World Building

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

You’ve probably heard a familiar piece of career advice: “Everyone works in sales, even if they don’t realize it.” This is good advice.

I want to propose an updated version for today: “Everyone’s job is world-building, even if they don’t realize it.” It is more or less the same idea, but tailored even more for a world of abundant narrative and complex choices. The more complex or valuable is whatever you’re trying to sell, the more important it is for you to build a world around that idea, where other people can walk in, explore, and hang out – without you having to be there with them the whole time. You need to build a world so rich and captivating that others will want to spend time in it, even if you’re not there.

It takes time to learn this lesson. Early in your career, you’ll be typically tasked with accomplishing simpler things that require a single-threaded effort, or aim at one specific obstacle. But as you grow and take on more complex responsibilities, or stake out on your own and try to bring your own ideas into the world, you’re going to quickly learn that the actually hard problems in the world worth working on are system problems. Trying to ship something inside a big company? That’s a system. Trying to build a startup that rearranges the world in an interesting way? That’s a system too. Same for media, or politics, or any pursuit that involves leverage.

System problems cannot be fixed in one step, nor can they be fixed in a sequence of linear steps. Why not? Because when systems find a steady state – which is probably where you’re encountering them, if you’re setting out to change something – they’re “steady” not because they’re static, but because they’re dynamically held in place by feedback loops. If you try to change one variable, you can apply as much effort as you like, but the minute you let go, the system will just snap right back to its original configuration.

If you want to change how a system works, and move the system into a new steady state that’s closer to your goal, sequential effort won’t do much. What you need is parallel effort: you need several different things to happen, all at the same time, for the system to actually move in the direction that you want and stay there.

So that means you need to find all of the different people who you’ll need on your team, and somehow get them all listening to you at once, all probing and pushing on the system to change, for an extended period of time. This is harder than it sounds, for two reasons: complexity and time.

First, complexity: for any interesting system problem, you’re not necessarily going to know exactly how to push on the system in the right way, let alone how to coordinate a large group of people all pushing on their own parts of the system, on the first try. You need to probe it and reason about it and figure out what to do. But that takes a while to figure out, and people get bored or distracted or busy with other things. It’s hard to hold several different people’s attention at once, for any appreciable length of time.

Second, that time issue: there is only one of you. You cannot simultaneously be everywhere at once, and spending time on every part of the system at once, holding everyone’s interest at the same time. That’s tricky, because unless you’re in some very senior role that compels your teammates to explicitly prioritize whatever you have going on, you’re going to be competing with a lot of other stuff. And when you can’t attend to someone personally, you’ll probably lose their attention to whoever can.

So how do you do this? You make a world.

It’s not enough to tell one good story; you have to create an entire world that people can step into, familiarize themselves with, and spend time getting to know. Initially you’ll have to walk them around and show them what’s in your world, but your goal is to familiarize them with your world sufficiently, and motivate them to participate, to the point that they can spend time in your world and build stuff in it without you having to be there all the time.

The world will include many things, but it needs one in particular: purpose. Inside the world, it needs to be really obvious what our goals are, and why we want our push our system into a new state. You fill your world with familiar storylines and tension and characters, highlighted or re-framed compared to the real world, that give everyone a really clear purpose. That’s the main difference between the world you’re going to construct through storytelling, versus the “regular” world it’s based on: your principal job is highlighting the specific storylines and characters that illuminate a coherent purpose.

People like coherent purpose. We like stories because we appreciate clear direction and compelling story arcs. If you can create a world that’s more clear and compelling than the complex, ambiguous real world, then people will be attracted to that story. And when you invite those people into your world and give them purpose inside your world, and they accept that purpose, then they won’t ever leave. That’s how you get everyone pushing on your system problem all at the same time, without you having to be everywhere all at once.

Hopefully this illuminates the principal challenge you’re going to face while world-building. On the one hand, your world needs to be based on the real-life present, if you want it to ultimately change the real-life present. But on the other hand, the more compelling you can make your world, the farther you can stray from reality, and into “fantasy” (except you’re trying to make that fantasy actually come true.) Your success here will depend entirely on how successfully you can tell stories, and how successfully other people can repeat those stories, both to themselves and others.

That’s why true storytelling originality is less rewarding than you might think here – you need to build your world out of familiar settings and tropes and conflicts. Your North Star here has to be: are other people retelling this story successfully? So it might be helpful, when you’re telling stories that build up your world, to keep in mind some basic features that all worlds need to have.


All that time drawing DND maps was useful, turns out! (You can get this print from the artist here.)

Geography: What is the geography of your world? What is near, and what is far? What groups of people are close together (they’re all alike, or share key context), and what groups of people are unlike them? (For example: the reporting and editorial staff at a media outlet might live in one region of your world, and the advertising and revenue team lives in another region of your world; they know about each other, but have distinctly different territories and cultures.)

Trade: How do those different cultures and regions trade with one another? What do they have to offer to each other, and what steady state have they found in trading with one another? Is trade constant, or is it (more realistically) cyclical in some way? For example: at Shopify, we have a cyclical year where Q4 (and especially BFCM) sees a very different “trade” between different organizations (engineering, product, support) than you see in other times of the year.

Regional Contrasts: There’s a good observation I remember – I think it’s from A Confederacy of Dunces – that says, “Port cities around the world are more similar to each other than they are to their inland counterparts, no matter the culture differences of their respective countries.” The general principle here is that port cities are all incredibly diverse (they’re full of people coming in and out, and from every country, and they’re a mix of every kind of trade and industry, all coming together in one place), but in another way fully homogenous: everyone accepts that change is constant, which is itself a deeper form of stasis and stagnation.

Inland industrial cities, meanwhile, are wholly different species: they’re highly concentrated around specific regional identities, so in that sense everyone is more alike; but the other side of that coin is that they feel highly differentiated relative to other cities (which is not the case for the port cities, for whom their peers are wholly familiar.) In your world, it’s worth investing a lot of your storytelling energy into drawing these contours: who are all alike in their differences? How does “same-but-different” work for one group of people versus another? Who, in your world, are “port city people” and who are “inland city people?”

Currency: In your world, what is currency? What is the common unit of trade? It’ll include money, for sure – but odds are money isn’t the most important form of currency. Reputation and social capital will be an important unit of currency almost everywhere; people trade favours and stake their reputations when they want to get things done. But there might be more regionally specific forms of currency too. In tech companies, software engineer FTEs are so valuable and broadly useful that they are, effectively, the dominant currency and capital. In academia, citations are a form of currency: they’re how different labs “trade” with one another, and they’re the currency of how labs pay their postdoc workhorses.

The Arrow of Time: The last important feature of all worlds is time. There are two important rules you need to follow here, invariably. First, your world should exist predominantly in the present. Yes, a history is important; and yes, there are dreams of a future; but most of your storytelling effort should be focused on what’s happening right now, and what exists today. The most important word in your storytelling vocabulary needs to be “meanwhile”. (“Meanwhile” is actually a really powerful word to use in your writing, period: it establishes parallel concepts and trains of thought, which is essential for making any sophisticated point or telling any interesting story.)

The second rule you need to follow, which runs orthogonal to the first rule, is there needs to be a strong concept of the arrow of time. What is it that causes time to advance? What is entropy in your world? This concept, maybe more than anything else, is the foundation on which your world gets built. In the software world, as Tobi is fond of saying, “The entropy of the internet is always increasing.” That is an arrow of time. So if you’re on the iPhone team at Apple, for instance, you are constantly fighting a battle that’s never over: the iPhone must get better and better, while slowly all around you, all of the assumptions about how software and the internet work – on which you based the previous iPhone’s technical architecture – are slowly crumbling and changing. That’s an arrow of time, and it’s the backdrop against which all of your storytelling and all of your world takes place.

Happy world building!

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