How the breaking apart of traditional, rigid structures is creating a personalized, on-demand future and changing the everyday interactions of people, politics, and profit.
About this post
This post is based on a theory and a book outline I’ve been chipping away at since 2010. Since I’m probably going to be too busy to ever finish the full thing, I figured I would massively truncate and post it here so that it’s finally out in the world in some form. In the six years I’ve been thinking about this subject, it’s only become clearer with the advent of the on-demand economy, 3D printing etc. Please excuse the length!
In Silicon Valley we’ve used the term “Unbundling” to describe the phenomena of mobile apps breaking apart into multiple separate apps, each essentially providing more focused, single purpose features. Think of the Facebook app being separated into Facebook + Messenger.
I believe this Unbundling phenomena is happening almost universally across all aspects of life. It’s a meta-trend that has been happening for decades (or more) and will continue for decades to come. It’s a common process affecting many of the things happening in the world today. In fact most of the major disruptions we see (loss of traditional jobs, failing record companies, terrorism, divorce rates, the rise of fringe/underdog political candidates etc) are all, in at least some way, connected to this fundamental transition.
At the end of last year I wrote a post about the downside of Hyper Expectations and Ambitions (HEA). I guess living in silicon valley it’s easy to get jaded with the negative effects of our fast paced journey to change the world. It also didn't help that I hadn't had a holiday for 3 years. Since then, however, I’ve visited my hometown in Brisbane Australia for 3 weeks. The truth is they live a very different lifestyle there. The government and other institutions help provide a powerful safety net for those who are sick or unable to find work, the environment is beautiful, warm and welcoming and the people expect (or in some cases demand) less from each other. Those that stand out or show off can even be shunned (a phenomenon we call Tall Poppy Syndrome).
The result is that things there are more laid back, the lifestyle is more comfortable and people suffer the downsides of HEA far more infrequently.
This can be a very fulfilling way to live and many people there are (rightly) happy and healthy.
It was, however, a cold splash in the face having just written about the negative aspects of our Silicon Valley ambition to be confronted with the opposite. It reminded me in stark ways how different our lives are and what some of the advantages to living with HEA are.
So in counterbalance to my previous post, let me try to summarize some of the advantages of HEA.
Fulfilling your potential
If there's one thing that upsets me the most and keeps me up at night it's the concern that I or someone I know is not living up to their potential. One of my defining characteristics is a thirst (some may some lust) for the potential in things. I am far more interested in what could be than what is. A great example of this, in fact, is my very poor relationship with times, dates, orders of magnitude or 'rules'.
The great thing about HEA is that it vacuums out most of the reasons/excuses for someone to not live up to their potential. All of us here are insisting to ourselves and each other that we do the next great thing we know we can do; Or better yet, to do something that scares us.
Remove the roadblocks and put aside the excuses. We attempt to extract every last drop of potential and turn it into outcomes.
Extraordinary and Surreal Experiences
While there's great value in routine and tradition, we with HEA are far more interested in doing things that are extra ordinary. I split those two words on purpose. Things that are outside the realm of an ordinary life.
Backstage at a concern. VIP at a party. Hanging with a personal hero. Writing a line of code that affects millions of people. Writing that blog post that might influence the influencers. Living in beautiful places. Meeting with smart people. Disrupting that tired business model. Changing the way people live.
There is no patience for the mundane here. Instead there's a strong hunger and appreciation (and for me, real-time nostalgia) for doing things that are out of the ordinary.
These moments are priceless. And if you're lucky, they happen often in Silicon Valley.
Changing the World
People with HEA get to change the world. With a line of code, a great piece of UI, a new business model or a conversation with the right person.
Through our skills, ambitions, ideas and access we have the smallest possible gap between our intention and their manifestation into reality and this is not only the ultimate super power (think Neo/Matrix) it's also a precious gift. We use this super power to make a real dent in the universe (#namethatreference).
The heading here might be fairly grandiose but in many ways it's true. In San Francisco this town has thrown out most notions of 'right and wrong' and embraced philosophies that are radically different than most of the rest of the world. From Gay Rights to massive temporary communities in the desert based on the sharing economy, we are forcing open the definition of what it means to live, love and be human.
Almost every day here I have conversations that vacillate from short term tactical business concerns to wide sweeping philosophical quandaries - and back again. Relationships here are just as likely 'non traditional' (open, polly, casual, gay, bi, whatever) as they are traditional.
These are all related attempts to leave dogma in the past and explore what the future might look like.
For some of us with HEA we're not just trying to ship software or make millions of dollars, we are trying to better ourselves.
Leverage and scale.
Through all of the above, and much more, we get to live high leverage lives. In some ways our work is no harder or easier than the work of coal minors or brick layers (in other ways its obviously very different, but go with me here). We work long hours in back breaking postures and rarely see our families or have enough emotional capacity to invest in some of our relationships. We get to invest similar energy and sacrifices yet touch more lives than most and, for some, make a lasting impact. That's the gift of leverage and scale.
So there we have it. Like with all things there are both upsides and downsides. The trick is moderation in all things (my mother taught me that - hi mom!).
Disclaimer: I’ve personally flirted with much of what I've written about below. This isn’t about anyone else, but rather about what I’ve seen in myself and how some of it could have played out if left unchecked. Thankfully I feel pretty happy and comfortable most of the time - but I find that it helps to write this stuff down to keep myself in check.
Silicon Valley is a place where people come to change the world. They seek it out and travel great distances to be in the place where entrepreneurial dreams come true.
Even those who first arrive looking for love or lifestyle soon realize that most of the people here have their sights set pretty high and it can be easy to catch the 'change the world' attitude through osmosis.
It's easy to start feeling a sense of Hyper Expectations and Ambition (let’s call it HEA for short).
The challenge with HEA is that it can drive the ill-equipped, mad. By "ill-equipped" I mean those that lack a strong personal identity and emotional maturity. And aren't we all guilty of that at various points in our lives?
The landscape here is dotted with people who have something to prove to their past tormentors, their personal ambitions, their peers or some vision of their future selves. If they are not careful, it leaves them no breathing room for cognitive or emotional rest. And as we discovered in Star Trek the Next Generation’s episode “Night Terrors” - without REM Sleep one can have all sorts of nasty outcomes (yes I’m a geek).
HEA is further exasperated by constant streams of social media updates that tend to vacillate from the trite motivational quote to the well curated highlight reel of best parts of ones life. These only serve to make us feel inferior to our friends who always seem to be having a better, easier time.
There are many symptoms of HEA - let me try to share some of them. You might recognize them in yourself or others around you.
FOMO - “Fear of Missing Out’
This is when people are maniacally trying to turn up to every party or meet every ‘right’ person in case this is the one that’s going to change their life or give them the next emotional high.
I’ve been to my share of parties - in fact most of the time I host or co-host them - but for me they are usually an opportunity to spend time with my core group of friends. For some, however, party hopping can become almost an addiction trying to chase the next surreal or successful moment.
The truth is this town is full of amazing moments all the time. They come and go on a daily and weekly basis. When I feel a little FOMO coming on, I try to remember the last scene from American Beauty.
“there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday."
FOMO is very real and can be exhausting on the body and the mind.
Because it seems like everyone around here is ‘doing something amazing’ it's easy to develop or trigger an inferiority complex.
Once in that position, the next thing most people do is (consciously or subconsciously) overcompensate in one of two ways...
1. With overconfidence and bluster:
Puffing out one's chest, speaking loudly and confidently about stuff that is ill-understood, constructing a success narrative and telling people only exaggerated versions of the truth - these are all examples of what I call Overconfidence and Bluster. The most obvious example of this is the Shirley Hornstein incident, but much more subtle and pervasive versions of this go on everyday in almost every conversation.
Some of the confidence and exaggeration is ok, of course. Speaking prospectively and helping people see your vision for how it could be vs. how it actually is, can help build momentum and positivity. But it can easily get out of control.
2. With drama:
In a disturbing number of cases, however, rather than a success narrative, some use drama to get and hold attention. They always have a story of who and how they were wronged by some other person or company.
The truth is getting anywhere will require countless hours and countless setbacks. This is the cost of doing business and part of the hard work of building something valuable. The more efficiently you process and learn from negative interactions (ideally within hours) the better off you are. Ideally you can optimize your own communication and work style to avoid negative interactions all together.
Being honest (and balanced) about this with yourself and others (without going to either extreme) is critical if you're going to survive the marathon. Ultimately the only way to really succeed with your work and your personal life is to do the hard, slow and methodical work it takes to win a little ground every day.
Relationship musical chairs
As a natural extension of the first two symptoms, relationships (romantic or otherwise) often suffer. There’s a tendency to get into relationships with one or more of the following undermining thoughts playing in ones mind.
1. Is this the best I can do (FOMO)
2. Could this ruin my reputation (FOMO)
3. I want to focus on my career first (FOMO)
4. They better put in the effort I deserve (Overconfidence and bluster)
5. I need to figure out who I am first (Lack a strong personal identity and emotional maturity)
As I’ve written in the past, relationships are hard work. But if worked on with the right person they can create enormous value by laying a foundation that frees up so much emotional and cognitive baggage.
How? Well if root cause for all of these issues is a lack of strong identity or confidence, then relationships are the answer, not the problem. We are how we act consistently - and especially how we treat others we love and care about. There’s no better way to bolster your identity and confidence than to define and declare yourself as someone who treats others well, and demands the same in return.
In fact, the loving (and authentic) embrace of your 'found family' is perhaps the best cure to all of the issues discussed in this post.
Depression and Anxiety
As a natural extension to the first three symptoms listed above (and many more I’m sure) we can each experience depression and anxiety in ways that non-entrepreneurs might never be able to appreciate.
Even those of us who are lucky to have great jobs, great apartments and great friends and even while experiencing great joy can find ourselves feeling down.
I know that personally I’ve felt guilty or unproductive when that feeling of contentment creeps in. It freaks me out because I wonder if I'm content, then maybe I'm not aiming high enough. I feel like I need to be striving for something - moving from here to there - to be achieving my next highest potential.
The result of all this can be a battle with depression and/or anxiety. What's worse, because one might be going through FOMO and Overconfidence facades, we often can’t share our battle with anyone else.
Unfortunately I don’t have any answers for all of this.
For myself I try to focus on building better, deeper relationships, attending only those parties and gatherings I find meaningful and remembering that contentment and happiness is part of the point (and reward) of having worked hard for the life I want.
This is, of course, easier said than done.
It’s hard, methodical work and discipline that I imagine will never end. It’s part of my routine just like brushing my teeth or having a shower.
One more thing...
I was going to end this post there, basically with 'no answers', however I now realize that somewhere in the middle I hit upon the most useful tool I've found this year...
In fact, the loving (and authentic) embrace of your 'found family' is perhaps the best cure to all of the issues discussed in this post.
Loving (despite flaws) and allowing one self to be loved (by revealing my flaws) has been my principle lesson of this year - it has made the year not just bearable, but successful.
Do you have any other examples of HEA or any other techniques for dealing with it? I’d love to hear your stories below in the comments.
In my last few posts I've used the word 'Love' a lot. I thought I would try to describe what that word means to me.
From the bible (though I am not a big fan of that book)
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
I would add...
Love is truth. Love is openness. Love is loyalty. Love is nostalgia.
Love survives time, and space. Love survives moods.
Love is vulnerability. Love is drawing power from partnership.
Love is making yours mine. Love is making mine, yours. Love is making you, us. Love is making us, me.
Love is based on trust and friendship. A friendship that could never be abandoned. Love is not being alone.
Love is the thing that survives long after the lust has burned away, the words have evaporated and the disappointments have sunk in.
Love is scary as hell.
The feeling of love peaks and troughs. Love takes faith.
Love is not playing games. Not manipulating. Not having an agenda.
Love begins with loving yourself. It ends with loving everyone and everything.
Love is often confused with fear.
Love is often confused with lust.
Love is infrequent.
Love is evolution.
Love is God.
You can't convince someone to feel it. You can't convince yourself to stop.
Above all else, you must have a great relationship with yourself. Without that strong foundation, you can not have a strong relationship with another person or organization.
There’s no such thing as normal. We all have our biases and neurosis.
We obsess over ritual, process, dogma and fear. Did he do the right thing on date number 3? Did she file form number 5? Did they come through the right door?
Our egos, pride and fear get in the way of real connections and meaningful leaps of faith. We classify ‘ideal’ as unattainable ‘fantasy’ instead of a worthy goal. We semi-commit, leverage, tell half truths, white lies or outright betrayals. What if your business model matched your vision? What if your words matched your thoughts. What if your thoughts matched your highest ideals - ideals based on love and openness.
We play power games, instead of realizing partnership affords us the greatest power of all. Saying "I need you" or "I need help" is a critical kind of power.
We think we must choose between love, work or self. We are all selfish. But we don't realize that definition of love is broadening your definition of self to include another person. We don’t realize that success without love is like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear - it happens but it doesn’t matter. No one gives a shit.
We think we must choose between one person or another. The truth is we are all nodes on a network. We need different types of signals from different kinds of people.
We try to ‘find ourselves’ not realizing that our everyday actions define us. Did you say that kind word to that stranger? Then you are kind. Were you loyal to a friend? Then you are loyal. Did you avoid that confrontation? Then you are someone who avoids confrontation. Did you tell your complete personal truth? Then you are honest.
We look for the next best thing instead of recognizing that truly getting on the same page with someone is the best possibility of all. Achieving that kind of collaboration - even for a moment - should be cherished in the moment and for a lifetime. Sometimes it happens like a lightning strike. Most times it takes hard work, communication and trust.
We forget that the best relationships are about resonating with something or someone. About helping each other evolve by creating safe harbors, new opportunities and covering each other's blind spots.
We grow complacent and content in our relationships. They require constant work. Each participant must grow, evolve and contribute to the whole.
There are so many stories of people breaking up because they were ‘too young’ and now, years later, they long for that lost connection. "We’re different now. They have a girlfriend now. They are happy without me." Why did you give it up in the first place? Why not try again? Are grand gestures only for the movies?
There are so many stories of high-school sweethearts that wake up one day resenting each other. Do they resent each other, or do they resent missed opportunities. Being trapped. Missed freedoms. Did they communicate? Did they give each other freedom? Did they create opportunities for each other? Did they leave when the relationship finally no longer served their evolution?
Maybe most relationships are temporary - a day, a week, a year, a decade. We try to have ‘clean’ breakups. Contracts. Lawyers. Relationships are not clean. They are messy. Love is messy. Life is work. Work is life. A relationship is not defined by what you think it should be or what the contract says it will be - it’s defined by every day. Every hiccup. Every earnest effort to do the right thing for the other person.
Time is not running out. We overestimate what can be done in a day and underestimate what can be done in a decade. Breathe. Take your time. Pay attention. Keep perspective.
Is there always imbalance in a relationship? Does one always need the other more. Love the other more? Is that ok? How does one measure the delta. What is the threshold for when the delta becomes too great? When does the relationship no longer serve your evolution and the evolution of your partner?
These are some of the open questions about a partnership that remain for me.
I know, though, you can't hold on too tight or you will strangle each other.
These things are only cliches because they are true.
I've been thinking a lot about what compels people to behave a certain way. In business. In personal relationships. In life.
I'm certain there are countless books espousing countless metaphors for thinking about the issue. For me it comes down to some common themes.
Perspective is perhaps one of the most important human traits. Along with tool building and self-awareness, it's one of the core things that separate us from the animals. It allows us to switch angles, points of view, lenses, frames of reference or ways of thinking in order to evaluate an idea or circumstance in multiple ways.
Often times when you're feeling down, confused or looking for a better option, simply try changing your perspective and your attitude or feeling can change almost instantly.
Our priorities can affect our actions in fundamental ways. In fact just re-ordering a few subconscious priorities can dramatically change our behavior, loyalties and outcomes.
When you hear someone say "they've changed" it's likely that the person in question has changed their priorities or their perspective because the rest of the items on this list are pretty hard to change without a lot of conscious thought and self-evaluation.
Patterns are about what a person has seen in his or her past and is either repeating or trying to break away from. You might also see patterns from your peers or they might even imprint them on you directly with advice. In the worst cases this is peer pressure.
Perhaps it's their parents. Perhaps it's a previous business failure. Whatever the case, human beings are pattern recognition (and repeating) machines. We are doing it all the time. It's very, very easy to fall into them and almost impossible to change them - particularly the fundamental ones.
Patterns are not just about behaviors. They are also about subconscious ways of thinking and the way we might emotionally identify with situations.
In many cases our behaviors change, but the underlaying emotional pattern is the same. Some patterns are probably fairly immutable without a LOT of pain and conscious thought.
There are certain temperaments and personality traits we're born with. Some babies are irritable, some sleep through the whole night. This isn't learned behavior, it's genetic. Our chemical make ups have a profound impact on our patience, personality and actions.
Sure you can take pills to help with depression or anxiety. Ideally, though, you use exercise or other meditation techniques to adjust your brain chemistry but the core genetics are obviously locked in stone.
Pride is a powerful force. It can stop us from reaching out, reaching in or just fundamentally seeing the truth. Pride often times leads us to our worst fears and can block us from getting what we want. It's like a poison that can fundamentally break our lives in ways we can't understand and may never be able to repair. It's based on fear (detailed next) but it's so specific that I thought it deserved it's own section.
Fear is an overriding motivating factor. Fight or flight can shut down all other factors listed here and drive us to do crazy things. When we think our person, personality or future is at risk, we can lash out, cut off and fly away from situations or people faster than you can say 'hey relax, you're no longer fighting for your life out in the prehistoric caves'.
Living in Love is the highest form of decision making. Highest form of living in general really. Making decisions based on your highest hopes and grandest version of yourself is hard to do because everything in your brain and body tells you to run like hell. When your perspective is wrong, or your priorities are shifting or your patterns are locked in or your predisposition is messing up your clarity or your fear is shutting down your brain and forcing you to simply react, or your pride is getting in the way -- finding your love, much less acting on it, is near impossible.
Find it you must, though.
[Update] Love also has another effect. When you truly love someone else, they become part of you. Part of your definition of self. The way you treat/behave towards yourself is vastly different than the way you would treat anyone else. This can dictate your behavior in ways that even supersede fear.
[Editors Note] I left this out when originally publishing the post but a couple of hours after writing it I attended an inspiring dinner where it was clear many people were trying to use this factor to drive their behavior - it was an oversight not to include it in the first place.
Purpose is, in many ways, the easiest way to manipulate your own behavior. In fact In many ways it's the only way to practically (in material ways) determine success because by clearly defining your purpose (and change the world or be important is not clear enough) you can carve a smooth trajectory for your life, make your actions more consistent and ultimately give you something to succeed at. After all, the definition of success is first stating a goal and then achieving it.
Having a grand purpose also helps inspire those around you to action as well. In many cases our purpose is defined by the factors listed above and just as often the factors above block us from achieving it.