Holding a creative vision as a moral principle

August 24, 2019 · 2 min read

One of the best talks I’ve heard in my life, and one of the few I have ever re-watched, is “Inventing on Principle” by Bret Victor. It’s about what it means guide your work and life by a creative vision that you hold so strongly and see so clearly that it becomes almost a moral principle.

When you hold a vision this strongly, you don’t feel a deviation from it as an “opportunity for value-creation”. You feel it as an injustice. Your response is not excitement for a chance to apply your skills, but rather a responsibility to right a wrong.

For me there is a deep paradox here.

On the one hand, I find this tremendously inspiring. I love this conception of the strength of conviction and the deep passion with which one can hold a creative vision. Not just a social or political ideal, as Victor points out, but an idea in science, technology or business.

On the other hand, how can it truly be a moral principle? It isn’t literally an injustice when software violates some usability rule. (If it were, we would shun or jail the people who did it.) And further, I believe in holding a worldview that is fundamentally positive, optimistic, opportunity-based, and progress-focused. In my experience, most people who lament the state of the world are not crusaders but merely complainers. Any in any case, I don’t believe in anger as a way of life.

My resolution to the paradox is that it’s not literally about morality. It’s about having a vision of what is possible in the future that is so clear to you that it has the cognitive and emotional force of the living present, and therefore becomes the standard against which reality is judged.

There is a trap here: if your vision departs from reality itself, it could become an abstract ideal, like something from Plato’s world of Forms, doomed to failure in implementation (if it is a technological or business idea—or far worse, if it is a political idea). But if your vision is ultimately grounded in reality—if it represents a deep insight and a fundamental truth—then maybe this view is what is needed to make it happen. Because making it happen requires a Herculean effort and heroic dedication over decades of work—work, setbacks, attacks, and ridicule.

What can sustain you across all of that? What can keep you going? Can it be done purely on the basis of optimism and positivity? In the modern world, with all of its comforts, with restaurants and concerts and beaches and Netflix—can anyone fight such a battle just to pursue an opportunity?

Maybe, to keep making breakthroughs, the world needs crusaders. Maybe it needs anger.

Not all the time. I still believe it’s no way to live your life. But if you want to create something great, maybe you should strive for a vision that has at least a tinge of this view.

Watch the talk—it will be one of the best hours you have ever invested. (And then check out the rest of Bret Victor’s work.)

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