FREE GAME PT 2
Virgil Abloh released a website called “Free Game” → in short a step by step guide of building a brand. Sharing previous lectures, how to set up a website with Shopify, and more inspiration.
It’s a good treasure trove. I wanted to take the time to write out what I believe to be a path through a wider door, but one that seems opaque from the outside.
This is my letter to Black youth. Showing them that technology is a career path that affords them economic mobility, creativity, and impact. But I believe this breakdown is useful for anyone young and curious if technology could be a path for them.
This entire piece, the reason I’m writing this whole thing, is that I’m afraid we are culturally still playing a low hit rate game towards economic empowerment. We are perpetually attracted to fields where the majority don’t succeed, and even worse don’t even find their footing within the “broader industry”. Even Virgil’s “Free Game” falls into this category.
How do we combat this? How do we show more paths towards progress, both personal and communal? We uncover the path. Active demystification.
I cannot pretend that I came up through hard economic circumstances. I didn’t. I grew up comfortably middle class in the Poconos. Playing competitive golf and enjoying piano lessons in the woods. But my parents did come up through economic hardship. Facing the roughness that was 70’s and 80’s NYC, they were able to overcome their environment and provide (through plenty of sacrifice) a completely new environment for their children. And we (my siblings and myself) were able to enjoy the fruits of that labor.
I fundamentally believe that this is still possible. I fundamentally believe that everyone generally wants a better situation for the next generation, whether family or in a broadly human sense for the world.
This is about open sourcing the little bit that I know, that might be helpful for someone else… I find it appropriate to make this my first newsletter of 2023.
For most people that subscribe to my newsletter today, this probably isn’t that interesting. But for those that may know a younger person, figuring out the world, perhaps you can take a moment to share this with them.
Believe that you can solve hard problems
Before I get into sharing my thoughts on education, applying to companies, building a unique portfolio… I want to share something I believe is more spiritually crucial.
There is a general air of pessimism that soaks our cultural landscape. In short, the defeatist doomer belief must be combatted with optimistic creation. It comes back to a feeling that economic mobility is no longer possible, that the environment will collapse not allowing for any sort of family future, it is canonized with the #corecore video art movement of TikTok. Pessimism is the environment.
But if I’m touching you for the first time, please take some time to tap into those pieces. It’s crucial in not fully dismissing what is presented below.
Formal + Self Education
At Eternal alone we have teammates that dropped out of high school and those that just finished their masters program. Education is tricky, particularly in the US. It’s expensive, and at times not very practical.
Anyone could tell you to go out, get into the best college you can and major in computer science. This is not nuanced, nor the path that will necessarily spiritually enrich you the most.
My personal college journey was anything but smooth. But what I did reach a strong conclusion around, was that the best academic approach is one where you have a mentor that allows you to take the reins. Not being afraid to ignore what others may believe to be “foundational”. Luckily I had that exact person at UPenn.
I designed my own major, creating a mix of behavioral psychology, design, and venture capital. Trying to answer the question “why do we build what we build, and how do some things rise to the point of capital injection?”
What question are you trying to ask the world? Ask of yourself… find your questions → and then pick from the buffet that your institution has to offer. Skip the classes that don’t make sense, and fill that up with reading, building, laying about aimlessly. Just make sure you get the D+ or whatever to keep it moving.
After my formal education, I went through a period of un-schooling myself further. Spending too much money at McNally’s Bookstore and a lot of time on YouTube. This is where my self-education really built a habit to help shape, and help me learn to shape, how I see the world. Where I believe it’s possible to poke it, and something will come out on the other side.
Below are YouTube links from my own early days of figuring this all out, as well as some broader more recent ones:
Below are some articles and essays that I remember very deeply:
On the chance that you blow through those, here’s some further curated readings:
Exhalation by Ted Chiang (sci-fi short stories)
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes (cheat codes to understanding Snap, Instagram, TikTok)
Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan (cheat codes to everything)
The Second Self by Sherry Turkle (identity x computing)
Building = Portfolio
Build your ideas. There are some that believe that this is the only thing that matters, and to some extent, I agree with them. You can’t call yourself an artist without any works to point to. The same is true for technologists.
If you’re going down the path of engineering. Build your ideas. Point back to your Github. If you wish to design. Start on Figma. Share your concepts on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter. If you’re curious about finding answers through data, fool around with open source data sets. If you’re not doing any of those things, write. Some of the most respected technologists grew their influence through writing. Paul Graham. VGR.
In fact, no matter what you’re doing, write. Show your process. Decode yourself, so others might see the world how you see it. It’s incredibly powerful when done well.
Building your portfolio benefits you across the timeline of your career, and no matter your goals - pointing towards your work won’t ever fail you. It’ll get you into conversations (always dm/email your role models), it’ll get you into interviews, it’ll help you network and make lifelong friends.
Here are some fantastic portfolio examples from my peers:
Large Tech Companies
If you had asked me when I was in college about going to a large tech company, I would have laughed in your face. But I’ve matured since then, a little more rational, open to all journeys.
The benefits of going to an established tech company is incredibly clear. You learn from high class talent. Compensation, both salary and stock options, is top notch (particularly in tier 1 cities, and technical roles).
The downsides are a bit more abstract. You’re not seeing product go from “0-to-1” nearly as much as you do at startups. You’re navigating the politics of decision making. You may just feel like another body within a multi-thousand person organization.
But the main thing that is important, the primary positive: is credibility.
The resources when on-boarding to large tech companies training programs are abundant. From immediate training/rotational programs to continued learning. You’ll learn “how to work” and build persistent credibility. The same way that building a portfolio will get you into dream doors → having an extra dose of credibility will result in a response that was previously “default skeptical”.
I would list out large tech companies I would advocate for, but considering the intended audience of this post… hopefully you have a new choices to pick from when it’s time.
Finding The Right Startup
Finding the right startup is far more predicated, in my opinion, on your passions. At this point, are you really THAT passionate about Google’s mission. Probably not, but it’ll be an interesting experience with high quality people.
Startups on the other hand are about taking a bet on the founder, the vision, and seeing yourself as part of the developing team. There’s going to be less resources. There’s going to be later nights. All the stereotypical things you read about. But what do you gain?
More direct ownership and responsibility of producing outcomes. Where large tech companies can feel abstracted, with no direct line back to you on something not performing because your team is 20,30,40 people big → startups don’t work that way. Until it’s incredibly later staged. You gain the ability to make a name for yourself by directly driving results. The new question becomes, where might be the best position to drive results?
This is where your formal + self-education meets directly in the where the world is moving.
Have you been going deep on new methods for carbon capture? Do you see where emergent AI models can be specialized for existing industries? Maybe you’ve been experimenting with new game mechanics and want to bring it on-chain?
Whatever it may be your passions/interests aligning to where to world is moving → and joining a young company moving that way, can be one of the most highly leveraged moments in your life.
If this was 2016 and you were a hungry college kid, I’d tell you to hop on Twitter and start dm’ing everyone. Replying to tweets. Etc.
But Twitter is in the weirdest place it’s ever been, and networks are changing. I’d assume the best thing to do right now is video essays on TikTok + Substack. And actively reaching out to other’s through those channels.
There’s two parts of networking.
Understanding the macro orientation
Orienting yourself has to do with understanding who you are. What you want to work on. What your portfolio looks like. And what phase of life you’re in. Perhaps you’re in a learning phase and just want to talk with senior people. Maybe you’re in pure building phase and looking for collaborators. Maybe it’s time to raise money and you just want to ******* cash. How you approach people depending on the phase you’re in will change.
Understanding the macro orientation is more abstract. This still comes back to understanding who you are. The status games within technology are simply different. It takes a while to learn that language, and even so, everyone has a different interpretation on folks’ actions.
To share a big framework, here’s just one way to understand the macro orientation within technology:
The capital class. Over the past 20 years there has been an absolute explosion in venture capital. Facilitating the rise of their own social landscape. Where before there were two pages of firms, with not that many people, that you could check off your list. Now we live in a capital rich environment with roughly 1000 active venture firms, and thousands of folks moving capital.
The founder class. This is more fluid. It rises and falls with with trends and classes of people. The important thing is spotting when someone unique comes along, if their values align with your own, if the work speaks to you… you may be hopping on to the thing that defines your career.
Raw Builders. These folks make themselves known through the constant practice of building their portfolio in public. An incredible example of this is Jordan Singer:
Intellectual Powerhouses. These are rare, but they shape the zeitgeist of how people in technology are actively thinking. This finds its way into venture firm thesis, startup missions, and work processes. https://kwokchain.com/
Absurd Experts. There are some people that just know how to “do a thing” the best. Whether that’s social architecture or really insane text editing… there happens to be 5 that know how to really do X at scale.
Really great people. They may write from time to time. They may share some side projects. But they aren’t focused on this as some larger career advancement play. They can work anywhere. They may be specialized or a generalist. But the point is that they are good at what they do, they’re respected, and they the core of the larger motion.
Saving your class of contemporaries for its own section.
I don’t share this structure to be reductive. Or to say people are as simple as bucket classifications. But instead to help you understand some of the status verticals that build within this industry. Saying the quiet part out loud because no one else is going to give the time to break it down for you.
Embracing Your Contemporaries
Technologists emerge in classes. Except now, time isn’t structured in a 4 year pattern. Some of your peers are going to get seemingly poppin, very quickly. And then fall off. Some are going to have a really slow start, then get lucky. Some are going to take off, and keep taking off. That’s life.
Embracing your contemporaries is crucial in this game. Be generous with your time. Be generous with your resources. Be critical of those not behaving according to the values you want to see expanded. Choose wisely when you make that criticism public.
Embrace your squad.
Build with them. Write with them. Intro them to each other, and to the connections you’ve built further up the food-chain. Your squad will influence how others start to think about the changing world… because you’re the ones that are meant to be changing it… and we are all in the business of change.
Founding Something New
You’re feeling the itch. You feel like that thing that just started as a project for your portfolio, might actually be something bigger. Whatever the source, you really want to go out and start a company.
I wrote around a similar time two years ago. I think it’s my best depiction of what a life journey is like when you feel that itch, and some similar waves you may surf.
Being a founder is a two part process of inspiration and endurance. And hopefully, if one of those is low during the journey the other can make up for it.
Lean on your squad. Be vulnerable. And treat the moment like it is your only shot.
At risk of this piece already being so long, I’ll let the linked piece above do most of the talking for this section.
Blackness in Technology
I have a very strong memory of when I realized that I was one of the few Black Americans in my undergrad class of Wharton. That many of my Black peers were either international or first gen. And that often, they held a certain air above Black Americans. This is a very complicated relationship that takes time to breakdown. But I share it to say that this complexity continues… and to not be afraid of it.
You will find yourself as the only Black person in the room, more times than you care to count. I’m here to tell you that’s ok. Do not try to avoid that. You’ll only be doing yourself a disservice, as well as the wider community and our goals for progress.
I also want to relieve you of the belief that because you are Black, you must focus on “Black things” or “community projects”. Free yourself from this mindset. Work on whatever it is you are passionate about. Do not allow other’s to confine what is best for you to work on, as a prescription of your identity.
Something I say a lot is that language creates expectations. I have made it a habit to not talk about my work through the lens of identity.
My giant caveat to this is making sure you don’t believe this is a rebuke on working on identity based works/projects. I both believe in that work, and have seen it become a trap/weaponized against people. There is a special burden that comes with picking up that mantle. And I respect many that do choose to pick it up.
A Small Warning
There’s a trend today, driven by a general outsider mentality, that promotes — the way to building technology/a certain class of product comes as the follow up to some other industry success. Generally, these individuals are influencers through music or working on other creative projects. I don’t think there’s much advantage in calling these people out by name, so I won’t.
There is nothing wrong with those individuals having a technology curiosity streak. I encourage them to dive into this world of work. But that represents an act 2 of a larger lottery they played in. That’s what I am trying to free you from.
I urge you to think about what is you want to impact in the world. Realize that you have skills that can be nurtured through education and mentorship, and that you have the work ethic to apply with other incredible people that will enrich your life.
I hope this has been helpful in some capacity. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer any emails you send my way.
I don’t do edits really, so excuse typos and things that don’t make sense.
Thanks so much for giving me your attention. I hope it was worth it, if not… unsubscribing will not hurt my feelings, and will give you back time you literally cannot have back.
Live in the light