the discussion deserved “homepage real estate” for a few extra days.

I was talking to my friend Brett yesterday and he said something that made a lot of sense to me.  He said, “you and me, we are like sharks…we like to be moving all the time, and if we stop moving we die…most people aren’t like us.”  I thought about this for a while and I realized that the reason why I didn’t detect a shred of despair in my previous post (while many people read it that way), is because the state that I am happiest in is one of change.  Through that lens, the reason I keep introducing what the most ardent critic, Matt Mirelis, would call  “unattainable” accomplishments/timeframes as points of reference to measure my own progress in life (i.e. those who accomplish amazing things very early in life), is because with the knowledge that more is possible than what I have or am doing, comes the reminder to keep moving and never become complacent.

I think many people work towards defined goals in life (money, wife, house, kids, cars, corner office), and once they achieve them, they stop creating new goals and become complacent.  I will call these people “trees” (once a tree grows to be a certain hight, very hard to move it).  In this complacency, “trees” find happiness, but that is because they are not “sharks” as my friend Brett would say.  Reveling in the satisfaction of what you are doing in the present or what you have done in the past is a recipe for slowing the rate of change in one’s life.  This is a completely valid ambition, to reduce change, and some of my closest friends are unhappy during transitions, and extremely happy in routine…but “sharks” crave constant transition.

My dad called me up on birthday and said, “so, your mother read your post and is worried about you…she thinks you sound defeated…but I read your post and thought the exact opposite…and I told her, that’s the difference between being an optimist and a pessimist.”  I didn’t get his analysis when he first said it, but now in the context of a “shark” who always wants to be in motion, I realize that by craving change from the present context, we “sharks” are inherently optimistic.  We exist in a state of transition toward the future because deep down we believe that the future will be as good, if not better than the present (no matter how good that present may be).

What you have to understand about people is that we subconsciously build infrastructure around our lives that is designed to preserve a state of happiness.  Those who derive happiness from complacency or lack of change seek out stable situations and build a social/professional/personal infrastructure around minimizing change, largely as a mechanism to maintain their state of happiness.  We “sharks” build a social/professional/personal infrastructure around our lives that is designed to perpetuate movement, because that is the state in which we are most happy….Measuring my progress in life in the fashion I described in my last post is perhaps a piece of infrastructure that I have put in place to perpetuate a never-ending catalyst for change/movement (the derivative of which is never-ending happiness).

I think most of the people who saw the negative element in that post are probably not “sharks,” and that is completely cool.  But “sharks” don’t give a shit about what they’ve already accomplished in the past, or what they’re doing in the present…we are always looking toward the future and actively moving ourselves into it.  So I guess that’s why I benchmark my progress in life against my age…it’s because I am aware that the state that I crave the most (as an optimist) is movement into the future, and as time passes, we start to run out of future to move into…and the day I stop moving toward the promise of what’s next, as happens when a shark stops swimming, is the day I die…

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11 Responses to “Trees, Sharks & Change”

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A tree grows forever. A shark swims forever. They both die. I’m willing to guess that neither of of them measure themselves against their brethren’s accomplishments at ring 300 or tooth 17000.

I didn’t see negative in your first post, but you are distracted by others accomplishments. It happens a lot in our compartmentalized society. There is no reason to ignore information about others, but to seek it for self measurement, is more hazardous for some than others. If you are a shark, then I understand. It’s a dog-eat-shark world out there and one must keep an eye on the competition. 😉

complacency is indeed the enemy. Thanks for the greater explanation. My reaction to the last post was… it sounded like you were heavily defining yourself by comparison with other people… perhaps a little too much so, though I think entrepreneurs need to have a heavily competitive drive against something, whether it be themselves, other people, other companies.

To our Jordan the Shark- I loved this post….however, yoga teaches us to fully experience the present. Do not neglect your enjoyment and appreciation of your present experience in your exhilaration for your pursuit of the future. Much love,
Aunt Jackie

thanks aunt jackie…

I hear you, Mr. Shark, but I would have to ask, like your Aunt Jackie, what of the present? I understand constantly pushing for and anticipating and reaching for the future, but then it seems as if you’re never fully in the present, in that you’re always a bit dissatisfied, the grass is always greener, and to constantly live in that state seems a bit foolish to me. If happiness is always around the corner, what do you feel in the now?

Dear Jaws,

Ahh, hubris. Never fails.

Hmm. Where to begin….

Although the motive makes some sense, I think it is dangerous for you to place yourself in a separate class of humanity. The “sharks” vs “trees” categorization envisions a pretty static view of human psychology, your understanding of which seems deeply flawed.

The problem (that this model doesn’t seem to account for) is that in reality, today’s “shark” is very often tomorrow’s “tree.” Sharks swim and swim and swim and then, say in their 30s, begin to ask the question: What’s the f’ing point to all this swimming and chasing and running and movement?

All too often, the answer is: there is none, there is no point. (Thoreau: Masses of men live lives of quiet desperation). And so, faced with this existential crisis, people attempt to give meaning to their lives. How? They have kids. And they become “trees.”

Some people, of course, never figure it out. And they spend there whole lives on the shark treadmill, probably congratulating themselves for being so in shape.

But at the end of the day, what’s the point? Are you hustling just to keep up, or is there some bigger meaning, some larger ends, some purpose for all this effort and strain and movement?

To imagine yourself on a pedestal, claiming you have some sort of different, special DNA than us mere mortals is a classic mistake of youth, a classic act of hubris. I think you’re probably better off doing some more introspection and asking yourself: Why is it that so many “sharks” like me end up as “trees” later on? What is it about their worldview and circumstance that causes so many smart, ambitious people like me to end up thinking this way? How do I avoid this fate?

Because in truth, you’re really not that extraordinary. You really don’t belong to a separate category of human being, except perchance by luck of birth, education and economics. And that’s not something you earned.

This frenetic search for the next, for the new––it is a classic marker of the highly competitive, outlandishly privileged, prep schooled elite. You and your friends alone have been given this special training, fed this special sauce that makes you “sharks,” or so you have been indoctrinated to believe. I went to those schools. I get it.

And it is from this “sharkiness” that you derive pride and a sense of identity. And part of that is cool. You have been conditioned to run fast, to work hard, to constantly push. The same was true when I fought fire on a hotshot crew––we were conditioned to work, to push, always just go, go, go without question. It ain’t a bad tool to have in your playbook.

But at some point, you gotta reflect and ask the question: What’s the point of all this movement? To what ends do we struggle? Why am I working so f’ing hard?

And that’s my whole point: Are you a shark simply swimming in circles because you need to move, because you have to move, because moving is all you know, because if you don’t, you die. Or are you fucking going somewhere? Is there a direction? Is there a point?


PS You misspelled my name: It’s Matt MirelEs.

thanks for all the insight…i’m not really moved in my perspective, but i have a feeling there’s a segment of people who are getting something out of your words…keep em’ coming

Maybe the “shark”/”tree” dichotomy is false to begin with, or maybe you’ve built a bit of a strawman to set yourself apart from. I suppose there must be people who, like you say, work towards defined goals in life then stop once they’re achieved. Though maybe the majority of people who have achieved those goals you listed (money, wife, house, kids, cars, corner office) have simply changed to defining goals that are simply nonobvious to outside observers, probably because those goals have become less materialistic. This is all the more so for parents who have to keep constantly changing and transitioning to deal with all the changes and transitions their children go through.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say “sharks” crave constant transitions that are obvious to those who care to look? But then maybe that kind of myth, or “subconsciously buil[t] infrastructure”, wouldn’t be sufficiently heroic?

I’ve talked to a lot of parents and many seem to want to be in motion, to support all the changes their children impose; the vast majority of them craved changes from their present context and were more than inherently optimistic about the future (of course their children will become lawyers, doctors, etc).

But maybe that’s not the kind of change you had in mind? So you’re right that different people use different measures to judge their progress. And often different is not better, just different.

Although the way you wrote everything made it sound like “sharks” are somehow better than “trees” (They are? Really? Why?), or that trees can’t be optimists (Why not?). Maybe that’s just the way it sounds to me when I read it. Who knows.

This discussion does remind me of the story of Alexander the Great meeting what he called a “gymnosophist”. In the end, both were operating under a different set of beliefs, having grown up reading and learning different sets of myths (eg, glorifying one lifetime versus an infinite cycle of lifetimes).

(The story of the gymnosophist, to quote from ):

“Or perhaps he was just a yogi, who was sitting on a rock, staring at the sky, and the sun, and the moon.

“Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” and the gymnosophist answered, “I’m experiencing nothingness.” Then the gymnosophist asked, “What are you doing?” and Alexander said, “I am conquering the world.” And they both laughed. Each one thought that the other was a fool. The gymnosophist said, “Why is he conquering the world? It’s pointless.” And Alexander thought, “Why is he sitting around, doing nothing? What a waste of a life.””

Thanks Carson…one of the more thoughtful comments i’ve read…i like the Alexander parable… to be clear, sharks are not better than trees and trees are not better than sharks…and trees can be optimist…

Thanks Carson…one of the more thoughtful comments i’ve read…i like the Alexander parable… to be clear, sharks are not better than trees and trees are not better than sharks…and trees can be optimist…

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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