Higher Standards

Storied Silicon Valley is not living up to its full potential and we only have ourselves to blame. For all our wealth and excesses, there are no artists because it’s not cool to be in technology for the work itself. There has to be some other reason, some larger concrete goal, some business ready to output billions. 

To understand how we got to this point—and no, you and I are not blameless, not by any stretch—you have to step into the mind of someone who believes they can change the world and then executes successfully against that belief. There are a few common behaviors amongst those who bend the world toward their will, but I want to focus on one that is symptomatic of a larger disease: micromanagement.

When you don’t give an extremely driven person something a lot better than what that person asks for, that person will micromanage you. These days it’s easy to label that behavior as poor management but what’s actually happening is you are failing to impress them enough to abandon their own ideas in favor of yours and their only option is to stick their hands directly into your shit and work you like a puppet. That is, of course, until you can be managed out and replaced by someone who can deliver those unexpected outsized results. 

This is especially pronounced whenever something is incredibly difficult to accomplish but looks as though it should be relatively easy. Of those who can’t quite seem to succeed: feelings are hurt, egos bruised, blame distributed. Of those who manage to somehow break through—who manage, against tremendous odds, to move the needle in the slightest possible way: a flood of relief and euphoria washes over them. It takes disproportionate will and hard work and talent and everything else to gain even a little bit of ground. So many miracles large and small have to coalesce at the right time it’s understandable when those who manage this feat feel transcendent. They act transcendent. Others treat them as transcendent.

When you tell those same people that their hardscrabble gains aren’t yet good enough, you are met with hostility. Which is, of course, perfectly reasonable. And, of course, irresponsibly shortsighted. Often as a result of feedback that intentionally ignores the difficulty involved with previous achievements, the bar is raised even higher and the cycle repeats. This cycle is punishing and brutal and lacks sympathy and empathy but is supremely effective when the right will is combined with the right vision. The visionary pushes on the world, the world pushes back, rinse and repeat.

If the symptom is micromanagement, the destruction of imagination which triggers a failure to ensure the bar is continually raised is the disease. People stop critiquing things directly, harshly, objectively. VCs collect too much power. Founders give in to greed, forsaking vision for vanity. Employees develop allergies to risk after breathing in high rents for too long. You can assume that most VCs don't truly want to hear their words repeated back with some blanks filled in, but once micromanagement starts to appear, it’s nearly impossible to stop without a personnel shift because it stunts imagination so profoundly. Like the driven person, what VC craves most is that which it can't imagine but its agents will convince themselves that they, too, can see. But you get what you give.

Increasingly what VC is giving are superficial essays about past conquests, tautologies, and defense of the status quo. Now, of course, #notallvc but enough VC to pollute the imaginations of some founders and many employees. There is something to be said for a tried and tested formula but not enough is being said about context and timing with respect toward the application of those formulas. Perhaps that information is too valuable to be shared freely—or perhaps it isn’t known or truly understood—but without it the system is at risk. The same culture of people spinning on the same basic principles creating the same basic output. VC is strong enough to have the power to micromanage, but too ill-equipped to take the steps necessary to begin the treatment needed for the cure: raising the bar and pushing for even higher standards.

Smart VCs aren't blind to their predicament but they are approaching the problem in an incomplete fashion. Calling out other VCs for a specific bad behavior and encouraging founders to call their investors on it seems to be the standard approach. This effort will fail. Because for all the thought pieces and essays and tweets and snaps, everyone is missing the fact that there is no clear vision for Silicon Valley. In the vacuum created by that lack of vision it has become a loose collection of soundbites, representing nothing.

Maybe this lack of vision is a natural consequence of an idea that gained popularity: software eating the world. Old businesses are being disrupted, new SF-based businesses are remaking the existing world in its image and what I see as boring is just that process working itself out. Technology is embedded into everything now, no industry left untouched—there’s money to be made, new empires to be created!—and that process is long, slow, repetitive. Laying the groundwork and infrastructure to move a lot faster later. The thing is, though, this thinking is so small. Painfully small. A slice of a market segment of another slice of another slice and so on. It’s all perfectly reasonable, but it’s not enough.

VC is incapable of raising the bar and enforcing higher standards. It’s up to founders and startup employees to insist on pushing themselves even harder. To craft and execute against wildly ambitious visions for the future. To fall ass backwards into potentially revolutionary discoveries. To tinker and play.

I do not have any solutions, but I do have a recommendation: Push back on everything, even—especially—yourself. Every drop of common knowledge you fail to question. Every time you find yourself reading from the script of approved answers because you know doing so will not cause any trouble. Look with suspicion upon every comfortable moment. Find your own vision for the world and test it. Then, test it again and again. The world pushes against you? So what? Push back with your full force even if it’s only to see what will happen. “No one has the right to be an amateur in the matter of mental training. It is a shame for a person to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which the mind is capable.”

May 15th, 2016