“Success does amazing things to people,” said Shel Kapham, the first employee of Amazon, in a conversation with Brad Stone, a BusinessWeek writer and author of the new book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos & the Age of Amazon. Shel was reflecting on Bezos, but it could be said of many more people who have changed after tasting that rare fruit: success.
But it is the truly great ones who don’t change with success, regardless of fame and fortune. And one of those rare ones is Kevin Kelly, an author who is a true blue chronicler of technology’s today and painter of technology’s tomorrow.
In his past life, Kelly was editor & publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, was the founding executive editor of Wired magazine and helped create The Well. His books were a major influence on the writers and directors of The Matrix. Kelly has been on my bucket list of people to meet before my CPU burns out.
Ten years ago, when I read this piece in Wired magazine, I was taught a vital lesson — technology and innovation means different things to different people in different parts of the world. So you can only imagine my excitement when I learned that he was also in attendance at the same social gathering where Kapham (who worked at the Whole Earth Catalog) was being interviewed by BusinessWeek’s Stone.
And when I went and shook his hand, I quietly muttered to myself — Achievement Unlocked! His theory of 1,000 true fans has been a guiding principle of our company. And not a month goes by when his blog doesn’t teach me something new, forcing me to change my preconceptions. Do I sound like a gushing tween who just met Justin Bieber? Damn straight, I do indeed feel that way!
Kelly is a great role model for any and every technology writer. His relevance doesn’t come from his past or the publication(s) he writes for, or how many Twitter followers he has. Instead, his relevance (as always) comes from the very foundation of our world — ideas. Later in the evening, long after the interviews were over, the selfies had been taken and gushing had stopped, I fell into a conversation with Kelly about a looming feeling of cynicism — especially as the valley transforms from a focus on things to people.
In 1994, technology was what writers used to obsess about in Silicon Valley. In 2004 it was about business (and business models) and in 2014, it seems to be all about the people and the spectacle of technology. Kelly, who has been part of many inflections and has been a spectator of many booms (and equally numerous busts), had rather simple but effective advice — learn from history by reading about the past and use it to get some context about the present. In other words, try and understand the time frame and then focus on the long view.
Technologies take a long time to make their view through society and having a lasting impact. Today, thanks to our planet’s interconnectedness, new technical innovations (and ideas) spread much faster, but their impact still takes time. Focusing on the long view is the easiest way to ignore the short-term events and the cynicism that comes as a by-product of short-term thinking.
He went on to offer some more advice. You have to look at the world in terms of opportunity, he said (I am paraphrasing), because opportunity and optimism are part of the same fabric. Around the world, he said, millions of people every year leave their rural homes and march into an urban life. They leave behind family and simple life in search of one thing — opportunity and hope for a better tomorrow. That optimism is the antidote to any cynicism we might feel in the world.
Kelly pointed out that it is easy to dismiss a startup, but we shouldn’t. Each startup is an idea that is worth exploring, and thus an opportunity. Like every newborn child is full of promise, the new startups too are reason for optimism, he pointed out. Not every kid grows up to be an Albert Einstein or Zadie Smith — the same is true with startups. Some become Facebook, Twitter, Intel and Apple. Others live a faceless existence.
And before I took off for the evening, Kelly said that taking long walks with one’s thoughts is a good way to slow down and a way to take the long view. Maybe that would be good for my waistline too. Still, I am glad to say that the reality of Kevin Kelly matched the expectations of my mind. Success has just made him more amazing.