"Cultivate the Karass" -- Saying Goodbye to Jake Brewer


Karass: "A network or group of people who, unknown to themselves, are somehow affiliated or linked, specifically to fulfill the will of God."   -- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 1963

Jake's mom, holding the post-it that he had on his monitor at the White House

Jake's mom, holding the post-it that he had on his monitor at the White House

My So-Called Life, episode 14: "The Wagon"

My So-Called Life, episode 14: "The Wagon"

Last Saturday, we lost Jake Brewer, at age 34. He spent his life helping others, died helping others, and made the world a better place. He is survived by his incredible wife, their little girl, and a baby on the way.

In other news, absolutely nothing about life is fair.  

I met Jake 7 years ago, back when I was living in DC. We were part of the same group of friends, slouching purposefully towards adulthood together. I didn't see him often, but every month or so I'd hear from him by email, or read about something cool he was working on. 

I was sure that our paths would continue to cross, since he was working on tech policy, right around the time I left government and joined Udacity, an education startup that few people had heard of. Jake, being Jake, sent me a note of encouragement.

The last time I heard from Jake was in May. He was two weeks away from being appointed to the White House, and he took the time to respond to an email I sent to our friends group asking about contacts at 18F.  A friend of mine was interviewing there, and I wanted to put a word in for her. 

That was Jake. No matter what was going on in his life, no matter how busy his day, he made time to help a friend of a friend. 

Later that month, I heard the news that he'd joined the White House as a Senior Policy Advisor to Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. At the time, I was working crazy hours, and I didn't pause to congratulate him for this seriously awesome achievement. I told myself I would "later," then I forgot. That's because I'm not Jake Brewer; none of us are, or ever will be. Now that he's gone, we all need to step up our game.

Today, a friend sent me a photo of a post-it that Jake had tacked onto his monitor at the White House: "Cultivate the Karass." 

That was the perfect way to describe it. Of course, Jake! We were part of the same karass. I'm sure many people felt this way about him. Jake dreamed big and believed not only in his dreams, he believed in yours, too.

There’s a concept called Dunbar's Number that posits that a single human being can only have 100-250 “stable social relationships,” which refers to “relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.”

Jake basically exploded that concept into outer space. His Dunbar Number was easily in the thousands. Which makes sense, knowing Jake. He was always an extreme overachiever, and that extended to his superhuman capacity to love and connect with others.

Jake's funeral (I can't believe I'm typing this) is this Friday at the National Cathedral, so instead of graduating from Hack Reactor as planned, I’m flying 2,442 miles to say a final goodbye and thank you to my friend. 

Jake’s passing has me thinking a lot about our purpose in this world, which I suppose is cliche, but I’m human, so bear with me. I'm going to revisit this thought in a moment, but right now, I need to tell you about something important.

When I was 10, my brother died in his sleep, a few weeks before his 14th birthday. He was mentally disabled, and two autopsies revealed no conclusive cause of death. He went to bed, and, come morning, his sweet, loving spirit had left us.

That night, I remember watching the local news intently, waiting to hear the newscaster broadcast his death. But there was no announcement. The next day, I got up at the crack of dawn to wait for the newspaper -- surely, the Sacramento Bee would print a front-page article about "the tragic passing of Edward Kim, aged 13." But there was no article. There wasn’t a single mention anywhere of the light that had gone out of my world.

To me, it was shattering. This was the most painful event of my young life, and I couldn’t understand why the whole damn world wasn’t hurting as bad as I was. People should know about my brother. They needed to know. Because he was beautiful and special and utterly important. I thought if the world only knew, it would validate my pain somehow. But the world didn’t know. And so the world kept moving, not stopping for even a glance.

The world felt a lot smaller back then. There was no Facebook, no Twitter. It was the era of dial-up and AOL (if you weren’t around for this, imagine the sound of, “oooinggeeeeonninggeeeongkk,” followed by, “You’ve Got Mail!”).

My family and our close friends were alone in our shared grief. The walls of our home enclosed it, like something finite and palpable, as if opening a window would let it seep out and escape -- the smells of Korean potluck left out in Pyrex casserole dishes, the warmth of our family room where bodies huddled on overstuffed sofas, the sounds of my mother wailing, the prayers to God sent heavenward, the voices of children crying and asking why -- our grief was contained within four walls, under one roof. Our grief was unitary, compact, an island. It was unfathomable, and it was all ours to bear.

In the years since then, I’ve lost friends and family members, as many of us have, and the act of grieving is different every time. Social media has changed the way we know each other, so naturally it’s changed the way we mourn each other. Our grief is diffuse, broad, visual, and everywhere.

When I heard about Jake last Saturday, I was in shock. I read the initial news item in the Post, and thought, “This isn’t enough. This doesn’t tell the world enough about who Jake was.”

I knew in the days ahead, his beautiful, loving family and his vast network of loyal friends would tell that story. And they did. We did. On Facebook and Twitter. On email lists and at gatherings. In the New York Times and the Washington Post. On TechCrunch and Re/code. On FOX News and MSNBC. Even from the offices of the White House, where President Obama issued a statement. Unlike my brother, the world knew who Jake Brewer was. They cared. They understood the magnitude of what was lost.

The strange thing is, the recognition, itself, hasn't made the loss any easier to process. If anything, it makes grieving more painful because you realize, objectively, how much Jake meant to so many people outside of your orbit. It's like standing before the Pyramids of Giza. You look up, overcome by the scale of the thing. It is grief, beyond measure. And it is heartbreaking.

I don't know how one person was able to touch so many lives, to be a friend to such a broad slice of humanity. At one of several memorial services that change.org hosted this week, a friend talked about how Jake always made sure to open 5 slots for every one that he took. Another friend noted that Jake knew himself, but he also knew who he strived to be, and he worked his ass off everyday to be that person.

All of this has me wondering, with respect to my year-long journey to become a software engineer, “Why am I doing this, anyway?

Ultimately, I’m doing this because I want to build things that help people. I'm doing this because I want to solve real-life problems with code. I'm doing this because I want to, in Jake's words, "totally rock this," and, like Jake, I'm going to bring a shit-ton of people with me along the way.

So, I guess, my question to you is: Why are you doing what you’re doing? What is your life’s higher purpose?

That's a question that Jake would have loved to chew on. We can't have that conversation with him, so let's have it with each other, with Jake in mind. Let's cultivate the karass. For Jake.