An Adolescence in Silicon Valley

On October 18, 2013, I attended a conference hosted by Y-Combinator, the world’s premiere tech incubator (and perhaps the only truly successful one in terms of impact and ROI). It was also the day I turned N+15  years old (see FB for the value of N). I wasn’t going to tell anyone at the conference this, for fear that they would revoke my free invitation on the spot. By being N+15 years old, I am at least  years beyond the age of prime productivity in this youth-obsessed place. Therefore, such an event, put on for free by YC, would be wasted on me. The conference included talks by, and interviews of, Silicon Valley luminaries such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. People flew in from all over the world to drink in the wisdom of these famous entrepreneurs. I think only one or two of the speakers was over the age of 40. It was one of those entrepreneurial events that was entertaining and inspiring, though I’m not sure how usefully it actually was.

Silicon Valley places enormous value on the creativity, energy and disruptive ability of the young. A decade ago, the hot companies of Silicon Valley focused on 20-somethings and teenagers, today, they cater to pre-teens and are often founded by teenagers. Peter Thiel, the first angel investor in Facebook, sort of believes that you are over the hill if you are over 20, There is room for people my age in Silicon Valley, but only for those who have had enormous success in their 20s or 30s. Otherwise you are essentially invisible, if you can afford to live here at all (without that enormous success). Regardless of age, Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial community have an very adolescent approach to life and work. In fact, startup companies are almost by definition adolescent. The entrepreneurial maven Steve Blank defines a startup company sa an entity searching for a business model, in contrast to mature companies, which execute on already validated business models. And what is adolescence, after all, but a search for identity, for selfhood?

Adolescence certainly isn’t all or inherently bad. Adolescence is a uniquely modern invention, as childhood is a uniquely human one. And they are both necessary to becoming a productive, modern adult. These years, devoted to self-growth, exploration and play allow us to become smarter and more capable than we could ever be without them. An extended adolescence is a source of competitive advantage for those who can afford to ahve one. But there is certainly something troubling, at least to most people, about a perpetual adolescence. Perhaps if we were infinite creatures, in terms of abilities or life span, then perpetual adolescent would make sense. But there is something somewhat unsettling about the reification of perpetual adolescence, although of course, the old order always finds something troubling of the new order. adon’t have kids and I have never been married. I have never had a real career, but an assortment of desultory, odd jobs. I don’t own a home. I don’t have any real skills or expertise. Now, I suppose I am a responsible sort of adolescent– adolescents do differ. I have never been to jail and I’m far from broke, but I am very adolescent nonetheless– even in terms of body and health, and this is an unalloyed good, I suppose. I have hardly been sick a day in my life, I am the same weight that I was in high school, and I can still run fast enough to play ultimate frisbee with the kids on Stanford campus. I have been so fortunate in this regard, that even if I came down with a terminal illness tomorrow and died soon thereafter, I would say I got a good deal in life with regard to physical health.

I have spent the past few months since the YC conference thinking about how I could, should or might change things. Moving, to almost anywhere else in the US or abroad, could be part of this. I would be able to afford to buy a home and the male/female ratio wouldn’t be so skewed. I might find it easier to find a long-term relationship and a stable, bounded livelihood– in contrast to the obsessive, boundary-less, change-the-world attitude of Silicon Valley work culture Should I try to acquire some of these external accouterments of adulthood and see where they lead me? Or should I just accept that perpetual adolescence is part of my character. The only reason I can afford to continue living in the SF Bay Area is that I am extremely frugal, and that I have cheap hobbies like spearfishing and cooking big vats of lentil soup, and that seems rather adolescent as well.


The following is a bit of an aside, but ironic enough that I feel that I write about it. I could have come to Silicon Valley in the 1980s, since I actually wanted to go to Stanford for college. I was simply too passive to even apply over my mother’s objections. If the commercial Internet had existed back then, maybe the pictures of sunny Stanford campus and barely-minority status of Asians in the Bay Area given me some resolve. Mind you, my mother didn’t forbid me from applying to Stanford, she merely discouraged me from it. To think that some people come from such abusive homes that they need to drop out of school and run away– I couldn’t even muster up enough initiative to go to the fancy college I wanted to go to. In fact, high school was such a waste of time for me that if I had been very proactive, I would have skipped several years of high school and come to Silicon Valley as a preteen. If I had come to Stanford at the typical age of 17 going on 18, I would have been in Jerry Yang’s class as an undergraduate. I am not suggesting in any way I would have become a success like him, far from it. But I could have become his secretary or personal assistant– I’m not kidding about this. And it would have been a much more productive path than going to an Ivy League school (which I care not to name) and then drifting out here after college, with no network or career direction. And not only was Silicon Valley much cheaper and less economically-stratified at that time, it had an authentic technology/geek ethos that has been diluted today– by the success of the commercial Internet and the masses of IPO and VC money. An ambitious 20-something in 1980 or even 1990 did not buy a one-way ticket to SF. S/he bought a plane ticket to LA or NY. I moved to SF after college in the 90s for its lifestyle and counter culture, not because of ambition. Today, someone like me might move to Portland or Seattle instead. I grew up in NY, I left NY, and now the Bay Area has become the new NY in terms of ambition, status-seeking, and cost-of-living. As a former generation of youngsters went to NYC to work in high-paying Wall Street jobs of dubious social value, the current one comes to SF with a mobile or Web 2.0 software company of dubious social value, in hopes of a huge exit.


A few more random thoughts:

Pasted below are some pics of the famous and semi-famous people I met the week of my birthday.

If you had asked me, when I was 8 years old, what I wanted to become, I would have said scientist and academic. I think this is pretty telling. My Myers Briggs type is INTP, which is kind of the absent-minded professor type. In the Star Wars Myers Briggs archetyping, I am Yoda. When I was a child and teen, I assumed I would go to grad school and study something esoteric. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t, but procrastination was certainlt part of it. Perhaps I should pickup this thread again, go and study something nerdy and obscure, such as synthetic biology, and move into some version of an ivory tower.

Tonight, Fri, I had coffee with a friend, then went to a bookstore and then Cost Plus to buy some artisnanal chocolate and teaware. Then I went home, made dinner, and wrote this. I’m terrible at making social plans, which I think I should have locked into some productive routine early on, such as raising kids or working in a lab.

Since my N+15 birthday has passed and I haven’t resolved these issues, I’m giving myself this entire year, until my N+1 birthday minus one day, to things out. Stay tuned.

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