Monday, December 8, 2014

The Silicon Jedi

There are many warriors, they are not priests.

There are many priests, they are not warriors.

The Jedi mix these two ancient castes in a powerful combination. Unusual for priests, they are active in the world, serving a vision of the Good through feats of grit, daring, and sacrifice. Unusual for warriors, they are in touch with a deep well of spiritual energy. This gives them access to mystical forces that makes each one worth a thousand ordinary soldiers. 

Among the legions of startup infantry battling for success in Silicon Valley the Jedi still live today. 

Steve Jobs was a Jedi - a hippie and a spiritual pilgrim before becoming a businessman. This was key to his power. As a young man he prioritized feeding his soul, thereby awakening a thirst for beauty that drove his professional career. I imagine Steve would be happy that so many people were inspired by him to listen to the inner voice of their souls, but regret that so many others imitate his. Merely copying his business methods won’t lead to his success, that's only a little less silly than copying his method of dress. The spiritual journey is difficult and it is not optional. 

Jobs was a high profile Silicon Jedi but he was neither the first not the last of the kind. There are a few active today (the Jedi never exist in large numbers - quality over quantity is their way). If you have the privilege to encounter one, you will find it a delightful experience, but also a challenging one. They have a way of seeing through the lies we wrap around ourselves to hide from difficult facts. The Jedi way of life is raw, rejecting false comforts.

You can sometimes tell a Jedi by his strangeness. The rich inner life that a Jedi experiences makes him less in need of external social validation. His soul shines through in his style - his way of acting, thinking, and talking. He will read the Tao Te Ching in the office. He will walk barefoot in downtown Mountain View. He will build a user interface that looks like it comes from a more enlightened galaxy far, far away.

Actually, Jedi are not particularly strange compared to normal people. Everybody is strange on the inside compared to the standardized world of mass culture. Fear of the perception of others causes us to hide our inner world. In the startup realm, letting your freak flag fly risks that you will offend a member of the click-hungry tech press, a potential boss, or a future investor. 

Being a real human being seems dangerous. So in the valley of innovation a uniform develops - the uniform of maximum risk aversion. The appearance of the last breakout success is widely counterfeited. But it is folly to clutch for safety in the midst of the risky business of entrepreneurship. It is not really safe - like driving half speed on a busy highway. And it isn't fun.

The majority of startups die before they get off the ground. It is probably better to have a distinct taste that some people love and some people hate than to blend in. It is probably more profitable and fulfilling to have a great time and let the haters hate. Yes, when you find yourself CEO of a billion-dollar company your risk-averse corporate board might fire you. But life is not a one act play. 

The best place to look for modern Jedi is Burning Man. US coastal professionals are spiritually starved. Burning Man feeds that hunger. At Burning Man, CEOs and engineers mingle with artists and shamans - sometimes all four are found in one body. It’s a bridge from the default world to the spirit realm, a necessary source of inspiration, connection, and catharsis.

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