It’s turtles all the way up too

If you’ve never heard the saying, “It’s turtles all the way down” it might not make much sense. I first came across “It’s turtles all the way down” in a Terry Pratchett novel. In every iteration, a student asks a wise teacher, “What does the world rest upon?” The teacher (depending on the origin of the story) replies with either says a giant turtle, or a giant elephant. “What does that giant turtle/elephant rest upon?” The student asks. The teacher either says (depending on the origin) “Another giant turtle” or “Four giant elephants”.

“But what do they, in turn, rest upon?” Asks the student. At which point the teacher tires of the line of questioning, and replies, “It’s turtles/elephants, all the way down”.

Terry Pratchett didn’t invent the story – according to Wikipedia the origins go way back to the 1800s and possibly as far back as the 1500s – see

But Pratchett’s version – and everyone else’s — always refers to what lies beneath the world on which this world rests.

What about the world above ours? And the world above that world?

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The turtle above mine

Today I learned about an organisation for Australia’s wealthy families, which aims to help them find “meaning” in the use of their wealth. An organisation that might have hundreds of members, who between them probably control many billions of dollars. It wasn’t a conspiracy theory, it isn’t even secret organisation. It just didn’t need me to know about it.

It blows my mind that I didn’t even know that organisation existed until today and, assuming that it is fit-for-purpose, that there are so many billionaire families searching for ‘meaning’ through the reinvestment of their capital, that you can form an organisation to support them.

Because I’m a startup entrepreneur I usually only have a couple of thousand dollars cash, even though I’m probably worth a couple of million on paper. The ‘meaning’ of my relative wealth is to accrue further wealth, such that I could just be present with my wife, son and friends for more of our lives. I could happily stop working and read books, watch TED talks and travel for the rest of my life. I have absolutely no problem with the ‘meaning’ in my relative wealth, it’s front-and-centre.

Like the billionaire meaning club, sometimes, I get glimpses of the world which rests upon the turtle above my world. Last week, I was in Bangkok for the Techsauce Global Summit with the QUT CEA Collider startup accelerator. Thailand has a population of 68 million and many wealthy people who don’t try hard to hide it as most Australians would. Custom Bentleys roll past on eight lane highways next to labourers in the back of an open truck and salarymen on motorbikes. The airport has not just a VIP gate but a whole private terminal.

Many years ago, talking to a tech industry titan and learning about his adventures about his private super yacht, he said, “The thing I didn’t realise, until I’d already spent all that money, was that there’s always some richer asshole with a bigger fucking boat.”

One time an airline mistook me for someone else and upgraded me to First Class on a flight from Sydney to Europe and back. Though I had a bed nearly as large and comfortable as my own, I stayed awake for as long as I could, literally sampling the finest caviar with a spoon made of mother-of-pearl. I arrived more jet lagged than if I’d flown in ‘cattle class’ after a day riding the back of the turtle above my own.

You and I are not on the top turtle

How chauvinist and typically human it is for us to assume that our world is borne on the back of the top turtle.

Yes, it’s turtles all the way down, but remember that it’s probably turtles all the way up too. Above you and I, there’s another world invisible to us, and another above that, and another. There’s always some richer asshole with a bigger fucking boat.

Don’t tell yourself all you have to do is climb until you reach the back of the top turtle, because that’s never going to make you happy.

By all means climb, but pick a turtle.

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

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