Perspective and Environment
When I left my job at Lehman five years ago, I left New York too. I grew up in Brooklyn, but had never lived more than a couple hundred miles away. I said goodbye to my best friends and my family, 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 throughout Asia and ultimately 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 lost, but worn from decades living in Brooklyn and one awful year on Wall Street after college.
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 - quite the contrary - But I’ve felt unbalanced recently. In fact, the entire startup community, documented 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, and with limited access to the Internet, I generally tried to stay off the grid. 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, 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.
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 realize that my outside of work is now often inside of work, at drinks with colleagues or working late or some VC or startup 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 the actual work, 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? Perhaps, 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.
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 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.
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. He scolded me for it, with good cause. And I realized that I’ve been back for less than a week and that thing I had while traveling and off the grid was already gone.