On Angst and Intention
I have often feared that I am only capable of creating great work in periods of deep angst. I do not want to believe this…in fact I refuse to believe it…but the empirical evidence is hard to ignore…and I know that I am not alone in using angst as an accelerant to achievement.
Angst is an unwillingness to accept where you are in the present. It doesn’t have to be perfectly specific or defined. you can experience angst around your finances, your romantic situation, your geography, your social status, or anything else that is core to your experience but not acceptable to you.
Angst can be an incredibly potent accelerant to work…i think this happens when you are able to sell yourself the promise that a specific effort or body of work, if done well, will change that which you are unwilling to accept in the present. For example, if I had deep angst around my finances, and believed that building a valuable startup could alleviate my lack of money, I could use that angst to find a level of motivation and even superhuman effort and thought that otherwise might not be available to me in building my startup.
Starting out in startupland I think I carried the angst that many young founders do, which was a built up unwillingness to accept the reality of people discounting me and my thinking. I had so many “crazy ideas” that were uninteresting to the Goldman Sachs crowd coming out of college…and I was so tired of not being seen for my creativity…that I simply refused to let those people less creative than me discount my thinking and contribution any longer. That…along with i’m sure plenty of other insecurities and dissatisfactions…created this pure unwillingness to accept the present in my life and propelled me into a period of what I view to be some of my best work and thought. Failing in my first startup…only fueled me deeper…and going into Hyperpublic and the beginning of Lerer Ventures…i was anything but stable…i was an angst filled…fuck you world…hungry mother fucker that simply would not take no for an answer…and not allow anyone or anything to get in my way of changing the present.
That worked…in the sense that I created a great body of work in that period of my life…and it didn’t work in the sense that I was living like a psychopath, completely imbalanced and in a state that was totally unsustainable on any long term horizion…
When I sold Hyperpublic and when Lerer Ventures became successful…I think I lost most of that youthful angst…For the first time I had money of my own, some level of success and respect even amongst the goldman sachs crowd that had previously discounted me…and for the first time in my professional career I didn’t completely reject where I was in life. Of course I maintained goals, and set new ones, and wanted to move forward…as I still do…but there wasn’t thas same rage-filled rocketfuel attached to my work that angst had once provided.
In it’s place, intuitively, I slotted in intention. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll say that intention is an unwillingness to accept the present state of the world (as opposed to your world). Intention is more purposeful…deeper…and considered than angst. One can still be willing to accept their own present while holding intention for what they want of the future…After Hyperpublic, I knew that I should be looking for more considered purpose than just the frenetic struggle to break free from the present.
What I learned, however, is that intention…at least in the form that I developed it…is a very different and for me less potent accelerant than angst…it’s a slower drip…not quite the headspinning, blinders on, kill a baby chic if you have to drug…and that has both it’s benefits and it’s drawbacks when compared with angst. Intention applied to work allows space for relationships, family, and the many facets of life that an angst filled psycho (i.e. me in my early-mid 20s) might backburner in the heat of the fight…it allows for measured progress in a direction of purpose…while maintaining some level of humanity…and that IS sustainable over long periods of time (i.e. life)…
what intention does not do…at least not yet for me…is consume to the point of a neverending dialogue with one’s work. Intention is not an “every waking moment” motivant…or at least it hasn’t been for me. You can turn it off when you need to…and the upside is that that’s healthy…and the downside is that some of the waking moments that get cut out are the deepest and and most brilliant ones…the game changers…the “no normal person would have taken this idea this far down the rabbit hole…and therein lies the opportunity…type moments.”
I very much miss the angst driven rabbit holes of my early professoinal life…BUT…BUT…I refuse to give into my fear that angst is required to create a great body of work…I believe that intention CAN be as powerful…i just don’t believe I’ve found the right way to harness it…my first startup where i tried to combine angst and business sucked (untitled partners)…then I learned how they worked together and things got pretty good (hyperpublic and lerer ventures)…my first startup where I gave up angst and tried to combine intention and business (wildcard) didn’t suck…but it was not my greatest work either. I think I’ll be able to take what I learned and I think things will get pretty good in this new intention based setup…it’s just gonna take more than one try to nail it…but I believe that when I do, another great body of work will follow.
I’ll invest in an angst driven founder all day long…I’ve been one…and I know what can come from that recipe…AND i’ll invest in an intention driven founder all day long…angst or intention…they are both forms of unwillingness…one an unwillingness to accept where you are…the other an unwillingness to accept where the world is…it’s whatever is inbetween…a lack of unwillingness…that I think spells disaster…one form is selfish…the other selfless…i think the first is easier to see…easier to harness…and easier to burn out…while the second requires a level of empathy and internalization of the external that takes time to develop and master. I will pursue it.