Obscene fortune and random failure


Silicon Valley is full of profoundly weird people. I’ve been reading Antonio Garcia Martinez’s Chaos Monkeys, a rollicking if also bro-ey account of the author’s startup (mis)adventures and eventual career as a product manager for Facebook Ads.

(These introductory paragraphs from the New York Times review sum up my feelings:

There is plenty not to like in Antonio García Martinez’s Silicon Valley tell-all, “Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley” (Harper). An author whose biography boasts that he “lives on a 40-foot sailboat on the San Francisco Bay” is not well positioned to lampoon the social mores of the West Coast tech culture.

The book’s dedication “to all my enemies” who made the oeuvre possible confirms the impression that the blizzard of score-settling that follows is less than balanced. The aphorisms are sometimes lazy, the facts can be sloppy, and the studied cool – all the while insisting that “I am the uncoolest person you will ever meet” – can be grating. I also could definitely have done without learning about Mr. García’s weakness for “strenuous fornication” and drunken romps in the Facebook broom closet.

And yet, somehow, “Chaos Monkeys” manages to be an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment.)

One anecdote from Garcia Martinez’s book I found particularly telling. To provide some context, the author has received complementary offers for his startup, AdGrok, from Twitter and Facebook. Facebook wants only him – not his colleagues or his technology or his company – as a product manager for their ads division. Twitter, on the other hand, wants to acquire everything – AdGrok as well as its employees – for $10 million. He is thus forced to make a decision: take the uncomplicated path and work for Twitter, or engage in a highly intricate and delicate negotiation where Facebook and Twitter both get most of what they want, without giving either the impression that they are subsidizing the other. (In the vein of Tucker Max, Garcia Martinez writes, “Managing a combined deal between Facebook and Twitter was like trying to engineer simultaneous orgasm between a premature ejaculator and a frigid woman: nigh impossible, fraught with danger, and requiring a very steady hand.” Ugh.)

The decision hinged on his interview experience with Twitter. Garcia Martinez explains,

I recall very little from the interviews, except a comment from one of the DabbleDB engineers. After getting through the stress questions, I asked him, “So what do you like most about Twitter?”

By this point, we’d build a decent rapport, so with a nod and a wink, he said, “Well, you know, in companies like Facebook and Google, they serve you breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here are Twitter, they only serve you breakfast and lunch.

I cringed inwardly. So the big selling point was that nobody worked late into the night, so we could have that chimerical work-life balance? I smiled to keep the warm vibe going. But that comment more than anything else sealed my decision. I was not going to blow the biggest career wad of my life on a company that hesitated to work past 6 p.m. daily.

That incident brought to mind excerpts I had read from Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk, who comes across as exactly the narcissistic, socially awkward, on-the-spectrum genius that you might expect from watching the TV show Silicon Valley. The Washington Post collated some of the best anecdotes and quotes from her book, and I think they explain a great deal of why Silicon Valley culture – and American capitalist culture at large – is so fucked up.

I should point out that Garcia Martinez and Musk differ in important ways. Garcia Martinez is a socially adept charmer who seems to have no trouble getting attractive women to “strenuously fornicate” with him in a variety of locations (such as the aforementioned “broom closets”). Musk, by contrast, is the sort of guy whose idea of a pickup line is “I think a lot about electric cars. Do you think about electric cars?” Garcia Martinez, by his own admission, is someone far more suited for product management than technical work. He, much like Steve Jobs, leaves the hard engineering labor to his own version of Wozniak. Musk is a largely self-taught genius who understands science and engineering far better than Jobs ever could.

But what Garcia Martinez and Musk have in common is their utter disdain for life outside of work. And not just that – they also seem to look down upon anyone else who does not share their views. It’s one thing, of course, to be personally driven to succeed at work at the expense of most other things in life; it’s another to hold everyone else to your ridiculous standards.

You can almost feel the contempt dripping from Garcia Martinez when he writes the phrase “chimerical work-life balance”. Indeed, his opinion was ultimately shared by Twitter; as he sardonically comments in a footnote, “As with everything else, this was true at the time. Currently Twitter does serve dinner.”

Musk is similar – in fact, probably worse, if Vance’s stories are to be believed. Take, for instance, his idea of romance, which sounds as thrilling as you might expect from someone who views it as a matter of clearing out some time in Google Calendar:

I would like to allocate more time to dating, though. I need to find a girlfriend. That’s why I need to carve out just a little more time. I think maybe even another five to 10 — how much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours? That’s kind of the minimum? I don’t know.

Or consider his inspirational, Band-of-Brothers-esque comment to an employee at his startup who complained about being overworked:

I would tell those people they will get to see their families a lot when we go bankrupt.

Or ponder his advice to a male employee who missed a company event to witness the birth of his child:

That is no excuse. I am extremely disappointed. You need to figure out where your priorities are. We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.

Or think about this kind-of-funny but actually-not-funny-and-darkly-revealing anecdote that Google’s Larry Page tells about Musk’s “homelessness”:

“He’s kind of homeless, which I think is sort of funny. He’ll e-mail and say, ‘I don’t know where to stay tonight. Can I come over?’ I haven’t given him a key or anything yet.”

It’s obvious why Musk inspires people to follow him. He sounds like a visionary, he has a track record of being successful, and he always leads by example. (An employee who worked with him at his first startup, X.com, noted, “We all worked 20 hours a day, and he worked 23 hours.”) But while this attitude may be a prerequisite for entrepreneurship, for building and sustaining a new company in a world in which 60% of them fail, I am gravely concerned that it is unhealthy for society at large.

It’s clearly physically unhealthy. After Sam Altman, of Y Combinator fame, dropped out of Stanford, he ate Instant Ramen so regularly that he gave himself scurvy. (Seriously!) The monomaniacal devotion to work that Silicon Valley culture fosters tends to conflict with the idea of a healthy or balanced self. That’s why the only attention that Valley tech bros pay to nutrition or physical exercise is in the purely utilitarian or productive sense: i.e., “Will this hour of activity compensate in increased productivity for the hour I could be spending working?” Which is why techies drink Soylent instead of consuming real meals, and why Musk seems frustrated that his body even requires caloric input: “He ordered a burger and ate it in either two or three bites over a span of about 15 seconds. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

But the Silicon Valley attitude of work-uber-alles is also emotionally unhealthy and corrosive to a society that values emotional health. There is nothing “natural” when it comes to work. Our work cultures are instead a product of the choices that we make collectively, as a society. South Koreans work over 2000 hours per year; Germans less than 1400. American CEOs make almost twice as much as their German counterparts. These are choices that are driven, it seems to me, by a herd mentality unconstrained by societal mores or regulations. If our coworkers work longer hours, we feel obligated to keep up. If our fellow CEOs are earning more than we are, we feel obligated to keep up with that too. The difference between a society in which the feedback loop spirals out of control and one in which these (fully human) impulses are curtailed is that the latter has strong norms that the former does not.

So, let’s pick up the thread again. What are the norms that Antonio Garcia Marquez, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Sam Altman, or Travis Kalanick espousing? What example does it set when we idolize men who have no lives outside of work? What the implications of valorizing entrepreneurship? Or of denigrating the opposite: being a normal corporate cog who doesn’t view work-life balance as a “chimerical” notion?

Perhaps that is the intellectual milieu in which appalling behavior like this can be viewed as acceptable:

[Ashlee] Vance tells the story of Mary Beth Brown, Musk’s longtime personal assistant and one of the first SpaceX hires—the woman who scheduled his meetings, picked out his clothes, did public relations, ran interference, and made executive decisions, logging twenty-hour days when necessary—who lost her job when she asked for a raise:

Musk [told her, when she asked for more money] that Brown should take a couple of weeks off, and he would take on her duties and gauge how hard they were. When Brown returned, Musk let her know he didn’t need her anymore…


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