✨ Future Distortion Field
Matters of practicality when trying to build the Future while living in the Present.
This remains the simplest and most actionable advice I’ve come across for figuring out the problems I want to solve and the products I want to build.
In the earliest days, before incorporation forms and pitch decks, before cap tables and wireframes, this vision takes form in daydreams and doodles. In the twilight moments before you drift to sleep and as you come awake.
This is the process of obsession so many founders talk about. The obsession exists as a living, breathing future world. One that you can see and feel and walk around in. Until you can’t help but talk to everyone you meet about it. Until all your waking moments are taking up in part by this vision. Until your partner or closest friends finally say - just do it already or stop talking about it.
Until, what existed merely as passing thoughts and fleshed out daydreams fully immerses you in a bubble around you. One that cocoons you in a place that makes you harder to live with in the Present because frankly, your attention and focus is elsewhere entirely.
If you’re lucky, you’ve been building this bubble with a friend or colleague or two. So that it becomes just a matter of time until you all quit your jobs and find yourself as co-founders in this bubble full-time.
(Btw, when people ask me “How do you know if I should do this full time?” I ask them back if they’re this obsessed. Though, if you’re asking me the question, chances are you’re not ready. Because obsession and this Future don’t care about what anyone else thinks. It’s grown to a need you feel compelled to see through. To fight to make it live another day. If you’re not there, it’s hard to will it to be there.)
Thanks for reading 10,000 ways! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Not so fast
It turns out though, that relatively speaking, finding your way to living in the Future is the easy part.
The hard? To stay living in the Future while everyone and everyone keeps pulling you to back to the Present. Kids. Doubters. Bills. Social obligations. (Btw, most of these things aren’t bad. They’re the things that will anchor you and give you much needed perspective in the hard, middle years. But in the beginning, they all feel like annoying gnats pulling you out of keeping this fragile thing alive).
Building the future is incredibly hard. Especially depending on how different your version is to what exists today. Airbnb wanted to get people to let strangers stay in their house and let anyone live the quaint fantasy of being BnB hosts. Uber wanted people to get into cars of people they didn’t know, to make “private drivers” available to everyone. Stitchfix wanted to make stylists available to everyone and to have clothes simply delivered to your door.
I could go on.
In the earliest days, there are very few people that see the future as you do. But that’s the point.
The most successful and valuable and impactful startups got that way because of “insight arbitrage”. They saw something that no one else did and hustled to make it so. They capitalized on the distance between what is and what could be.
They lived in the Future and worked tirelessly to build what was missing.
But how? How does one actually “live in the future”?
Future distortion field
Well, as best as I can describe, you solidify this bubble around you in a Future Field of sorts. One that, once inside, matches the Future you wish to build.
Then the work becomes making the world you see inside, slowly but surely match the world that exists outside.
And you do that by changing the parameters of both the outside and the inside until you get to a sort of “equilibrium”. Like a cell membrane passing water and nutrients in and out, you send hypotheses out from your bubble out into the world and see how it lands. See what takes off as is, and see what needs to be modified inside the bubble instead.
This eventually settle into the mundane and arduous drumbeat of weekly sprints - testing and adapting, testing and adapting. Building something the world needs and wants and changes the future by slowly figuring out how to get the outside Reality to match the inside Future.
Inch by inch the bubble grows. With users coming in, new team members coming in. The barrier becomes more durable, able to withstand more criticism and doubt. The Future vision evolves and gets more nuanced and educated and detailed. Adapting to what the users and the market needs.
Until one day, you hit that magical product market fit. Escape velocity. That’s when the field has grown so big and so certain that the idea of this bold future doesn’t sound preposterous and it has a path to being widely accepted and implemented. The thing that will kill you then, turns to execution and discipline.
But until then, it’s a game of living in a future that only you and a couple others can see.
(It’s also, btw, why the best founders are great storytellers. Because to get others to enter the bubble - team members, investors, you need to clearly and enticingly help them see and believe in the same future.)
The trick then, is to stay inside that bubble as much as possible. Because in the earliest days, it’s small and fragile and liable to pop with the most casual of doubts. No more permanent or assured than the bubbles my kids will blow endlessly in the summer breeze.
The thing that jeopardizes it the most?
Leaving it. Constantly going in and out before the barrier is durable, before the space within can house multiple people. Living within it constantly gives it energy and sustenance.
So the job becomes to make the Future Field as durable and permanent as possible, and to exist in it for as much time as possible. And there are two main ways to do that.
Have someone living in the bubble at all times.
It’s one of the reasons that I think everyone says having co-founders from the start increases the chances of success. With co-founders, someone is always in the bubble. You can take turns leaving and coming back. When one person is having a hard day, riddled with doubt, the others lift them up and vice versa. (This is especially important when one founder is fundraising and is constantly being told all the ways the Future Will Not Work. Coming back to the bubble kept alive and well by the others makes it that much easier to go back out the next day and doing it all again, without letting any of the Doubt permeate the barriers).
Of course, this is all possible with an incredible early team as well. The point is to get to 2-3 people that believe and can cover all the work to be done.
Spend as much time as humanly possible living in the bubble, together.
The more time you spend inside, the more you start to grok out critical details. You see things that don’t make sense or walls you’re running into and you quickly problem solve together.
It’s a race against time to keep this Future alive and the more time you spend on it and the faster you iterate and problem solve, the faster and stronger it gets. (It’s also why the 12 weeks of YC are so impactful. Sure the network and the fundraising, but the 12 weeks are mostly about getting the luxury of living almost exclusively in the Future, together. No distractions or interruptions or Life. Not sustainable/desirable at that pace for longer, but undeniably transformational in those early days). Now a part of YC lore - I still remember hearing the story of the Airbnb founders and Brian Chesky sharing “I remember when we were at Y Combinator, we worked together, we ate food together, or even went to the gym together. We may as well have gotten jumpsuits, we didn’t go that far.” It sounds insane but the realities are that the early days take that sort of constant togetherness and intensity.
It’s why a shared workspace is critical (and ideally one that is all your own - eg not a couple co-working tables.) It’s both the fact that you can move faster, together, but also that a physical space allows your team to enter and stay in this future, immersively. Posters. Photos. Customer quotes. They are all important physical artifacts of your mission and ambition. The rituals you share - whether it’s taking your shoes off at the door or eating lunch together or making up custom slack emojis - they’re critical markers of the new works you’re building.
Even as I share this, I know that this isn’t available to everyone - cofounders or the ability to spend 18 hours a day, devoted to mission and obsession.
With Poppy, I already had 2 kids and countless time and financial obligations. I’ve had to rely more on building incredible early teams as vs starting off with co-founders.
And with Milo, I’ve had to build the company remotely from the earliest days because of a global pandemic.
I know all too well, that these ideals of co-founders and offices aren’t available to everyone and yet, we have big, impactful Futures to build. That just means we have to build Future Fields as quickly and as durably as possible.
It’s why, even when our girls were only 3 and 1 years old, I did the 12 weeks of YC for Poppy. Each week, flying down to Mountain View to work from an apartment with my co-founder and returning only for weekends. I’ll be the first to say I was completely non-existent as a partner and parent for those weeks. But because I invested in those 12 weeks so intensely, we emerged with a Future Field that could withstand a more sustainable pace.
For Milo, it’s been the single biggest difficulty of building during COVID. Trying to build and sustain this bubble without the benefit of a physical space and separation to rely on. Constant interruption that makes it hard to do any work, let along Building the Future work. Endlessly coming in and out of the bubble - housed in a tiny office off the kitchen, pulled out mid-thought, mid-vision constantly by kids, news, reality.
Even with a small early team of 5 incredible people it was hard to have us all constantly living in the same future. Iterating, taking in new info and incorporating it collectively. Instead it resembled more a game of telephone. And over time that just slows everything down. Makes the barrier more permeable. More tenuous. Harder to see clearly day in and day out.
So, what then, is one to do, if you don’t have cofounders or a physical space that everyone works from?
Well then, you have to overcompensate. Do everything you can to build and live in your Future Field for as many hours in the day as possible. Visual cues. Physical artifacts. Digital dashboards.
Do what you can to have the founding team spend as much time together in the earliest months as possible. In fact, I’d go so far as to say: really evaluate if it’s the right founding team if you can’t be spending at least 4 days a week together in long stretches of 10 hours a day in the first month. At least until you get to a clearer idea of what it is you’re making and how and you’ve built up a durable Future Field around each of you.
Create artifacts for the team - t-shirts, laptop stickers, bags. Whatever keeps that shared vision front and center. Make visual aids - posters, customer quotes, slack channels. Build a digital dashboard that everyone loads up with key metrics first thing, instead of the screen on the wall you might have had when walking into the office. Celebrate milestones. Instead of shared cake in an office for birthdays, DoorDash treats to enjoy together.
The bottom line is: your job is to live in the future and build what’s missing. And that is done by building a space for the Future to live in, 24/7.
Inventing the future is the most incredible job I could ever imagine. There is magic and purpose and hope.
But it’s also incredibly lonely. And gruelling. And slow.
So find your way to building a Future Distortion Field. One that lives and breathes via you and eventually grows to live on its own.
It’s the best way I know to do the incredibly disorienting work of building in the future while living in the present.
Thanks for reading 10,000 ways! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.