While on the fundraising circuit for my new space company, Charter, I explained to a VC investor that my motivations for going through this absolute fucking ordeal of a journey as a Founder are, in no small part, driven by me having nearly died 4 times.
Harsh reminders of the fragility of our squishy, mortal beings make for outstanding lessons to make every single second of life count. We don’t have that much time. At all points, it’s almost certain that we have less than we think we do, especially with those we love.
I am not happy unless I am doing something worth my time, and I only consider my time well-spent when I am doing things that are verifiably impactful.
But that is a selfish way of looking at things, because I’m never just spending my own time - I’m also spending the time of every single person and creature I love who gets less time with me because I am away, pursuing one thing or another.
And in these past 10 years, none have paid a heavier price than my dogs.
Fleeting, like Fireflies
I have 4 dogs, all rescues. Their names are Zeus, Juno, Nicole, and Richie (you can tell which ones were named by my family and which ones came named). Here they are:
They are the most precious things in the world to me, bar none. I do have a clear favourite though, and that’s my dog, Zeus.
When I think of love, true and unconditional love in its purest, most sacred form, Zeus’ face appears in my mind. He has been my life’s greatest companion, and I cannot express with any degree of justice the depth of emotion or the sheer volume of my love for him.
I first met Zeus on a rainy September evening in 2009. I spent every single day with him, raising him myself when he was just a puppy. Even now, he will sometimes refuse to eat his dinner unless he’s handfed. That is the degree to which he has been spoiled.
But in April 2011, I discovered girls, and I spent the next 3 years doing the typical teenage boy thing, chasing after various different girls instead of noticing Zeus was getting older. Then I enlisted in the Army, and shortly after I got out, I went to law school in England.
By the time I was able to spend a proper, uninterrupted stretch of time with him again, he was already 10 years old.
The pandemic has been a small blessing, because it meant more time spent with him. Sure I did the space lawyer and startup things, but the great thing about working from home was that he was by my side the whole way. Even when I was speaking at the United Nations, he was still in the next room, happily sleeping.
But now I have moved to London, 7,000 miles away from my ageing best friend, to work on Charter. He is 13 this year. I know he’s not long for this world anymore. And yet, I keep stealing away more of his time with me.
Every day spent in service of Charter and the pursuit of smarter operational processes in the space industry is another day of my best friend’s life. I measure all of my time in dog-years. The perennial calculus I make on any given day, for any given task, is whether it is worth that much of Zeus’ life.
A pound of flesh, a sliver of time
We are (for the most part) loved by someone, perhaps even many someones. When we perform a task or pursue an idea, we are necessarily depriving those people of time with us. Not everyone can come along for the ride, and it’s never framed as a choice for them. I struggle to imagine the individual who consults every family member, friend, and/or erstwhile acquaintance on every single decision - whether to run to the store or clean the bathroom - because that would render life impossible.
And yet, our lives are not merely our own. Every second we spend on one thing is a second not spent with those we love, a second lost that we can never recover. Time does not stop for us upon the dawning of this realisation. We must continue forward with the horrifying knowledge that we are spending not just our lives, but the lives of those we love. We have less time than we think we do, but even scarcer than that is the amount of time we have left with those who matter to us.
We are always running against the clock - one must imagine Sisyphus breathless.
Laden upon our shoulders is the burden of questioning whether something is not just worth our time, but the collective time of all the people who are robbed of what could otherwise be spent on them. The cost of any fruitless endeavour can be measured in memories that never were, and loves that never fruited.
This is never more apparent than with a dog. While dogs are entirely capable of possessing distinct personalities (my mom calls Zeus a diva), they will generally not have rich inner lives. To Zeus, I am the greatest thing since sliced bread. His days when I am with him consist of lazing in bed with me, then getting up for a walk, then more lazing around, then another walk, some food interspersed here and there, and then finally back in bed to start the entire process all over again.
And when I am not there, he cannot understand why. He doesn’t care about Charter or the space industry or Startupland. He doesn’t know numbers, let alone cheque sizes or round allocations. He only knows that I am not home, that I am somewhere imperceptibly far away, too far for his waning eyesight but ever-vigilant nose to detect.
And he knows that it would be infinitely better if I were not.
Many’s the long night where I lie awake, questioning if any of what I am doing is worth the fact that I will not get this time with Zeus back. When I make decisions, I base them on whether they are worth me being away from my dog. In the plainest terms, I ask, “what am I spending my dog’s life on?”
I treasure him more than anything on Earth, so you know that it is a high threshold to surmount for me to deem something worthwhile. I cannot say conclusively that this model leads me to make good decisions, but at the very least I can say that the ones I make end up being generally satisfactory to me in that I can look back at them and find little issue with how I arrived at them.
Which really is the most we can hope for when we have to operate in environments of enormous uncertainty, at the virtual edges of innovation and progress, as we as founders are wont to do.
Time is the one currency we cannot make more of. It is freely given but only ever in limited quantities. Its value fluctuates, and its supply continually dwindles from day one. It is positive-sum, in that our failure to utilise it well will not deprive someone else of the opportunity it affords. Many of us, myself included, are prone to spending it recklessly. We cannot help it for the most part. We are cavalier with things we did not have to earn.
We do not necessarily owe our time to others, but neither does that necessarily mean that others are not deserving of it. Corollary to that, that they are deserving of it does not guarantee them access to it. A clinical researcher may find a critical cure for an illness but miss their daughter’s fifth birthday. And though in so doing they ensure that many sets of eyes will open to see new sunrises far beyond their lifetime, they have given up something today which was theirs to forfeit at the expense of someone else. Their daughter will grow up forever absent of the memory of their parent being there to film them blowing out the candles.
It would be a fairer, more just, and brighter world if we all got what we deserve - good and bad alike. But we won’t. It is an unenviable, and inevitable, fact of life.
That however doesn’t mean that what we or anyone else deserves does not matter. Each of us lives for others. No man is an island. While that phrase is so often used to convey that we are all sums of the people closest to us, perhaps we should also understand it in the sense that we do not live and act in isolation of our impact on others.
We are each endowed with a practically divine ability to love, to shape others’ lives, and to change things for the better. These aims can be pursued in any number of ways, many of which will be mutually exclusive to each other.
This forfeiture, as unfair or cruel as it may be, is inevitable. We live for others, meaning that any action we take will affect someone else. Sometimes it will hurt them. That is the cost of living. We cannot simply blunder through life as slaves to others.
Instead, we should make that sacrifice count in everything we do, not just for our own satisfaction but for those others who deserve our time but will not, cannot, receive it. The pursuit of great endeavours which are of sufficient scope and ambition will invariably task us with journeys to strange lands and foreign shores. It will call for sunrises on distant continents. We will be mandated to spend holiday seasons in alien cities, and miss birthdays, anniversaries, and funerals.
If we are living life right, then these losses will be both necessary and inevitable. We should strive to be worthy of the sacrifices our loved ones make in missing us. Wasted days are a dishonour to those who would have given anything for one more moment with us. And a day well-spent, while not restitutionary, should at the very least provide some succour in demonstrating that we were prudent with the precious time we’ve been given.
I will not get these years with Zeus back. One day, he will die. Nicole, his sister, already has cancer and will likely not be there by the time I am able to next return home. I cannot stop these things. I cannot abandon everything I am doing either, because that would waste all the time I’ve already spent away from them. I have no choice but to push onward then, and earn every single day Zeus will suffer from my absence.
And so, I would like to revise my earlier answer on what drives me.
I’m not just making my days count - I’m making damned sure that Zeus’ days count too. Because these calculations weigh heavily on me and they are painful to make, but they ensure that I am doing something worthy of this great and precious sacrifice. I know I cannot hope to make it up to him.
So instead, I will honour him.
Special thanks goes to all the folks at Foster who contributed on this draft.