My favorite essay published this weekend was Michael Arrington’s post on our increasingly public reputations, and his hopes for increasingly forgiving attitudes about the youthful bong hit or the disgruntled ex-colleague that now inevitably show up on Facebook or Twitter. As I read Mike’s post, I thought about how shame and community are magnified for better and for worse here in Seattle’s close-knit startup community.
I spent the first decade of professional life like a lizard in the California desert, eating, sleeping and hunting instinctively, without once thinking that anyone might judge or even remember me. It was a liberating, fearsome way to be. It’s hard to say if it would have been better to be more thoughtful about what I wanted, or even if my baser instincts could have been mitigated by any amount of thought.
The year I moved to Seattle was the year I achieved self-consciousness. I ran into people on the street whom I’d forgot to call back. I had to meet someone – over and over again — who had decided not to give me a job. I read about Hadi Partovi’s move to iLike, and saw all his old friends from Microsoft lined up to post admiring comments about him. The community is small enough here to function as an actual community, which in turn has made me more considerate and careful. After one or two from-the-hip blog posts, my wife has suggested she review everything I write before publishing it.
This degree of caution probably isn’t the best formula for success in consumer products. Consider the motto of the flamboyant handbag designer Marc Jacobs: “That’s what I think everyone should aspire to in life – being shameless.” In the magazine where I read that interview he posed naked except for a pair of briefs just large enough to accommodate what seemed to be two very large hamsters stuffed down the front.
In love with a prostitute, tattooed with ghetto maxims like “bros before hos,” exuberantly gay and Jewish, Marc Jacobs seemed destined for the biggest city he could find. Here in this small, green place, where fellow citizens will sometimes scold you for jaywalking, I still haven’t decided how I feel about what he said. Out of nowhere, when cutting across an empty parking lot early in the morning, I can still find myself paralyzed with shame about a mistake I made ten years ago.
But somehow, you have to keep walking. So a shrug is sometimes necessary and good too. As any reader of Graham Greene will tell you, Americans are better than anyone at shrugging off history and responsibility. When traveling the world as a product manager rolling out software for a big database company, I met engineers in Singapore, Sao Paolo and Munich with more talent than many folks in Silicon Valley, and wondered why they didn’t start companies. The problem was, they had more shame too.
They lived in modern societies with cars and computers but their social structure was still shame-driven. And this in turn limited their willingness to take risks. I hope that doesn’t happen here. Even though we all seem to know one another in Seattle, we have to pretend like we just stepped off the Boeing, unconcerned with what one another think, surrounded by strangers and opportunity.