There are two ways to think about a multi-decade-long project, like building a company or growing a personal body of work.
The first way is to maximize value being created today. I describe this as building an earning machine. In this approach, you make decisions based on how much value you can pull out of your work. The most important thing is how much money or value your work can earn you. If you’re working on a side project, it’s important whether that side project can generate some revenue, and how much. If you’re building a company, you want to scale up and grow quickly. If you build something large enough that grows quickly enough, the thinking goes, it’ll probably last for a long time.
The second way is to invest in building something that can last the test of time, and continue to be valuable forever. In this approach, you are investing into an asset. The most important thing in this approach is not how much money or value you can pull out of the system now, but longevity – for how long, and how reliably, the value of whatever you create will hold.
In the first approach of building an earning machine, the value comes mostly from scale. An earning machine is valuable because it creates lots of value and earns lots of value in return, whether in money or popularity. In the second approach of building a long-term asset, the value comes from scarcity, and the fact that scarcity allows you to be unreasonably focused on quality.
Both approaches are valid ways of building something valuable and impactful.
We can compare the first “earning machine” approach to mass-market brands, and the second “asset” approach to luxury brands. Mass market brands used by hundreds of millions of people are optimized for scale and accessibility. They are valuable because they are big, and in reaching for that scale, they sacrifice some level of quality. This is partly because the price of quality is high (it costs a lot to make a luxury good), and partly because manufacturing hundreds of millions of things that all live up to a luxury standard of quality is extremely difficult. Luxury brands worry much less about scale. Their value comes from the quality of their craft. Ferrari and Chanel and Pagani aren’t as concerned about how many people can experience their work, and that scarcity affords them the money and time they need to reach for a much higher level of craftsmanship than mass-market products.
One interesting thing about these brands that define the upper echelon of luxury is that most of them trace their origins back to builders and craftspeople, rather than businesspeople. Very often, the brands bear the namesake of their progenitors – Enzo Ferrari, Coco Chanel, Horacio Pagani. It’s not hard to imagine that brands that began from the hands of expert builders (of cars, clothing, or whatever else) prioritize the quality of their craft more than brands built as enterprises. I think this different in priority for these brands comes partly from the attitude of their founders, and partly from the business culture that surrounds them.
I’ve wondered for a long time about what ultimately sets the products of these luxury brands apart. They aren’t always more aesthetically perfect, and are not always made of better materials – these are all matters of taste. But I think what sets these works apart, what defines craftsmanship, is the amount of love that went into producing the final product. Love is a fundamental ingredient of high-quality, well-crafted works and products. With it, we can build scarce assets that hold value over time.
When we make something we care about, and we put in the time to labor over every decision and detail, I think the end products come to bear unmistakable marks of that love. Creative process is full of uncertainty and setbacks and burdens that the maker must bear through. We often call the shadow of this shouldered burden “craftsmanship” or “attention to detail”. I think it’s these details, regardless of the particulars of fashion or taste, that define craftsmanship.
From the perspective of a maker, your ultimately scarce resource is the love and care you can put into your craft. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many hours I can put into making my work bear the marks of my love, and that makes these works of quality inherently valuable.
Love, I think, is also the necessary ingredient of any truly great long-term project. Whether you’re engineering a particular software feature, building a community, or designing a dress, over and over I’ve seen that there is no replacement for simply caring more than everybody else, and pouring your love into that process of creation.
There are two, related mindsets about creative craft here:
- Treat a multi-decade project as a process of building a long-lasting asset rather than simply a way to get the most value at any given moment
- Create something of unreasonable quality by investing your love into the craft
More and more, I find myself missing these two related mindsets in the world of technologists building with computers. I firmly believe, even in a world dominated by giant corporations of planet-spanning scale, there is a place in the market and in our hearts for things crafted with love poured into the labor of making something well-made and scarce, something unreasonably great. I think this approach ultimately leads us to build projects, communities, and companies that are not simply earning machines, but products of our care that last the test of time – things that are valuable because they are good, rather than good because they are valuable.
This is also how I’m choosing to think of the long-term project that is my portfolio of projects and writing. I don’t view any particular project as a way to build something that grows fast or sells for lots of money. I just want to build many, small, well-made things that bear the marks of my love, that serve as evidence that I cared about the quality of what came from my own hands. And in the end, I want to be able to look back on the whole thing and find it valuable because it is good, because of the hours I spent laboring over the particulars of my words and the pixels of my designs. Valuable, and lasting, because it is made of love.
Thanks to Chris Paik, Karina Nguyen, and Bat Manson for sharing some nuggets of ideas that inspired parts of this post.
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