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unicorns by Vincent H. '23

big confusion

i. in the business world, a unicorn is a startup with a valuation of over one billion dollars. this says very little about the internals of the company – there are many examples of unicorns with almost zero revenue (apna’s estimated revenue was ~2mil/year when its valuation hit 1bil) or which have never come close to profitability (doordash loses a few hundred million dollars per quarter). valuation is a subjective number determined by investors and venture capitalists, and it is only meant to serve as a rough estimate of a company’s expected value in the distant future

people can be unicorns too. not in the business sense of the word, since, barring strange web3 schemes that try to tokenize people, individuals don’t have valuations or investors. but there are people where the general consensus is that they will have a “successful” future, even though success isn’t well-defined, and even if, like some unicorn companies, there isn’t much concrete evidence that their current trajectory will bring them “success”

i have often been feeling like a unicorn lately, and it’s not because i expect to be worth a billion dollars in the future. rather, what i mean is that people often tell me that i’m doing great or that they believe in me, but i have no idea why on earth they would think those things. i don’t have much to show for my time in college other than a smattering of low-impact projects and a lot of friends. i trust my ability to do exactly three things: read, write, and talk to people. every other skill i’ve supposedly demonstrated is not something i’m confident i can replicate – sure, maybe there was that one time where i worked on a cool website or came up with a good research idea or resolved a mental health problem, but if i’ve only done these things once or twice then how can i know i’ll be able to do them again when i need to?

last week one of my friends told me: it’s cool that you’ve explored so many different areas. you worked on biotech and crypto and psych. you can literally do anything you want after college. i wanted to cry after they said that, because it was such a break from how i’ve been viewing the world. how is it possible that when my friend looks at my life they conclude that i can do anything, yet when i look at my life i genuinely feel like i’m able to do nothing?


ii. i don’t think i suffer from imposters’ syndrome. my issue isn’t thinking that i’m worse than other people or that i don’t belong, but rather that i don’t believe in small sample sizes. i know i’ve done a few things which have been meaningful and significant, but lone data points never have the power to generalize, so i have a hard time believing that i’ll do anything meaningful or significant in the future

the problem is that i only get one life, so i will never have enough statistical evidence to prove anything substantial about myself. my crisis is a spiritual one, and i do not know where to find the confidence to resolve it. i’m reminded of this beautiful line from fight club: “We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”


iii. what does it mean to be a unicorn far from profitability? it means a company has a few impressive strengths (like user count or an excellent team) but also a few serious problems that it hasn’t solved yet (like distribution or monetization). it means that there are still important decisions up ahead, and some of the options will lead to extreme success while others will lead to continued unprofitability. the valuation is an average over all potential paths, but of course only one of these paths will ever be realized

i am trying to figure out what to do next year, but i do not have the foresight to understand which paths will lead to me rotting away and which paths will lead to me thriving. without realizing it i have acquired a lot of optionality, and now i am realizing how worthless and overvalued optionality is, because it must all be discarded soon, because all the options will soon collapse into one path anyway

that, by the way, is the only thing i’m sure of – that i will decide soon. i have no idea what i’ll decide on, but i won’t sit in front of the fig tree, struggling to decide on a fig to pick, while all the figs wither away. it is the one path i know to avoid at all costs


iv. recently i’ve been thinking about nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence as a way to keep my life in perspective:

“What if, some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence.’…

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?

Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!'”

i’m not sure what i want, but i know that i don’t want to throw myself down and gnash my teeth when i face this demon

based on my limited understanding of his writing, nietzsche believes the difference between people who despair and people who rejoice when confronted with eternal recurrence is not that one group has better lives than the other. rather, the difference is just that one group has the confidence to affirm their own life and to choose it over and over again, while the other group doesn’t. this is a kind of confidence that i have only ever seen a handful of times in my life, and i wonder where it comes from. it is a confidence that i could really use right now


v. i’ve known for a long time that i perceive other people very differently from how i perceive myself

when interacting with others, i utilize inference very freely. often within thirty minutes of meeting someone, i’ll have some good guesses as to their personality, what they care about, how i’d expect them to behave in different situations, and so on. those guesses aren’t always correct, but the point is that i allow myself to come to conclusions without worrying too much about rigor. for example, i enjoy inferring whether people like or dislike each other based on very limited evidence, and over the past year i’ve become pretty accurate in predicting when my friends will date or break up

and yet when it comes to myself, i refuse to make the same kinds of inferences. i demand justification and large sample sizes and proofs. i don’t trust that i’ve learned a subject until i’ve demonstrated repeated mastery over it, i don’t trust that i’ve changed until old habits are so long gone that my friends barely remember them, and so on. i am unwilling to jump to conclusions about myself, maybe because the stakes are higher or maybe because i’m more afraid of mischaracterizing myself than i am of mischaracterizing others. and as a result of all this aversion, my predictions for other peoples’ futures are often more accurate than my predictions for my own


vi. i am learning to care less about proofs and guarantees, and to embrace heuristics and induction. in other words, i am learning to develop a more fluid model of myself. the challenge is doing so in a way that isn’t confining or prescriptive, in making sure that whatever models i use for self-understanding don’t cement themselves and become self-fulfilling. i used to think such models were abstract and impractical, byproducts of people with too much time on their hands. now i believe they are indispensable

in struggling to decide what to do after college, i have realized that i don’t understand myself as well as i thought, and i’ve also realized that it is impossible to consistently make good decisions without a good understanding of myself. people who approach hard choices without knowing what they want usually end up adopting the values of the loudest voices in their lives, because those values are the metrics they best understand

for me some of those loud voices include the tech community (which values grinding on startups), my parents (who value financial security and favor going into finance), and academia (which values curiosity and working on interesting problems regardless of utility). in theory i could just pick one of these voices to listen to and probably do a good job of optimizing my life with respect to its value system, but that feels like doing myself a disservice. i have been procrastinating for a while now, and would much rather take the time to finally confront the question at the heart of the problem: what do i actually care about?

i don’t have an answer yet, but the video how to cook beans and resist dread has given me a lot of comfort lately:

“…think about how really you’re just sort of a flesh worm with limbs. How there’s a tube that goes through the middle of you, just like there is for many other animals. Perhaps you should be a bit more forgiving of yourself, you know, given that you’re literally a mammal.

Like, you’re basically an advanced squirrel… Of course you get scared and don’t know which way to turn in your life.”

i am an advanced squirrel working on a problem far more abstract and ill-defined than any task our brains have evolved to excel at. i suppose i should be more forgiving of myself