Sunday, November 08, 2015

What KRS-One Teaches Us About Silicon Valley

I am an unapologetic booster of capitalism in general, and Silicon Valley in particular.  It's even in the name of this blog!  Yet I've found myself playing the role of skeptic in an increasing number of conversations lately.

As our current bubble (yes, I said it!) reaches new heights, it seems like all anyone in Silicon Valley can talk about is how they're "crushing it," "killing it," and building the next great "unicorn."  Never mind the violence of the language (which deserves its own separate essay--is it any wonder that so many women have been repelled by the current zeitgeist?); what's striking is the monomaniacal focus.

That's why I enjoyed David Heinemeier Hansson's recent essay asking startup folks to "Reconsider" the standard unicorn-hunting model.  But while DHH makes some great points, I think he overlooks the psychological barriers to swimming against the currents.

Here's where I'm going to issue a content warning--I'm going to use a quote that contains slang terms that aren't family-friendly.  Stop reading now if you're concerned.

I know a lot of successful young people.  These are entrepreneurs who have achieved a level of success that 99.999% of humanity would trade their lives for in an instant, but aren't the subject of regular magazine covers.  Their material needs have been met, yet most of them are still casting about for their next startup, trying to become a venture capitalist, or in most case, both at once.  Yet when I talk with them, few of them actually want either of those lives.

The problem is that in Silicon Valley, if you're not an entrepreneur or investor, you're nobody.

The old-school rapper KRS-One has said, "Capitalism is a pimp and ho system.  You are either a pimp or you're a ho."  In Silicon Valley, if you don't fit into one of the two standard buckets, no one knows what to do with you.

As shallow as it may sound (and make no mistake, it is shallow), if you go to any event that features "networking," if you're not an entrepreneur or investor, you might feel like a leper.  People you meet instantly start looking over your head for another, more valuable target, and disengage from the conversation as if you were radioactive.  It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to ignore what everyone else seems to think is important.

Yet that's precisely what you need to do to be happy.

Don't let the trade press and social media tell you what is and isn't important; all they care about are clicks and shares.  By that logic, Donald Trump is the most important person in America.

The funny thing is, when you stop trying to be something you're not, the right kind of people--thoughtful, interesting--will gravitate towards you.  "Whew," they'll say, "Finally, someone I can talk with!"

And if, after you decide that you don't need to chase unicorns, you find that you actually do want to start a company or invest in startups, more power to you!

My hope is not that you'll become an entrepreneur or investor, or that you'll reject those labels.  It's that you'll figure out what you actually want to do--not what others want for you--and do it.

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