Founders and Higher-order Volition

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Essays

In Brothers Karamazov, one of my favorite ever novels, Katerina Ivanovna suggests the brilliant notion of ‘second-order love’. At one point in the story, in saying “I love you”, she means “I love (that I love you), but when it comes down to it, I don’t fully love you”. We colloquially refer to this type of circumstance as someone who has been ‘idealized’. That is, I’m experiencing a second-order volition, or will, more strongly than the first-order volition.

Professor Frankfurt of Princeton uses the drug addict to illustrate the complexity (and explanatory power) of these cases. A drug dealer has a second-order volition that is “I do not want to do drugs”. But he has a first order volition that is “I want to do drugs.” In that case, the volitions compete directly, or even perfectly contradict. And most often, although the ‘higher order’ volition may be the more conscious one; the one more closely activated in thinking about my will, the ‘lower order’, more ‘wanton’ volitions are often the more effective ones. 

To this point, I was thinking over breakfast with a friend this morning about how neatly that concept applies to great founders. When you think “I care about being a founder” are you referring to a ‘higher-order’ or a ‘lower-order’ will to be a founder? I use founder as a placeholder, because this can apply to any career. But since the notion of ‘being a founder’ has so much currency, baggage, and implication tied to it, I think that’s a uniquely relevant example, where the first-order and second-order volitions are often in competition, or are contradictory.

My point of view: the best founders love the idea of being a founder, and also are passionate the problem they are going after. Scott has great framing with this tweet: 

I’ve written about this before, but I like this framing. A great founder, then, may be one who has a first-order desire to solve something AND a second-order desire to start something. What do you think?

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