Losing My Religion

Note: This is, more or less, the text of the talk I gave at the International Startup Festival in Montreal on July 12, 2014.

This is a story that I’ve not told anyone before. It’s a story about how I found myself while finding my work. It’s a work in progress, but I think you’ll get the point.

The church my father served for 21 years – and where I did much of my growing up.

My father was the minister at the big Methodist church at the center of a small Western Pennsylvania town. When I was a kid there was –  beyond the Golden Rule –  really only one household  mandate: unless there was a real possibility that you might meet God face to face, you had to be in church on Sunday.

By church, I mean Sunday school, the 11 o’clock worship service, and social hour afterward. Once I turned 16 and had a driving license, it also meant acting as chauffer to Mrs. Hines and her cohort of elderly ladies.

Church wasn’t just a Sunday and done sort of thing, though. There were countless pot luck suppers, youth group meetings, service projects, retreats and summer camps, bible studies, and – during Lent and Advent – Wednesday morning prayer breakfasts, where as best I can tell, the only conversions were of middle-aged parishioners being convinced by the Shipley kids that peanut butter on pancakes was an awesome thing. If you’ve never tried it, you really should.

A childhood in church basements taught me a lot about religion and how religious communities work. While I don’t subscribe to Methodism any longer, I understand its dynamics, the pull of a congregation of true believers, the strength and support of a shared community, the power that is given and taken, the best intentions and the worst manipulations.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me recently when I recognized for the first time that the Silicon Valley that I have lived and worked in for the last 20 years is not so much a place as it is a religion. And that revelation has been every bit as profound as the stirrings one may feel at an old-time revival meeting.

Many people will tell you that Silicon Valley is an ecosystem. In fact, d that was the argument I was having at the time of my insight.  An ecosystem is a complex and co-dependent relationship among organism that make it work. For a long time, I thought that perfectly well described Silicon Valley and the symbiosis among its various actors. In a compact area, a critical mass of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, engineers and marketers, lawyers and bankers, incubators and accelerators all come together to make the startup economy work.

And for years, visitors have flocked to Silicon Valley to study the ecosystem trying to figure out how it works. They meet with startup groups, attend pitch events, talk to venture capitalists and otherwise take an inventory of the parts they’ll need to build an ecosystem back home. Then, they invest (collectively) trillions of economic development dollars in co-working spaces, educational and mentoring programs, business accelerators. They invite the Big Names from the Valley to visit and speak. They create investment funds and change laws to make it easier for entrepreneurs to access capital, incorporate businesses, hire and fire. They put out a shingle that says, “We’re startup friendly.” Yet, although there have been some modest successes, no place has replicated the power and impact of Silicon Valley.

Why? And why when trillions of dollars are spent every year to recreate the Silicon Valley environment?

More than a few in Silicon Valley will tell you, with a hint of arrogance, that we have all the smart people. The best engineers. The most enlightened and experienced investors.  Service providers who know how to work with startups, and resources aplenty.  The best and most of everything an entrepreneur could ever need.  Indeed, why replicate, when you can just come here?

That’s not the answer, and yet in it you will find the answer.

What Silicon Valley has is a very specific, very well practiced, ethos.  Values.  Religion.

When someone tells you that Silicon Valley is the best, the most, the brightest, that person is preaching it, brother!  He is a true believer and he wants you to be a true believer, too. In fact, it’s critical to his self-identity that you also believe. That’s how religions work.

I’m not reaching here to create a wobbly analogy. Consider it:

Religions have a Book, or books, and lots of books about the Book.  Silicon Valley has always had books, from Crossing the Chasm to the Four Steps to the Epiphany and Lean Startup. These books guide the way.

Religions have prophets, preachers, missionaries, and evangelists. If you don’t believe the same is true for Silicon Valley, simply look at the speaker lineup for this Festival. Serial entrepreneurs and long term and successful investors seem always at the ready to share the Gospel of Silicon Valley.

Religions have deacons and disciples. Silicon Valley has mentors and entrepreneurs.

Religions have churches and meeting houses. Silicon Valley has accelerators, incubators, co-work spaces.

Religions have sin, forgiveness and redemption.Silicon Valley has failure, pivots, and serial entrepreneurs.

And where I come from, religions have covered dish suppers. Silicon Valley has meetups.

Most importantly, though, and the most very important, is this: Religions have value systems. And so does Silicon Valley.

And that’s when I realized where I was going wrong.

You see, for all the churchifying in my young life, I never got “the calling.”   While kids at camp collapsed in emotional heaps, swearing they’d been touched by the hand of God, I would climb into my sleeping bag and wonder, “Why not me, God?”

That’s not to say that I my upbringing didn’t instill a strong moral compass, compassion for others, or even a sustaining spirituality.  It certainly did and it is a very important part of who I am today. I just didn’t get there by the same path that so many others did. And that was painful.

When parishioners stood in church and recited prayers and creeds and I was self-editing the parts that didn’t work for me, that was painful.

When other kids were having their religious experiences and I was not, that was painful.

When youth leaders and counselors and even peers told me that I was bound for hell because I didn’t believe the way they believed, that was painful.

Never did I ask – really ask – what was different? What were my values? What did I believe? Instead, I wondered what was wrong with me. Really, it didn’t actually matter what I believed, the nuances of interpretation. I was out of alignment with my community and it was painful.

Fast forward 30 years or so.

In the Fall of 2011, after listening to the 1000th pitch that promised to be the Airbnb for something that no one could possibly want, I wrote a piece that implored entrepreneurs to build businesses with purpose.  Startups are HARD, I wrote. You might as well make it matter.

For months, I beat the drum to get entrepreneurs to make their work matter, all the while watching Silicon Valley move away from real innovation and toward a commodities trading model. That is, the use of startups for the purpose of wealth creation.  The bar to start a company had dropped so low and the big wins were increasingly enticing. Entrepreneurs were pitching business ideas designed to rapidly acquire “traction” and then exit quickly.  Few of them were tackling meaningful problems. Fewer still were doing anything really hard.

Yet these easy-idea, quick-flip startups were getting funded.  Which attracted more investors. Which attracted more startups. Which attracted more followers. Which began to articulate a value systems that said startups were about wealth creation.

Wealth creation.  Not necessarily value creation.

I talked to anyone who would listen about the need to build real value, create meaningful companies. The odds of creating out-sized wealth were slim, but almost anyone, with the right intent, could build a business with enduring impact and purpose.

All my preaching made little difference.  The prophets of Silicon Valley were offering a path to rock stardom. I was advocating hard work. You can guess which resonated with young and ambitious would-be entrepreneurs.

At the same time, my own business was struggling. Part consultancy, part software company, and very much in the heart of the startup culture, Guidewire Labs wasn’t enough of any of those things to work well. I was burned out. And depressed. And in pain that is hard to articulate but was nonetheless very real.  That was in late 2012, and for much of the last 18 months, I wrestled with that pain. I wound down the company. I spent 30 days on a ship with a bunch of college students and social entrepreneurs.  I moved to Missouri for 8 months, presumably to consider the future of journalism, and in reality to get some white space to think and a very big change of scenery.

Then, a couple months ago, I was debating this idea that Silicon Valley is the best place in the world.  Without thinking, I heard myself saying, “Silicon Valley isn’t an ecosystem; it’s a religion.”

And everything clicked.

Over the 20 years that I have lived and worked in the heart of the place, my values and Silicon Valley’s diverged. The frustration, the burn out, the depression and pain were symptoms. I’d become exhausted trying to work in, to be in – indeed, to be a personality in — a community that no longer fit.

And here, it is important that I be clear:  Values are values. You have your values. I have mine. Other people and systems have theirs. One is not necessarily better than another. One set doesn’t make you a better person or a better entrepreneur. Just different.

There’s no judgment.  But there is clarity.

And here’s why I’m telling you this story:

Your values matter.  They matter in the company you build. They matter in the community where you live and work. They matter in the investments you take and the investors with whom you work. Your success – not just in your company – but also in your life, your health, your happiness, depends on it.

All that time I was advocating for startups to make it matter, I was focused on the wrong thing.  I was directing entrepreneurs to do things that matter to the world, and that’s a good thing.  But that’s my values talking. If you want to build a company in order to make a lot of money, that’s great and you should do it. If that’s what you value.

The right thing is to do things that matter to you. Find the community that embraces your values. Find the investors that share your values. Find the business that reflects your values.

You’ll be happier. You’ll do better work. You’ll build a better company. And no matter what you choose to do, you’ll make it matter.

If there is an ending to my story, it a happy one. Rather than struggle to fill a mold in which I would never quite fit, I cast my own mold. It makes it much easier to know which work to do and – even more importantly – which work to decline. I know how to spend my time and with whom. I may not be who many think I am, and that’s okay.  I’m exactly who I need to be, doing the work that matters to me.

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