Ben Hunt on Industrially Necessary Paths & How To Live In The Now

Ben Hunt is a father, husband, former academic, the author turned blogger, former hedge fund analyst, investment advisor, and farmer.

And he’s also my podcast guest in this episode.

His writing has been an inspiration to me as I try to carve my own path after leaving what he calls “Team Elite.” Let’s take a journey through some of his ideas…

“Make, Protect Teach”

Ben made my list of people that inspire me when in the early months of the pandemic he leaped to action.  While most of the country was gearing up for political debates, he launched a non-profit to work behind the scenes to acquire and distribute masks to healthcare professionals across the country.  He was embracing his self-described ethos of “make, protect, teach”:

What does it mean to Make?

It means you are an investor. A manufacturer. An artist. A craftsman. A kid at a Maker Fair. A farmer. An engineer. A home builder. A coder. It’s the creation of some THING through the application of some creative IDEA.

What does it mean to Protect?

It means you are a soldier. A policeman. A fireman. An EMT. A nurse. A doctor. It’s a Neighborhood Watch. It’s a mechanic fixing a car. It’s also a unionization drive. It’s also a fiduciary managing a portfolio.

What does it mean to Teach?

It means you are a teacher, of course. Or a writer. Or a researcher. Or a priest. Or a homeschooling mom. It means you’ve got something to say to your Pack, and you’ve got the guts to say it.

In our conversation, we talked about why this matters to him.  At the simplest level, it’s about enabling people to “connect with the real.”  He shared that all around the world he sees good people doing great things, helping their neighbors, and contributing where they can.  But those same people, “have been told that it doesn’t matter.”

This resonates with my own story.  At I rose in the ranks of the strategy consulting world it amazed me as almost everyone was obsessed with the broad idea of “impact.”  It didn’t seem to have a connection to anything except what could be quantified on a spreadsheet.  It was not, as Ben says, connected to the “real.”

Ben’s interest is in, “creating bottoms-up social movements that embrace make, protect, teach.” While many people dismiss such notions as too simple, preferring large-scale political ideas, he feels that a local focus on what matters – helping your neighbors and giving where you can, is what matters.

He says that his writing revolves around a simple question, “how do we reconnect with the real?” or put another way, “how do we reconnect with our own human lives?”

These questions attract hundreds of thousands each month to his site, Epsilon Theory, which he runs with his partner Rusty Guinn. 

He’s been writing for years but the real journey started at the age of 32.

When Time Flipped

Everything became real for Ben at the age of 32, when he lost his father.  The news came a few weeks after declining an offer from his parents to pay for a flight to visit them on a trip to London. When he heard the news of the loss, he felt his future was stolen from him, “There’s something about the dynamic of your father dying suddenly that changes your relationship with the future and with time.”

This shifted his perspective to living in the present instead of focusing on the future. However, as he embraced this philosophy, he found himself at odds with the direction of broader society and culture.

He started to notice that political, economic, and business leaders were increasingly focused on investing in the present and replacing the optimism of the future with a permanent state of political fear. We all know what he’s talking about. We need to do something NOW because the future will be worse. Or another spin, we need to go BACK to how things were because now is not so great.

He calls this state of affairs the “Long Now

The Long Now is everything we pull into the present from our future selves and our children.

The Long Now is the constant stimulus that Management applies to our economy and the constant fear that Management applies to our politics.

The Long Now is the Fiat World of reality by declaration, where we are TOLD that inflation does not exist, where we are TOLD that wealth inequality and meager productivity and negative savings rates just “happen”, where we are TOLD we must vote for ridiculous candidates to be a good Republican or a good Democrat, where we are TOLD that we must buy ridiculous securities to be a good investor, where we are TOLD we must borrow ridiculous sums to be a good parent or a good spouse or a good child.

“I think it’s a mistake to romanticize the past or demonize the present,”  he argues. Instead “The threat of the future INSPIRES me. The threat of the future DRIVES me.” It keeps him in the now.

Narrative World & Industrially Necessary Work

Ben and his partner Rusty look at this broad shift through the lens of narratives.  Their research has found that institutions are increasingly embracing “missionary statements.”  These are statements or sets of ideas that are presented as facts but are really opinions. 

The goal is not to inform anyone, it is to flood the information ecosystem with a preferred narrative so effectively that it shifts common knowledge. Everyone knows that everyone knows it is true.

One of the areas we have both explored is the common knowledge of work. Our scripts are so deeply embedded around work that we have a hard time understanding that they emerged hundreds of years ago. Our current remixes of these work beliefs are so deeply intertwined with the success of our current institutions, we have a hard time knowing what is real anymore. As we discussed on the podcast, people have a hard time seeing me as a “real” worker because I spent my time outside the default path.

Ben calls these scripts the “industrially necessary” stories that keep the whole thing going. Except now these scripts might not be so necessary. They are shifting from necessary to preferable. Which means politics and narratives are what matter.

I reached out after he and Rusty published “Working Narrative” talking about the emerging remote versus in-office “debate.” We both felt this was inning 1 of a baseball game that may go into extra innings. It’s not that we think that work is headed in a definite direction, its that it feels more up for grabs than ever. Both political parties still center their narratives around jobs than the kind of work that is emerging in the new economy.

As I like to say, the only career path left is “go tech, go finance or SOL

In writing about work we have both found that the topic elicits and strange and outsized response relative to the facts conveyed.  What people are reacting to is often not the information itself but the sense that things they knew to be true are under attack. 

The sense that the common knowledge that had seemed like the settled fact is shakier than ever.

I’ve experienced this in my own path.  I don’t work a typical but I still spend time working, I support myself and spend a lot more time helping other people than I did in a previous life.  It’s much more meaningful and feels like it matters. Nonetheless, people get upset at how I’ve organized my life. They think I am cheating, or that it’s not possible, or that I’m abdicating a sacred duty.

The reality is that I’m living in the now. Investing in the future. I believe in the future and I’m excited that I have people like Ben to follow.

Still Carving His Path

The most impressive people I know are the ones that are committed to a long-term path. Ben is living what he claims to care about and I hope to be doing the same at his age. As he says:

“I’m still trying to find my path in the world”