The Dangers of the Success Myth

This is taken from an excellent article about the social network Diaspora and its tragic end What Happened to the Facebook Killer? It’s Complicated. Aside from telling this story the article also has an excellent critique of the myth of success in silicon valley where survivor bias and the need to create “strong man” myths dominates to an incredible degree.

These creation myths not only prevent us from seeing the blatantly obvious truths but actually work to prevent us from understanding what success is and how it is  achieved.

In Silicon Valley, where college dropouts go on to become billionaires and takeover the world, a deadly myth propagates. “As long as you’re over a certain threshold of intelligence, what matters most is determination,” evangelizes Paul Graham, founder of the legendary startup incubator Y-Combinator, which would later back Diaspora in a last gasp effort to keep the project alive. It’s a beautiful thought and fundamental to the American Dream. It’s a delusion that drives starry-eyed youngsters to quit school and head West, living off ramen and moving into hostel communities, “not so different from crowded apartments that cater to immigrants.” In Silicon Valley, they believe that if you do whatever it takes, eventually, you’ll get there too. There, everyone is on the cusp of greatness. And if you haven’t yet made it to the land of milk and honey, it’s only because you aren’t working hard enough. Or worse, you’ve given up.

Success, however, is never quite so straightforward, a layered concoction, equal parts good idea, perseverance and whole lot of serendipity. It’s for this reason that many of the industry’s biggest rock stars remain one hit wonders. Marc Andreessen has struggled to match the triumph of Netscape Navigator. Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone left their company a year ago to work on something called Obvious, but so far have only a single blog post to show for it. Then there’s Sean Parker of Napster fame. After wiggling his way into Facebook, his latest celebrity-endorsed venture, the Chatroulette clone AirTime, has yet to take off, if it ever does. Even with their credibility, confidence and cash, repeating past success eludes Silicon Valley’s finest.

Yet the myth propagates because survivor bias rules. Failure just isn’t part of the vocabulary; startup honchos prefer terms like “pivot” over more straight-forward words for a coming-to-terms. It’s not something winners acknowledge, nor is it something the media often reports. For every Mark Zuckerberg, there’s thousands of also-rans, who had parties no one ever attended, obsolete before we ever knew they existed.

Then there’s the issue of money. In the early stages of a tech startup, there are few measurable achievements and progress is abstract. At the height of Silicon Valley’s second great tech bubble, new players defined themselves not by what they’d done, but how much money they raised. While raising capital is fundamental, too much too soon can be a death sentence. All that cash hangs like an albatross around your neck, explains Ben Kaufman, who just raised $68 million for his company, Quirky.

“In the eye of the public, and specifically the tech community, funding is thought to mean much more than it actually does,” Kaufman writes. “The world views funding as a badge of honor. I view it as a scarlet letter.” This is the age of Kickstarter, where you can earn press and raise millions on the back of just an idea, undermining the tech scene’s supposed love affair with execution. It reinforces a false sense of success, Kaufman says, remembering the first time he raised his first $1 million at the age of nineteen. “My grandfather called me to congratulate me on building a successful company,” Kaufman recalls. “We still hadn’t done shit. We just got some dude to write a check.” In other words, when the money is flowing, it’s easy to feel like you’ve made it, before you’ve actually made it.

Humpty-dumpty and irreversable systems

While reading a bit of retro work I came across this:

A little known law of life is that of irreversibility. No human or physical act or process can be reversed so that objects and states end up as they were. During the original act and in the time just after it, both object and state undergo change that is irreversible. An early known poem, Humpty-dumpty, recognises this. Once the egg is broken, that is that.

It is the same with systems. They can never be reversed. They can be changed, certainly, and sidetracked, and they can be very easily destroyed, the moment a human-machine information system comes into being, it takes on a life of its own independent of its creators. The operators just run it, while programmers merely maintain it. The process called entropy begins, a confusion that can be measured by the growing gulf between what people first knew about the system and now know about it.

Brian Rothery (1971), The Myth of the Computer, Business Books, p 43.

Today is for Sisyphus

Ever since a teacher long ago explained Camus’ use of the Sisyphus myth in his work The Myth of Sisyphus to attempt to reach a conclusion as to why we should all not kill ourselves I have been fascinated by the myth itself and the work by Camus which ends with the words: The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king punished by the gods to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again, and to repeat this throughout eternity. He has been the image of pointless work and Camus used him as an example in his work to defend the pointlessness of life.

The first days at work after a vacation are never the best…

Found this beautiful image at Agency of the Urban Subconscious the original wall is in Sicily