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It’s been a decade since the cover of Time magazine asked with a straight face, “Can Google Solve Death?” Spoiler: Entrepreneurs haven’t yet solved death. But longevity has become a unifying catalyst of entrepreneurial innovation. Big players in tech have entered the space — from Altos Labs and Google’s Calico to the decentralized crypto crowd including Balaji Srinivasan (former CTO of Coinbase).
Defeating death is more than a high-tech fantasy. Philosophers, doctors and artists have been fighting mortality for millenia. As Silicon Valley takes up their quest, what can we learn from those who’ve come before us?
I’m in a unique position to answer that question. As co-founder of Biograph, a social audio startup, I spend my days at the cutting edge of tech culture. But I also have a PhD in English Literature from Northwestern University. I cut my teeth studying philosophers and scientists like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) — the inventor of the scientific method — who spent much of his long career imagining how human life might be extended. I also studied writers like the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who meditated on the meaning — and shortness — of life.
Future-facing entrepreneurs and creators are reprising Bacon’s bold project, imagined over four centuries ago, to extend human life. But we still have much to learn about how to make life rich and valuable — worth extending indefinitely. Here’s some of what I’ve learned as both entrepreneur and scholar about how to thrive, instead of just surviving.
1. Quality over quantity
What’s the good of creating a life-prolonging pill if we haven’t found ways to make those years meaningful? No one wants to spend his or her old age drooling in a nursing home. Before we rush to prolong our lives, we should find ways to perfect the time we have.
Humankind has long been head-scratching over this — which gives us an advantage. We can learn from the great people who came before us what it means to live well, then apply those truths to entrepreneurial innovation. Two thousand years ago, Seneca recognized the problem we face today: “Our life is not short, but…we make it short.” In other words, we waste our time — and that makes our life feel shorter than it would if we took advantage of each moment. Fifteen hundred years later, Montaigne reaffirmed Seneca’s insight: “The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you.”
To increase the quantity of life without increasing its quality is putting the cart before the horse. Fortunately, entrepreneurs already have the skills to make better use of our time. To operate busineses, we must be good stewards of time, value quality over quantity and build lasting foundations so that we can scale gracefully and improve with age.
2. Renew yourself — and your company
In his quest to extend human life, Francis Bacon drew inspiration from the world around him — even ordinary things, like trees, appeared full of secrets about how to improve life. Seeing trees live for centuries, growing new branches and springing new leaves, Bacon reasoned that it must be possible for human beings to rejuvenate ourselves in the same way. We just need to discover how trees do it. It seems naïve now, but Bacon’s work contains useful lessons. Like long-living trees, we spread roots to weather storms; we branch out to evolve and reach greater heights.
Bootstrapping entrepreneurs want stability and expansion, but first we must survive recessions, competition, our own fears, technological limits — even time itself. Salesforce reports that just “10 per cent of all startups succeed, and the average lifespan of most new companies is approximately 20 months.” It seems crazy to worry about longevity under such pressures — you just want your company to survive the week!
Yet cultivating a longevity mindset can help you make it through present challenges. To survive, entrepreneurs must transcend the stagnant status quo and imagine better futures. Innovate or die, right? To survive, entrepreneurs must innovate; to innovate they must experiment.
For companies, longevity doesn’t mean blindly persisting in the way you’ve always done things — it means continuous evolution and experimentation. Trial and error are essential to an entrepreneur’s longevity. The longest standing companies haven’t survived because they never fail, but because they learn from mistakes to discover what works. Like the trees Bacon observed, they put out new branches and leaves, renewing themselves by growing and changing.
3. Live to tell the tale
What good is building a business if you kill yourself in the process? What good is a long life if you can’t share your experience with others?
In The Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon cited two key obstacles to gaining knowledge: Life is short, and people do a bad job collaborating with each other. “It is the duty and virtue of all knowledge,” he wrote, “to abridge the infinity of individual experience, as much as…truth will permit.” When individuals can “abridge” everything they know and experience into forms that simply and efficiently communicate with others, we all save time — time we can spend living, learning and creating the future.
We created Biograph for this reason: to empower people to create, access and share timeless stories, anecdotes, observations, and spontaneous moments of audiovisual brilliance. Our platform gives people the guidance, support and privacy needed to tell powerful stories — and makes it easy to share those stories with others. We’re not in the laboratory crafting a new wonder drug, but we’re shaping the longevity space as much as any biotech startup, extending lives by promoting collaborative art.
As I’ve written elsewhere, entrepreneurs should tell their stories proactively, in real time, not after they retire. Gathering and sharing your business adventures is about longevity more than legacy. Stories help us perfect the arts of living and entrepreneurship. Narratives establish continuity of values amid rapid technological progress. Storytelling can help you center yourself and make the most of your time.
Storytelling can help us build to last. It can help us live longer, better lives. Longevity promises collaboration between entrepreneurs, scientists and creators. We can break down the silos between medical fields; we can bring researchers and innovators together — yet only if we can share our stories, experiences and moments of inspiration.
Repeating the same thing and expecting new results is one mark of insanity. Yet just because we have not solved aging and death does not mean that we will not in the future. There are as many reasons to hope as there are to practice healthy skepticism. In the meantime, entrepreneurs can create companies and cultures that stand the tests of time. We can invest in the future as if we’ll live forever — while being resourceful with time as if every day may be our last.