One of the traits of startup founders that has baffled me for years is how people who appear to be leaders, who have blazed their own trail by engaging in risky undertakings with no guarantees, so often prove themselves to be lemming-like followers eager to chase the biggest crowds.
It doesn’t make any sense to me to see how even those who have achieved great financial success, and are clearly intelligent, still behave like acolytes to the church of facile popularity.
Despite my best efforts to reconcile this paradox, I never came up with an explanation that I found acceptable until I read this quote from Brené Brown: “When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”
Did that one line explain the underlying personality trait that drives the tech industry? Are the entrepreneurs and supposed trailblazers just needy and insecure people who start companies so they can feel special and loved?
Consider the narcissistic tendencies of Valley entrepreneurs. I doubt there’s another group of people more likely to describe themselves as “visionaries” and “world changers” before they’ve envisioned or changed anything. I’ve long been a critic of this self-puffery and chalked it up to our society’s increasing propensity to tell everyone they’re special, but if we look at these grandiose claims through Professor Brown’s frame of reference this braggadocio isn’t narcissism at all, but rather cries for attention from people who deep down don’t feel worthy. Considering how many self proclaimed visionaries are also social misfits, this perspective is at least worth contemplating.
Another way we see entrepreneurs making thinly disguised claims of their exceptionality while begging for attention is in the near constant talk of going through “the struggle” and the Valley’s love of depression porn. Any post about how hard someone fought and how they plumbed the depths of self doubt and struggled with depression while building their startup is virtually guaranteed to go viral as other founders, and even non-founders, share it and chime in with, “Me too! Me too!”
I don’t mean to make light of anyone legitimately dealing with depression, but this isn’t the case for the vast majority of people piling on with their own version of the hero’s journey. For most, the claims of struggle and depression are just another effort to make themselves feel special, another example of what Professor Brown explains as people’s fear of being ordinary. After all, a regular person could never survive the trials of entrepreneurship, right? Only someone exceptional could fight so hard and come back from such lows.
Time and again we see people who appear to be leaders chasing after external validation to prove their worthiness. VCs and entrepreneurs line up to worship at the altar of TED because they think being a TEDster means they’re above the common man.
It’s not the only symptom of irrationality. The entire tech industry, while built on math and science, readily throws empirical evidence out the window to jump on the latest bandwagons, from juice cleanses to Bulletproof coffee, because that’s what the cool kids are doing. Everywhere you turn in the Valley you see the paradox of thought-leading innovators behaving like groupies around any event or person or trend that might make them seem smarter or more special than the average person.
Trying to understand this drove me crazy, but within Professor Brown’s framework it all makes perfect sense. The vast majority of leaders in Silicon Valley aren’t really leaders at all. A small handful have created innovations or even changed the world. Their underlying trait isn’t the strength and independence that we associate with strong leadership, but rather the insecurity and fear of being common. This fear is why entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs call themselves visionaries and thought leaders without having done anything to earn such descriptions.
A few will even start companies, and a few of those companies might change the world, but it appears the engine driving Silicon Valley isn’t leadership in the traditional sense — but rather an overwhelming fear of being ordinary.