What Makes Silicon Valley Special? Eternal Optimism of the Innovative Mind

For some odd reason, December makes me more pensive than usual, prompts me to focus not so much on the fleeting minutiae of life but on the big picture. I have no idea why this happens — but it happens, every year. And as a result, I start to sleep less and think more. Previously I would smoke and drink coffee as I assembled my thoughts. Now I just hit the treadmill.

Last night was no different, so instead of trying to sleep, I went for a walk on the treadmill while I watched the bittersweet love story, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” (Thank you, Netflix on demand!) The movie stars Jim Carrey as Joel Barish and Kate Winslet as his girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski.

Essentially the story is that Clementine undergoes a procedure that erases Joel from her memory. Joel does the same, but as luck (or the Hollywood dream factory) would have it, he runs into Clementine. You know — the whole boy-meets-girl thing with a lot of side plots and little bit of psychedelia! Actually it’s one of those tragicomic stories that make perfect sense at 3:45 a.m.

And while I know this may sound crazy, the movie made me think of Silicon Valley and what makes it special. Hear me out!

Every so often, we comes across a new technology, get excited and fall in love with it. Optimism gives way to sheer nuttiness (aka a bubble). Then the bubble bursts. And at that point we decide that we are no longer in love with the idea, press the button and reset our memories — only to fall in love all over again with the next new innovation that catches our eye (or makes sense). Technologies change, characters change, names change, but innovation remains a constant. Innovation that comes from optimism.

A couple of days ago, I met up with a friend who’s just moved back to San Francisco from Los Angeles. She was struck by the sheer optimism of folks in the Bay Area. I could relate — that’s precisely how I felt when I moved here from New York to work for Business 2.0 in March 2003. The relentless optimism was jarring for someone like me, who’d long ago been dubbed an eternal contrarian and a skeptic by all of my friends. But it was especially hard for me to understand how Silicon Valley could be optimistic in the wake of the dot-com crash. I lived through it…and it was painful. I literally shut the lights off at Red Herring, the magazine I so dearly loved, not long before boarding my flight to San Francisco.

Yet whether it was 1995 or 1999, 2003 or 2009 — optimism has been a constant in Silicon Valley. And I think that’s what makes Silicon Valley special. Many argue that being the nexus of money (Sand Hill Road), institutions of higher learning (UC Berkeley and Stanford University) and the technology ecosystem is what makes Silicon Valley such a unique place. And while that might be true, what really makes Silicon Valley special — to the point that it can’t be replicated anywhere else — is its relentless optimism. And that is the crucial difference between Silicon Valley and London and Bangalore and Shanghai. Israel is the only place close enough to have the full package, but it has other issues — like a lack of a big enough market.

Entrepreneurs are eternally optimistic — they have to be if they’re going to change the world. And because they’re surrounded by other optimists, there is very little time for them to mope around. I can rattle off a dozen people in Silicon Valley who, after taking it on the chin, just got up and started all over again. Every year thousands of new entrepreneurs show up here, full of crazy ideas and brimming with optimism, thus breeding even more of it!

And there’s nothing wrong with that!