Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor

“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians…”

–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

We were days away from closing a fresh fundraising round when our CFO pulled me aside to tell me the company did not have enough cash to cover the next payroll run.

“Never miss payroll” is the most uncontroversial of all the startup advice out there. We held this hard-and-fast rule in mind and used our gross payroll figure as a fixed expense in forecasts. Black-and-white issues are rare in startups, yet once you get down to practice, you find that even this simple advice is not so black-and-white.

We called an urgent meeting of the executive team to discuss our cash emergency. The solution we came up with was for everyone on the management team to take a drastic pay cut, but leave all other employee salaries the same, allowing payroll to squeak through at just under our current cash balance. A week later we closed our round and soon things returned back to normal.

So, were we faithful followers of the startup maxim? Did we still “make payroll,” even though several management employees got paid less than their usual wage?

Even if you answer in the positive, the best you could say is something like “Yeah, you made payroll, but…” It’s not 100% clear cut. We only just made payroll because we redefined what it meant to make payroll, and shifted some atoms in the world (that month’s salary calculations) to make the outcome “Did employees get paid?” come out true.

In the annals of entrepreneurship, this tale is a dime a dozen. Every entrepreneur worth their salt can relate with a story of their own company’s near-death experience. In fact, because this story is so common, I believe it sheds light on the defining skill set of entrepreneurship.

Just as emotional labor is arguably the foundation of work in the service industry, I posit that the shared work domain of entrepreneurs the world over is one of metaphysical labor.

True or False or Something In-Between

Through most of history, metaphysics has been considered a rather useless subject. But as Elijah Millgram argues in his wonderful book, Hard Truths, this may have less to do with the actual content of the theories and more to do with our expectations of them.

Millgram explains that most metaphysical theories base themselves, implicitly or explicitly, on two related doctrines: first, arguments are valid so long as they preserve truth and second, what he calls the bivalence doctrine.

The first doctrine, validity as truth preservation, worships deductive inference as the almighty standard for eliciting valid theories. It says that a valid argument is one in which you start with a true statement, then proceed to make inferences from that statement which preserve its truth. Done faithfully, you should end up with a valid argument. Yet most of what we do in common, everyday reasoning is take statements which might be false and use them to produce an argument which still has a practical purpose (or some truth to it) in the real world.

An example would be the statement “he is an addict.” While it may not be entirely true the first time it’s used, adopting this partial truth may lead to early treatment and recovery, avoiding a future diagnosis of full-on addiction.

The second doctrine, the bivalence doctrine, presupposes that truth is all-or-nothing: statements and beliefs are either flat-out true or flat-out false. Instead, Millgram argues that most of the time we have statements that are only partially true: true ceteris paribus, or only to a certain extent.

Claims like “the sky is blue” or “bitcoin is based on blockchain technology” are only true in a very vague sense. Unpack them, and you find that the sky appears blue to us due to quirks in physics and human biology — it might appear a different color to your dog; and to say that bitcoin is based on blockchain technology is to miss out on the great number of different things which make up the full story of what’s going on (SHA-256 hashing, Merkle Trees, Proof-of-Work algorithms, p2p systems, public/private key cryptography, etc).

The combination of these doctrines, which lie at the kernel of so much work that’s gone on in metaphysics, severely restrict the applicability of metaphysics to our common experience. By instead adopting partial truth and allowing for it to be deployed in valid arguments, we can look at metaphysics with a new light.

Metaphysics as Intellectual Ergonomics

This new take on metaphysics brings it out of the ivory tower and shows us how we practice forms of it everywhere in our daily life. Millgram’s thesis is that “[w]hen it’s done right, metaphysics is intellectual ergonomics.” Traditional ergonomics asks what shape a chair should take in order to encourage good posture, while according to Millgram:

“Metaphysics which crystallizes around partial-truth inference will (or ought to) ask what partially true characterizations of the world we have to adopt, for it to be possible to think about it.”

This approach is used regularly in math and engineering fields. A physics problem might ask a student to compute the gravitational pull between a cow and a nearby blade of grass. To come up with a solution, the student treats the cow as a homogeneous sphere of matter, even though this is only a “partially true characterization” of the cow.

To see this process at work in entrepreneurship, try these remixes of Millgram’s definition:

Practical entrepreneurship asks what partially true characterizations of the world we have to adopt for it to be possible to __________.

  • start a company
  • survive another day
  • make payroll

In my opening story about our company’s cash emergency, we asked ourselves what the hard-and-fast rule “always make payroll” really meant. We sought the idea-behind-the-idea, what philosophers call the intension, of making payroll. In our new reframing, all that mattered was that non-management employees got their full paychecks.

While powerful, this technique is often abused. The problem is that if you’re 100% based on this process, you’re just jumping from approximation to approximation, idealization to idealization. This is why it’s so easy for entrepreneurs to be posers or eke into rationalization, self-delusion, and lying — they’re not actually creating any new truths in the world, just more partially true idealizations.

Entrepreneurship as Applied Metaphysics

“Bivalence does not happen by itself: it is engineered, [and when it is necessary] we will normally find changes made, not merely to concepts (or other items in our mental or linguistic inventories), but to the world – changes whose point is to produce bivalence.”

-Elijah Millgram, Hard Truths

We’ve shown partial truth can be useful, but there are many cases where we need certainty about whether something is bivalent (exactly true or false). The United States’ economy would collapse if we could only vaguely tell who owned your house — we’ve come to depend on certainty around questions of property ownership.

If we need more true statements on this earth, the place to get to work is not in our mental constructs, but in the real, physical world. The vast majority of true statements about our world are true because we physically changed something to make them true, not the other way around. Millgram uses the example of a Honda Civic:

“For many, many reasons, it is important for the question, ‘Is it a Honda Civic’, to be easily and unequivocally answerable. And so, Honda Civics are made that way. Honda tools up its factories to manufacture cars that are easily distinguishable from cars of other makes and models…The problem of the bivalence of thoughts about Honda Civics has a very tangible solution: not to change one’s beliefs – or not to change one’s beliefs alone – but to build a factory: to change the world.”

Millgram is adamant about this: truth and bivalence do not come for free. Most of the bivalent truths we take for granted are concerned with artifacts made by people. Whether it’s money, time, or property ownership, we employ bivalent statements in these domains thanks to invented artifacts — see our inventions of currency, timekeeping, and government recordkeeping.

An entrepreneur’s actions create newly bivalent truths in the world when they weren’t there already. They may create this bivalence in the beginning of their project as part of their founding secret, as for example Google’s choice to use a network science-based approach to ranking search results. Even though Google was in the same vague market as everyone else, search engines, they made a distinction in their approach which resulted in a much better product.

More often, a new business lacks distinctions in the beginning and has only vague descriptions of its market or product. In such cases the entrepreneur works, usually through trial-and-error, to find the precise implementations of their business which make their idea a reality. Millgram calls this refinement process precisification.

A major source of uncertainty around any startup comes from the fact that its proper precisifications are hidden in the unknowable future. It takes hard work and costly effort to get the precisifications right, and the world may not be ready to supply the distinctions and truths you hoped for. Faced with conflicting forces that do not yield to the entrepreneur’s vision, some entrepreneurs may decide it’s just a problem they should throw money at.

A great story of how this approach can waste millions of dollars and still fail is told in Bruno Latour’s book, Aramis, or the Love of Technology. It tells the history of a Personal Rapid Transit system that was developed for the Paris metro area during the ‘70s and ‘80s but never launched. From Millgram:

“The lesson Latour draws from Aramis’s failure is that the workability of any realistically large project involving precisification of this kind depends on one’s ability to give up the truths fixed by one’s initial, still-very-vague description.

“It is not just that we do not know what the precisifications are; it is that, before producing them, we don’t know what it would be to be a precisification of ‘Aramis.’ …there was almost always someone on hand insisting that the proposed specification was no longer really Aramis.” (emphasis added)

The engineers and designers behind Aramis were so stubborn as to “what Aramis is” that when faced with political, engineering or technological obstacles, they insisted that it was those other elements that needed to change. They doomed the project with their inflexibility and over-specified plans.

Contrast this with a recent example I saw in my Twitter feed:

In response to regulations that threatened their business, this bar owner didn’t give up on their location or try to overturn the rules. They sought a more precise understanding of the rules and discovered that they applied only in one respect — walking distance. Then they rearranged the physical space around their bar to make their compliance come out true.

This is real entrepreneurship: a kind of metaphysical judo with just enough action in the physical world to get the result.

True Enough for Startup Work

“Epistemology has been preoccupied for far too long with trundling out one analysis of knowledge after another, where it should instead be devoting at least as much time as the game theorists do to coming up with new success concepts.”

-Elijah Millgram, Hard Truths

Real entrepreneurship happens somewhere in a Goldilocks zone of not too flexible and not too stubborn. Play around with idealizations solely in your head and you’re just an entrepreneur-in-theory, a metaphysical entrepreneur. Insist that the world change itself to conform to your truth and you’re just a bureaucrat, wasting time and money to make changes that get nobody anywhere.

Because it’s expensive to force bivalence onto the world, great entrepreneurs find ways to make the smallest changes that result in the biggest difference. They are cognizant of what it is to be true enough in any given circumstance. For instance:

  • The features in our minimum viable product are true enough to sell to our first client, we don’t need to develop more.
  • The size and growth of opportunities in this niche market are true enough to warrant investment, we don’t need to spend further on research.
  • My lifestyle business is true enough for my needs, I don’t want to raise money and expand.

In an ideal world, a company starts with vague descriptions in a slide deck, then evolves more precise truths according to what’s needed in the context of the entrepreneur’s goals. If everything goes well then your truths have all cylinders firing and “anyone in the business can take a real vacation without everything going to hell.

Before that stage, however, early stage startups are a game of survival. You’re trying to get from quarter-to-quarter, seed round to Series A, and most often you need only find answers that are true enough to let you survive another day.

This is why persistence is such great advice for new entrepreneurs. It forces them to ask “what needs to be true about the world so that we’re still around tomorrow, or in 6 months?” Usually, the answer has something to do with revenue and cash-in-the-bank.

The Creation of Truths

“If truth is a piece of intellectual apparatus that we are always in the process of articulating further, then the philosophical problem of truth isn’t just a discovery problem: it’s an invention problem.”

-Elijah Millgram, Hard Truths

Great entrepreneurs specify the right things early on, while the best entrepreneurs leave the right things vague forever.

Jeff Bezos provides an excellent example of this in his most recent shareholder letter. By focusing Amazon on being a “customer-centered company,” Bezos uses a vague phrase for which the precise specification can be created and re-discovered as long as the company is around. This encourages the most creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship by Amazon employees in every future decision.

Philosophers of metaphysics have straitjacketed their field by insisting that truth comes in only one flavor. All the while, for centuries we’ve had another class of practicing metaphysicians who adopted a partial truth version of events. We’ve called these people entrepreneurs.

There’s no reason to limit the practice of entrepreneurship to founders or businesspeople. We are all born into a vague, underspecified universe in which we struggle with partial truths.

If you find some truth to this and wish to grow your own entrepreneurial capacity, I recommend three things:

  1. Treat more truth as partial
  2. If the world doesn’t give you the bivalence you seek, make your own
  3. Above all, persist: find and create the truths that let you survive another day

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  1. This is great, and I’m surprised not much has been said about this before. A few responses in no particular order.

    1. I’d argue that property ownership is NOT bivalent. A NIMBY-owned house in SF, bound by all sorts of regulations around buying and selling, and tenant’s rights, rent control etc. is hardly a black and white absolute sovereignty thing. I’d take the extreme position that there are no bivalent truths. Not even the state of a logic gate — if you look at the details of transistor design, you’ll see all sorts of can-of-worm issues around edge triggering, thresholds, etc. defining a “bit”.

    2. I think Karl Weick’s paper What Theory is Not, Theorizing Is makes the same point with respect to traditional management. It’s one of my ur references in my consulting work, and in fact I reference it on my main consulting page for expectation setting. I could even define the “sparring” model of consulting I follow as metaphysical workouts.

    3. Your argument made me think of a Teilhard de Chardin aphorism, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
    That could be snowcloned as “We are not entrepreneurs doing metaphysical labor. We are metaphysicians doing entrepreneurial labor.”

    4. The dark side of this is well worth exploring/thinking about, when motivated reasoning and bad-faith win out over a sincere effort to get to value via partial truths. When you resolve partial truths in a self-serving way, obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the underlying metaphysical intension, you get into trouble. That path-to-the-bar is a borderline case. If you think the original law is silly, then the resolution is good metaphysics — gets to the “truth” about alcohol laws and around their hypocrisies. But if you think alcohol regulation is a good thing (and there are reasons it might be in a Kerala due to weird economic conditions), then this is bad metaphysics.

    • 1) Yes, I tend to agree with you and come down on the side of there being no such thing as 100% hard truth – it’s all a matter of degree and context. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, infinitesimals, and quantum theory all support a version of this perspective in my mind.

      As more evidence of our shared bias, this was one of the diagrams I was toying with for illustrating the differences in partial & full truth: http://imgur.com/a/G58LZ

      I tried to make “full truth = full container” at first, but I couldn’t really support it.

      2) Great paper, very apropos.

      3) Heh, I was really tempted to go further down a path like this and call out this version of “entrepreneuring” as something at play in all kinds of creative work. Makes me curious for what the first instance of it would have been in our ancestors, commercial or otherwise.

      4) Absolutely, good point about the bar being a borderline case.

  2. Ribbonfarm strikes again. This piece has spawned a lot of different insights and connections. I figured I’d write them down here rather than keep them to myself this time.

    1. Fox/Hedgehog, Weasel, and Cactus Entrepreneurs

    “Real entrepreneurship happens somewhere in a Goldilocks zone of not too flexible and not too stubborn. Play around with idealizations solely in your head and you’re just an entrepreneur-in-theory, a metaphysical entrepreneur. Insist that the world change itself to conform to your truth and you’re just a bureaucrat, wasting time and money to make changes that get nobody anywhere.”


    2. Bezos, The Master Wizard

    Here, I make a slightly weird comment:

    I recently finished reading “The Everything Store.” I now believe that Bezos is probably endowed with some kind of magical power. I kept seeing him as one of those characters from the Final Fantasy games slowly summoning a giant monolith (Amazon) out of a parallel universe that only he had access to.

    Its always nice when you read something that gives you a clarifying vocabulary to apply to vague thoughts. I now better understand his incantation: it is a continuous string of partial truths (and it is still going).

    I think you’re spot on with your claim that “great entrepreneurs leave the right things vague forever.” I haven’t read the most recent Amazon shareholder letter, but I’ve heard from second hand references that it is full of metaphysical labor tips. Bezos seems to have a handful of vague principles (“focus on what doesn’t change,” “obsess over the customer,” “control the primitives,” etc.) that allow him to orient towards future disruption with extreme effectiveness, without having some uptopian vision of the future anchor his thinking (see: Elon Musk). His effort is more Odyssean than Herculean.

    3. Truth and Winning

    I really like how this article quietly replaces the word “effective” with the word “true” (at least that’s my reading of it). For example:

    “The features in our minimum viable product are true [effective?] enough to sell to our first client, we don’t need to develop more.”

    The replacement brings into stark relief the objective of any successful business: to first place itself within the existing mental framework of the population and then to slowly alter that framework until it is firmly established as an aspect of the population’s reality. In other words, as you’ve described, in order to be effective, an entrepreneur must create new truths.

    I feel like there may be some pretty sobering rabbit holes to chase down here, but I don’t want to spend my Sunday doing that. It does bring to mind an article I read recently about how Machine Learning algorithms may be enlightened Daoist sages: https://backchannel.com/our-machines-now-have-knowledge-well-never-understand-857a479dcc0e

    4. An Interesting Character

    Lastly, there is an entrepreneur I’ve been following named Gary Vaynerchuk. I think this video he put out resonates with this article: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liO5saLKxSM.

    I think he represents a very interesting and quite rare type of person: the a-intellectual philosopher. The kind of guy who never bothered with books or conventional education, but is able generate penetrating insights around certain difficult subjects.

    He puts out a lot of material. He’s probably “differently free” from much of the more contemplative Ribbonfarm readership which might make him worth following.

    That’s all I’ve got for now. Sorry if its a bit all over the place. I really enjoyed reading your article. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it in the future.

  3. I curate a weekly list of links to recent content that should be of interest to project managers and such folk. To that end, I read about 150 or so articles, blog posts, and news bloviations each week, and I’ve probably gotten just a bit jaded. That said, I’ve read this and saved it to Pocket, so I can read it again.

    Well done.

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