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

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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!

35 Responses to “What Makes Silicon Valley Special? Eternal Optimism of the Innovative Mind”

  1. Bob Dobbs

    What makes Silicon Valley special is the cult of aloneness:

    ‘The need for autonomy at all costs, usually at the expense of long-term relationships. Often brought about by overly high expectations of others.’ (Generation X, D. Coupland 1991)

    Innovation requires a lot of alone time… a majority of alone time. Coding and engineering aren’t warm fuzzy group activities. Yes a project has “teams”, but the work is done alone.

    Silicon Valley has a critical mass of people who prefer to be alone… and a culture of lonliness and aloneness.

    San Francisco is a city of “cool people” who really are just herds of loners who occasionally do things together, like costume parties and burningman. They are the business minds behind Silicon Valley.

    The loner cool people (businesspeople), and lonely engineers, together are the engine of technology.

  2. Yes, optimism is rampant here and it keeps us alive. When the Top Ramen runs out, the optimism kicks in and sustains our work. People have much more control over their destiny than they typically realize. As my old friend used to say, “if you look down a road, you’re going to start going down that road.” For whatever reason, in the northern part of California, we have evolved the capacity to dream and stick with our dreams until they become reality. Not unique to here, but more common here than most places.

  3. Article reminded of a passage from I book I read:

    “When looking at the same sky, people in mature industries see clouds where people in immature industries see pie.”


    “The technology people and the software people are equally Pollyannaish. You can almost assume that the more tenuous the enterprise, the more optimistic the rhetoric is going to be. From what I hear from software people, you’d think that there’s never been a down year in the history of software. Of course, why shouldn’t they be upbeat? With so many competitors in software, you have to sound upbeat. IF you appear to lack confidence, some other sweet-talker will win all the contracts.”

    Peter Lynch, One up on Wall Street, 1989

  4. “Having lived in NY and silicon valley, I would say that NY celebrates wealth, while silicon valley celebrates ingenuity that creates wealth.” –> great comment

    The folly of a few (ok alot) have tarnished the talent and capability of an entire city. I remember the 98-99 startup days in the “alley” and it felt like the “optimism” you described in your article, Om.

    One difference I notice between my NYC weeks and my SF weeks is the resilient hubris that is required to believe that failure is on the path to success. In NY, this is not possible as any failure is a Scarlet Letter over there. Tattooed to your head. In NY, I try to counter failure, in SF, I enable success.

  5. “Having lived in NY and silicon valley, I would say that NY celebrates wealth, while silicon valley celebrates ingenuity that creates wealth.” – Indeed.

    I recently wrote a column, Capitalism’s Fundamental Flaw on Forbes. [] The problem I see in today’s world is that the NY-style speculative wealth creation has been luring many more kids than our Valley-style value creation.

    This needs to change.

  6. les madras

    Having lived in NY and silicon valley, I would say that NY celebrates wealth, while silicon valley celebrates ingenuity that creates wealth.

    optimism is everywhere. even in the most distressed places on earth.

  7. Since you’re indexing off of a great movie Om, do you remember the scnene with Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd at the end of Trading Places at the Philly trading pits — (Akroyd) “This is (one of) the last bastions of pure capitalism on earth” … :)… To draw the analogy, in ADDITION to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial optimism, and the entrepreneur’s desire to make a true difference in the world, this is a culture that also supports the achievement of economic success as well. A an SV culture, we celebrate it, we look for celebrities to symbolize it (David/Jerry, Larry/Sergey, et al), and that’s a good thing. It creates new companies, new jobs, and examples to aspire to … capitalism…

      • Rich W, great point. The SV culture that supports achievement of economic success enables the engineers, product visionaries to continue do what they love, which is to solve technical and product problems that address society’s needs, whether it’s entertainment, socializing, productivity, cleaner energy, etc. Part of the optimization from the technologist’s perspective is that a technical problem can be solved and a product/service can always be improved, or at least attempted.

  8. Jack B. Nimble

    As long as criticality isn’t thrown out the window altogether, you’re completely right.

    Also, it’s important for SV to constructively participate in society. What has happened with the move into clean tech is absolutely great, and represents the best of SV, which in the past to me has seemed indifferent to the real needs of real people, as opposed to relatively wealthy people who merely like to play with consumer toys, or businesses looking to acquire other businesses for inflated prices just because they “might” have a play.

    I want to see tech innovation that makes life better for all life on the planet, not just the ledger. That’s something to be proud of getting rich for.

    • Jack

      As someone who has been around the block, the move into cleantech is part of the whole process of Silicon Valley. I think 1990s (and the Internet) were a big shift that is still continuing though we continue to see marginal stuff dominate attention.

      I think the Valley (like rest of the industry) is slowly but surely coming in sync with the mass demands in general, regardless of what the “early buzz” might indicate.

      Anyway… on winning and sharing your winnings — that is good aspiration for everyone, everywhere.

  9. A simple concept colored vividly in Om style. Oh, I miss my Valley, but what could I do? They all wanted Mr. Product Sector analyst to support their follow-ware:

    Q: What is hot and likeley to make money?

    Me: Independent dispatch of service trades via mobile self enrolled, its the next big thing in under served market.

    Q: what about Facebook apps and virtual goods.

    A: You people are retarded.

    Q: Fired, you are.

      • Of course, crossing over from a staff analyst to a founder….I may not have the right stuff. My series of short stories, “down and out in Silicon Valley”, attempted to capture what happened after my analyst contract was cut at a prominent EU R&D lab in SSFO. What ensured was tragicomic.

        My real illustration as a comment to your post is that some of the optimism is misdirected into “follow-ism”, where no wrong can be done – thus snuffing out some real, business case startups that serve verticals. The verticals have suffered amongst the fund-raising for….Face book Apps and virtual goods, and other things such as social networks that were not innovative in any way.

  10. Marketing Rulz

    What makes Silicon Valley special is simply marketing. That place, above all others, has more cult figures per square foot than anywhere else. Some companies publish massive dissertations about, say, a new hardware manager being brought aboard.

    Same optimistic folks exist everywhere.

    But only a virtual Hollywood has that much marketing of nothing significant.

    • Really interesting view point.

      Marketing helped Intel develop processors
      Marketing is behind Juniper’s routers
      Marketing is what made VMWare
      Marketing is what made Google.

      Absolutely…. marketing rulz.

  11. I don’t think that Israel’s ‘lack of a big enough market’ is an issue. On the contrary, since it causes startups here to think globally right from the beginning.

    • Simon

      I am still not convinced because Israel is yet to produce a global scale company. Which is the reason of my comment — thinking globally doesn’t mean they get to deliver on it. But as I said, it is pretty darn close to Silicon Valley.

  12. Thanks to people like you, we get shots of reality, now and then, apart from tech news. Thats what makes you special(apart from the other zillion reasons your friends and co-workers can come up with).