If You Want to Build, You Have to Believe
The case for faith
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Every time I’m on a plane that starts to accelerate down the runway, I pray.
Those who know me might find this a bit strange. I’m not a particularly religious person. I don’t have a regular place of worship or an intimate relationship with God. And yet, the rev of a 747’s turbofan engine is like the ring of Pavlov’s bell. As the plane starts rolling, I close my eyes and pray.
I’ve been thinking about why I do this. Certainly, the success of the flight is not contingent on some guy’s silent pleas from 23C. I’m an uneasy flyer, but my so-called rational brain knows that once the plane doors close, nothing I do will make a difference. And yet, the prayer helps me believe that the flight will work out.
Faith might seem to be a strange topic to tackle in a business newsletter. In some ways, the tech industry, which is built on data-driven hypotheses and an alphabet soup of metrics, might seem like the last place you’d expect an argument for faith. I used to think faith was for lemmings, something people latched onto when they lacked a grasp on reality.
But delving into entrepreneurship has changed my mind. Faith and rationalism are not oil and water. Having faith in a better world is a precursor to progress. And in an age where it’s all too easy to be a cynic, the ability to cultivate faith is one of the most important skills—in business and in life.
In tech, faith outpaces proof
When I say faith, I’m not referring to a particular religious tradition or adherence to a certain dogma. I prefer the definition from Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts. In Pali, the word for faith, saddha, roughly translates to what you place your heart on. Cultivating faith is the practice of placing your heart on something. In words that are often attributed to Martin Luther King, it means taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.
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In the lore of almost every company, there is a moment where faith outpaces proof. In the mid-1970s, Larry Ellison came across a paper in IBM’s Journal of Research and Development that described a working prototype for a relational database management system. The software industry was nascent, and no company had attempted to commercialize such a database before. But Ellison and his partners Bob Miner and Ed Oates had faith that they could.
At its inception in 1977, Oracle (then called Software Development Laboratories) wanted to build a relational database that was compatible with IBM’s System R database, the first database system to ever use SQL. But Ellison and team hit a roadblock when IBM refused to share System R’s code.
Rather than resign to the rationalist's view—who would want to compete with IBM?—the Oracle trio decided to build their own database software from scratch. Less than a decade later, Oracle was the largest data management platform in the world.
“Conventional wisdom had it that relational databases couldn’t be made to run fast enough to be commercially viable, so people didn’t enter the race,” Ellison said. “I liked the fact it was risky. The bigger the apparent risk, the fewer people will try to go there.”
You might attribute Oracle’s success to the company’s technical acumen or its timing. But I’d argue that a more important factor was Ellison’s faith—both in his team and in the future of the industry. Faith was a precursor to Oracle’s progress, not a result of past successes. Ellison had the courage to keep taking steps until the staircase emerged.
Solutions come from rationalism combined with hope
Faith, given its religious connotations, has historically been shamed in the tech industry. “Christianity is borderline illegal in Northern California,” went a joke on HBO’s Silicon Valley. But as of late, there have been a series of high-profile people in business and tech talking openly about their belief in a higher power, from entrepreneur David Perrell to Chaos Monkeys author Antonio García Martinez to Y Combinator CEO Garry Tan. They’ve explained that religion puts the minutiae of the day-to-day into perspective.
I’m not here to evangelize any particular faith—whether it be Christianity or nuclear fission. But even as someone who's not very religious, I know the value of placing your heart on an uncertain future. There have been many moments since I started working for myself when my choices were called into question—when agents told me there wasn’t a market for my book, when I got my first health insurance bill, when I went days without making any progress toward my goals. But it was returning to my faith in myself and in the book’s potential impact that kept me going.
There is one study from my book that I think about all the time. The researchers conducted interviews with dozens of people who worked as janitors in a hospital. Although all the janitors had the same role at the same hospital, they derived different levels of fulfillment from their work. The researchers found that the janitors roughly broke down into two categories. The first group thought their work didn’t require much skill. They were less willing to go out of their way to interact with others during their shifts. And they were relatively unhappy with their jobs.
The second group of janitors, on the other hand, was more fulfilled. They believed their work required more skill, and they regularly chatted with patients and other members of the hospital staff. Most importantly, the researchers found that janitors in the second group saw themselves as healers. They imbued their work with the belief—or perhaps the faith—that every trash can they emptied and bed they cleaned contributed to a larger system of healing the sick. Attaching this higher purpose to their jobs not only made the menial aspects of their work more manageable, it also made the work itself more meaningful.
From the conflict in the Middle East to the climate crisis, right now there is no shortage of places to look to get down on life. Finding solutions will require both rationalism and hope. In the words of the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”
On either extreme lies a path toward resignation. Believe the world is irrevocably broken and it will keep you from working to improve it. Believe that everything is just fine and there’s no reason to be part of the change. Rather than succumb to either, I implore you to put your heart into something—whether it be god, peace, or relational databases—and cultivate your faith through your actions. The staircase emerges one step at a time.
Simone Stolzoff is a San Francisco-based writer and designer. He is the author of the book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work. If you liked this piece, you can subscribe to his free newsletter.
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