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An Unexpected Ass Kicking

14 August 2012
Russell Kirsch and Joel Runyon

Want to mess with your mind? Without the man in the photo, the photo of this man wouldn’t exist. *mind blown* (Photo by Joel Runyon, licensed CC-BY-3.0)

Joel Runyon walks into a coffee shop and has an encounter with living history:

I sat down at yet-another coffee shop in Portland determined to get some work done, catch up on some emails and write another blog post.

About 30 minutes into my working, an elderly gentleman at least 80 years old sat down next to me with a hot coffee and a pastry. I smiled at him and nodded and looked back at my computer as I continued to work.

[The old man strikes up a conversation with Joel. Eventually the old man says:]

“That’s the problem with a lot of people”, he continued, “they don’t try to do stuff that’s never been done before, so they never do anything, but if they try to do it, they find out there’s lots of things they can do that have never been done before.”

The old man turned out to be Russell Kirsch, the inventor of the first internally programmable computer and the creator of the first digital photo (which was a cute baby picture, of course). The whole article is amazing, charming, and humbling, all at the same time. Read the follow-up article too. The core of the encounter is this exchange:

At some point in the conversation, I mentioned to him:

“You know Russell, that’s really impressive.”

“I guess, I’ve always believed that nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do. Most people think the opposite – that all things are withheld from them which they have conceived to do and they end up doing nothing.”

“Wait”, I said, pausing at his last sentence ”What was that quote again?”

“Nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do.”

That’s good, who said that?

God did.


God said it and there were only two people who believed it, you know who?

Nope, who?

God and me, so I went out and did it.

Wow. As Joel Runyon says at the end of his post, time to step it up.

[I’ve categorized this post as Advertising-Promotion for a reason, if that bothers you, skip the rest and go read the articles in the links above.]

  • Nothing is withheld from us which we have conceived to do.
  • Do things that have never been done.

I’m not usually one for inspirational stuff (I have despair.com posters on my wall, not motivational ones), but this story and those two statements perfectly capture why I quit my job two weeks ago to create a technology start up company in digital publishing. I gave up a well-paying job working for a good friend because I want to do something that’s never been done. Thanks to PG and the wonderful community of commenters here, I came up with an idea, a way to use technology to enable professional writers to earn professional scale money.

At first, I couldn’t believe that it had never been done before, but it hasn’t. I’m not a genius, just a corporate IT drone with a love of books. But, then, Gutenberg was just a metalsmith who combined a 1300 year old device (a screw press), a really ancient idea (his first movable type was probably created much like cuneiform), and a completely new version of an existing product (an oil-based ink because the existing ink types weren’t suitable for his new machine). By putting those three things together, he revolutionized the world. I don’t claim to be the new Gutenberg, but I see ways to use existing technologies to do more than just put money in Jeff Bezos’ pocket. Not that there is anything wrong with putting money in Jeff Bezo’s pocket, indeed, an indirect effect of my success might be putting more money in his pocket.

My real goal is to increase the total amount of joy in this world. Seriously. I think the only two goals worth pursuing are increasing joy or decreasing suffering. My wife is a physician and she gets to decrease suffering personally on a day to day basis. When you work in IT like I do, decreasing suffering is difficult (removing the suffering caused by other IT people really doesn’t count, in my book). I have decided that the best way for me to increase joy is to enable more people to read stories they love. And the way to do that is to enable storytellers to make a living as storytellers. To that end, I’ll be building some new tools and technologies that will allow writers to reach more readers, make more money, and focus on storytelling rather than the minutia of file formats and marketing. I’m excited and I think some of the folks here will be too when they see what I have in mind.
Guest post by William Ockham


15 Comments to “An Unexpected Ass Kicking”

  1. Love your goals. Those are the ones that lead to great things. Bravo for your bravery, and good luck with your whole enterprise!!

  2. I love your blog! And this post was excellent. Thanks for sharing it. It’s exactly what I needed to hear today as I fret over whether ideas for my current WIP are too “out there”.

  3. Whoa, what a quote!

  4. The follow-up article by Joel is also great.

    I really like the Don’t Stop Creating and Don’t Complain-Fix it Yourself lessons. Two great things to apply to life.

  5. Can’t wait to see what you do! I’ve been looking at the open source software that runs the AO3 because it is SO awesome for writers – ways to publish stories, chapters of stories, serialized stories – with easy options for downloading in multiple formats. But it’s still in beta and there is no way to monetize it (which was never part of the mission for it anyway), and I’d have to do an install myself on my own server and…yeahhhh, not so much.

    We def. need better tools out there!

  6. Great post!

    Tweeted, Liked, bookmarked, and followed.

  7. Wonderful post – and I’m quite interested in what you’re doing, too. Any dates yet on when we can expect anything?

  8. If you need a local guinea pig for the new project, let me know, William. 😀

    • Will do!

    • I should get you in touch with Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine. He revolutionized the short fiction submission process for magazines, first by starting with his own. He’d probably be a good person to beta test anything as well, as he’s a small press publisher.

      I can beta test for you if you’d like, also.

  9. We all, most of us anyway, have your back. Fair winds and following seas, William.

  10. I’ve lurkedly enjoyed your comments here for a while, William, and I loved this post in particular. My husband is a developer in Silicon Valley and I just emailed him the link. He’ll get a kick out of it. You never know who’s sipping his or her coffee right next to you.

    Serious congratulations on quitting your job. I did something similar (twice, actually) and it was the best thing(s) I ever did. Carpe the diem, all the best, and I hope to see whatever you’ve got in mind!

  11. This is sooo inspirational!

  12. Thank you for relaying such a great story and I wish you the best with your own project.

    Just added this blog to my Twitter feed as well 🙂

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