Perspective and Environment
When I left my job at Lehman five years ago, I left New York City as well. I grew up in Brooklyn, but had never lived more than a couple hundred miles away. I said goodbye to the people and family that I love, and I bought a ticket across the world with little idea as to what I might do, how I might earn a living, or what value I might create in the world. I traveled the continent of Asia and ultimately I received a scholarship to attend the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as a graduate student.
In 2008, I would’ve told you I was leaving New York for all sorts of reasons. But looking back, I think it was a simple one - I left to renew a basic connection with humanity; one that wasn’t entirely lost, but gradually worn from decades living on the same streets in Brooklyn and one awful year on Wall Street.
Since I returned to NYC four years ago to build my first startup, I’ve been largely sedentary. My occupation - building and investing in young companies – both requires it and justifies it. Professionally, I feel deeply lucky to be doing what I’m doing. But personally, I think I’ve lost some perspective. This doesn’t mean I’m unhappy, in fact quite the contrary. But I’m sure as hell unbalanced, and I often feel bad about that. In fact, if I may speak more broadly, the entire startup community, documented well in Packer’s recent article in the New Yorker, seems to have lost some perspective.
Last week I traveled to Colombia for some time away. It was my first time out of the country in years. By no means was I slumming it, but I had limited access to the Internet and generally tried to stay off the grid. And holy shit, what an incredible reset of mind and perspective. Below are a few thoughts I’ve returned with:
It took a few days to set in, almost like a time released drug, but soon enough I noticed I was thinking differently. I literally had several thoughts that felt like lightbulbs going off in my brain, thoughts that would not have occurred behind the endless stream of emails, iPhone notifications, twitter feeds, or the same desk in the same office every day. At times it felt like an awakening, and not a single drug was used in the process. In fact, I drank a lot less coffee, and that felt good too.
I had better and more varied conversations with the people I was traveling with, both of whom do not work in the technology industry. I learned new things from them. We spoke about how we spend our time, inside and outside of work. They reminded me of a time when I spent most evenings with the people I grew up with in old haunts, movies in the park, reading, writing, learning. I was embarrassed to say that my outside of work is usually inside of work, at drinks with colleagues or working late or some VC dinner. Really, the same conversations with mostly the same people. Not much perspective in that.
Will I miss out by saying no to these events more often? Possibly. But I also know the best relationships I’ve built have been through actual work, on investments or companies with people that I respect, building friendships that exist outside the walls of VC dinners, discussing technology and our careers and our lives away from ticketed events.
Will I miss the next great entrepreneur by saying no to these events more often? Possibly, but I don’t think so. Because the best entrepreneurs I know have perspective. They’re out there in the real world, living and building their companies. Of course there will be exceptions, more likely so in Silicon Valley I think, but I couldn’t imagine Perry from Kickstarter, Georg from Paper, Nick from Tobe at some angel pitch event - they would have been too busy building their business and interacting with the industries that will help them get there – the arts, fashion, film, music, publishing, and all the others that make NYC so great. These are the types of people I want to find and invest in, and by the way, they’re a hell of a lot more fun to spend time with.
I wondered during my trip if many people in the tech industry are made less interesting because of it? This seems counter-intuitive no? How could a group of people with so much access to information become less interesting and less differentiated from one another? I think maybe it’s because we’re all reading, sharing, commenting and thinking about the same exact things. Or at least many of us are. We all follow the same people on twitter, which means we all read the same articles, listen to the same songs, share the same blog posts, this one included. I’m mortified to admit that I read my first novel in as long as I can remember last week. That’s just plain lame.
I re-realized that the rest of the world’s problems are very different than our own. They aren’t worried about whether or not their iPhone will be able to communicate with the bus stop. They’re worried about access to clean water, a transparent and trustworthy banking system, a steady job, etc. That’s not to say there aren’t visionary entrepreneurs in the United States who are creating value in really interesting ways. There most certainly are. But building a hyperloop so that the folks in LA can travel faster to SF? It’s objectively amazing, and Elon Musk is nothing short of incredible, but the hyperloop is nonetheless a very interesting solution to a definitive first world problem.
Last night I had dinner with my closest friend since I was in pre-school. He works in a development office at a school. While we were ordering, literally while the waitress was speaking to us, I had my nose in my iPhone. Alex promptly scolded me, with good cause. And I realized that I’ve been back for less than a week and it’s already gone, that thing called perspective, which often isn’t a far cry from respect. So I’m writing all of this down and sharing it so that I don’t forget it. Really, I’m calling myself out, even if it just amounts to a public record and nothing more.