11.25.2014

Hubris

http://www3.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Sarah+Lacy+Travis+Kalanick+TechCrunch+Disrupt+McOWL3B3dshl.jpgSilicon Valley, where I'm from, is famous for its concentration of technology and innovation activity.  It is literally the envy of every region, including mine, that aspires to be a hub of entrepreneurship.

I could go on at length about what is the special sauce that is Silicon Valley, but one cause and/or effect of what makes Silicon Valley Silicon Valley is this notion that the world is out there to be changed radically.  The quintessential Silicon Valley aspires not only to billion dollar valuations but to creating something that will fundamentally shift how people live.  So products are no longer about the products themselves but about their transformative power on everyday life.  Facebook exists not to provide a social media platform but to radically make the entire world into a more open and connected place (my paraphrase of their official mission statement).

What is interesting about this kind of mindset is how it is now being applied to arenas outside business and technology.  The du jour thing for a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur to do now is to tackle new realms seen as allergic to innovation.  Whether in philanthropy, government, or education, tech titans are making a big splash in dollars, initiatives, and rhetoric.

I largely applaud the efforts and even the chutzpah behind them.  But let's be careful here.  Much of that awesome energy emanating from Silicon Valley borders on hubris.  It is natural to think that if you were wildly successful in one thing (say, forming and growing a software company), you can be successful at something else (say, reforming public education), even if you can't.  It is great to think you can change the world, but not if that renders you incapable of having humility and deference in your toolkit.

Even worse, it is a short step to assume that your lofty ends justify any means.  This is the point made recently about Uber by a British American Project colleague of mine, Lucy Marcus of Marcus Venture Consulting: "There's a sense that you can do whatever the heck you want for the sake of building your business."  The USA Today article in which Lucy is quoted underscores the hubristic culture that is Silicon Valley at its worst: brazen, misogynistic, and bullying.  (Uber's latest taunt was to threaten to obtain data on the travel info of a female reporter critical of them to prove a "particular and very specific claim" about her personal life.  That reporter, Sarah Lacy, is pictured above, with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.)

There is a lot to commend about Silicon Valley.  We have much to learn from its awesome ways.  But it too has much to learn, and I worry if it doesn't think it has anything to learn. 



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