The Startup Religion

A long time ago, a very green boss of mine had the bright idea that he would help his people self-improve.  And when I say help, I mean use his authority to force us to self-improve.  It was frustrating to him that we were not improving as fast as he was, so one can hardly blame him.  He was improving so fast that by now he’s probably gone through perfect and come back around to being kind of a jackass.  I think you see the problem here.

robbinsBereft of social skills, his first foray into other-improvement was to hand us each a book and say “read this and do what it says”.  It was a self-help thing, pretty standard issue for those days with a heavy dose of self-hypnosis.  A quick glance made clear that this book was not about helping us in our work.  This Tony Robbins wannabe and his disciple were trying to tell us how to live.

I had no intention of reading the damned thing.  Twelve years of Catholic schools earned me a permanent pass on that stuff.  If you want to tell me how to live, you need to take a number and stand in line behind dozens of nuns, priests, brothers and of course The Holy Father himself who seems to have increasingly weird ideas about life.  Still, this guy was the boss and that made it a problem.  Fortunately for me, another guy publicly blew a gasket about it before I even got back from lunch and the self-help book club died “aborning in the cradle” as they used to say.  We, his troops, remained the sandpaper that smoothed this guy’s rough edges.

The surprisingly short-tempered colleague who spiked the whole thing, it turned out years later, was, unbeknownst to any of us, a member of a secretive religion small enough and weird enough that most of us would call it a cult, as the national press eventually did, and it all turned out badly for him in the end.  He could have used a new religion at that moment.  For my part, I was (and remain) a horrible employee and probably could have used some self-help.  But that’s really, really, really not the point.  Work and life are different things.  There is a line between them.

I read lots of startup blogs, mostly the VCs but also some of the entrepreneurs and occasionally hacks like myself.   I read these things for the war stories, and maybe a bit of insight on how to score me some of that sweet, sweet exit payout – Facebook style please.  There’s a trend in these things, especially among the entrepreneurs and hacks to tell people how to live.  “Work hard, play hard” and all that bullshit.  Admirably, 90+% of these bloggers have done something, and beyond that they usually simply say things like “this is how I do it” or “this is how I’ve seen other people do it”.

And then there are the others.  I flashed back to that long ago episode reading a blog post by a guy (no I won’t give the link) who is obviously very ambitious, probably very bright and achingly startup-y.  If you’ve read this far you’d probably like him.  But he’s also literally unaccomplished.  He hasn’t done anything yet beyond figuring out how to use WordPress.  I looked him up, and he has no business telling anyone how to tie their shoes, let alone how to live.  But that didn’t stop him from throwing a post out there telling his readers how to live. And that pisses me off.

Startups are not a religion, you are not a priest and we are not initiates in a transcendent new meritocracy.  There’s a damned good chance this whole thing is nothing more than a replay of the auto industry from the early 1900’s – that it, and we ourselves, will all turn out to have been nothing special.  No more special than the foam on top of a big wave.

So even if you’re part of a weird and secretive cult, I’ll try not to tell you how to live but here and now I will tell you what to say if I ever do.  “Fuck off”.

About JR
Software guy, startup guy, non-fiction glutton, south shore inhabitant

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