Silicon Valley is built on the idea that life’s biggest problems can be solved through a little creative thinking and hard work. The overall culture across the startup ecosystem is one of youthful irreverence and invincibility.
I was recently catching up with an old friend who in many ways is emblematic of Silicon Valley. That’s why when he told me that he and his wife were planning to “freeze their stuff” and have kids via surrogate later in life, I was first shocked and then intrigued.
This friend, let’s call him John, is closing in on 30 and has been married for nearly a year. He currently works as a senior engineer at one of the largest, most successful companies in the Valley. Along the way he’s worked previously for Apple and has both founded his own startup and worked for those of others.
While John’s an engineer, he’s also athletic, charismatic, and would be considered good looking by most. In nearly every way, he’s much closer to the quarterback prom king than Rainman. So why is this healthy and otherwise normal guy taking such a radical approach to family planning?
“It’s the greatest hack of them all,” John said to me over beers. “I’m in my prime. If I can make some money and enjoy life now, I can focus on that later when I slow down. Besides, think about how much more wisdom I’ll have to pass along.” He also pointed out, in somewhat unprintable language, that his wife’s body would thank him for the spared burden of carrying and birthing a child.
I couldn’t fault him with the logic. I had also heard a similar call to embrace life now from life-hacker extraordinaire and entrepreneurial icon, Tim Ferris. Ferris, in his first bestselling book, The Four Hour Work Week, took mainstream the notion of working smarter not harder. One of the central tenants of the book is to find ways to take frequent mini-retirements throughout life rather than saving the down time for old age, when your body will have long ago declined.
Ferris, who is unmarried, wrote a 2008 blog post titled How to Store Sperm in 4 Easy Steps – Just in Case. Not surprisingly based on his life stage, he banks more on the preventative insurance angle than does John. Ferris asks, “Why not do it? If you can afford it, it just seems like a no-brainer for bloodline and peace of mind. The potential downside of doing it (cost) is recoverable; the potential downside of not doing it is irreversible.”
There’s lots of things that could go wrong with John and his wife’s plan. Their frozen “stuff” may not survive the freezing process or they may not create viable embryos when combined in the future. Depending on the course life takes, the couple may not have the financial means or the even legal freedom to use a surrogate in the future.
Freezing one’s genetic material may be an insurance policy, but it’s an expensive and uncertain one (it can cost thousands up to tens of thousands of dollars).
It all comes back to the question of whether family-planning really is something to be hacked. We’ve learned enough to feel like masters of our universe. But this may go too far in suggesting that we know better than evolutionary biology and the thousands of generations that came before before.
The hacker and adventurer in me loves John’s take-no-prisoners attitude. I love the idea that the course of our lives is something we can dictate. I wish my friend and his wife the very best and recognize that in the end they are blessed to be in a position to choose.