On ownership

17 July 2020
17 Jul 2020
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

We generally understand that it’s better to own things that are important to us, rather than to lease or borrow them. Ownership usually means more control, and sometimes the ability to own something also signals a degree of wealth or pedigree.

But I think ownership has a secondary benefit that we don’t pay attention to as much in the moment. Ownership implies that we have control over the thing we own over its future, through the rest of its lifetime. The owner has control over the owned thing today, but more importantly, the owner has control over it in the indefinite future. This turns out to be pretty powerful.

Future ownership – ownership over something’s destiny – means that we don’t have to prepare against the possibility of losing access to what we own. When we own the future of something, we can make deep, long-term investments into it with the expectation that we’ll continue to own them and reap the benefits of our investments. In owning something’s destiny, we are absolved from searching for alternatives, and granted the freedom to think and plan for long time horizons.

Entrepreneurship is about ownership. A common rebuttal to the risky nature of entrepreneurship is that starting a solo business or a company is actually a safer career move than being employed. Of course, that’s not true on face. Starting a new business has outsized risk. What people really mean by the safety of entrepreneurship is that once you own a business that’s up and running, you have control over its destiny. You, as the owner, decide where to invest, where to take it next, and when to walk away, if at all. Speaking with business owners is sometimes surprising for me because many of them will discuss making investments into their work thinking years and decades into the future, while most salaried employees, especially in tech, think of growth in terms of constant displacement: moving around every few years.

Learning to code, for me, is also about ownership, in two ways. First, in 2020, software is inexplicably a globally lucrative and in-demand career path. Learning to code means owning your career a little bit more, because the world needs more software authors every year. Second, and more important for me, software allows me to build the tools I use to run my life, the way I want them to work. Software is modern-day architecture. In the physical world, the architecture of spaces we occupy – the homes, offices, and public parks – fundamentally influence our lives. As we spend more time in the cyberspace, the architecture of the software spaces we occupy – websites, apps, services – also form the bedrock of our lives. As much as possible, I’d like to be the one making decisions about the digital spaces in which I spend my life, and being able to code lets me do that, by letting me write my own tools and services. More of my life is in my hands when I can write software.

There’s one other benefit of owning the software services that drive my life. Without a doubt, the most valuable things I have these days is my data. My archive of notes, documents, photographs and music, todo lists, contacts, calendars – these collectively make up my external brain and my identity, which is the last thing I want to lose. I want to own data like this as wholly as I physically can. Storing them through online software services or apps are convenient, but I never know when a third-party notes app is going to run out of funding and shut down, or if a todo list or music app I use is going to pivot and stop caring about me as a user. These days, nearly every piece of data I own is stored and backed up on services and systems that I control from the operating system up. This might be a bit of an extreme position to take, but I’m happy I own my data at such a deep level, because I’m confident it’ll be there for a long time to come.

Writing and building on my own website, like this, is about ownership. When I have an idea, or a story to tell, or a tool I want to build, not only do I want to get it out into the world, I want to ensure that it’s available to the world for as long as possible. I want to decide who can read my writing, and in what kind of a place they read it. I wrote on Google Blogger when I first started out, then on Medium briefly for the convenience. But I never felt like I truly owned my writing there, because I didn’t really have control over the future of my work or how it was presented. I could never predict when Medium would whisk you away to someone else’s article after you were done with mine, or if it would block half of your screen with an annoying promotion. And I certainly couldn’t tell whether Medium would survive for decades into the future, and who it would be serving then. My website is my turf, and I control it top to bottom. That ownership gives me the confidence to write and build for the future.

Shared across these decisions of mine is my belief that we need to own something to be able to invest confidently in its future, whether it’s our work, our livelihood, or our digital environment. Owning something is an act of investment by itself – it takes more time and effort to own or purchase something outright, but we do it because we hope it’ll pay off in the long run.

The converse of this is also true. We can also use the investment-worthiness of something to gauge how important it is for us to own something at various points in our lives. Which things are we ready to make long-term investments in?

What are the most important things that influence your outlook into the future? Is it important that you’re able to make long-term bets on those parts of your life?

If your answer is yes, you should aim to own them; whether in the economic sense, with money changing hands; or in the more philosophical sense, by finding a way to have a stake in its destiny.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Software is architecture.

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