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Leadership

An Anthropologist Explains The Secret To Silicon Valley's Success

As one expert and Valley native argues, it has nothing to do with risk-taking or even with technology.

An Anthropologist Explains The Secret To Silicon Valley's Success

[Photo: bennymarty/iStock]

Chuck Darrah, anthropologist and Silicon Valley native, arrives at the coffee shop in Mountain View in shorts and sandals, and, true to his word to me earlier, with no cell phone. "I don’t want people to be able to reach me that easily," he says, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, which, now that I think about it, it is.

In every other way, Chuck is about as Silicon Valley as you can get. He was born at Stanford Hospital, back when the region was best known as the prune capital of the United States. It produced orchards and dried fruits and not much else. For young Chuck, life in the Valley of Heart’s Delight, as it was known, was idyllic. Everything was a bit better than elsewhere. The fruit tasted better, the air was fresher. The walnuts were the size of grapefruits. "It was a very gentle place to grow up," he says, and I see by the look in his eyes he has left me, transported to another time, a better time. Eden before the microchip.

Chuck admits he never saw it coming. "One day, someone approached me and said, ‘There’s this new thing called silicon,’ and I’m, like, ‘What’s silicon? That sounds like the stupidest gimmick in the world.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re making chips for calculators,’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about, dude?’ So, no, I didn’t see it coming at all." Now, though, Chuck is the Margaret Mead of Silicon Valley, hacking through the overgrowth of US 101, studying the natives and their strange ways. He finds it endlessly fascinating.

Who Comes First, And What Happens Afterward

We order coffee and find a table outside. The secret to Silicon Valley’s success, he says, is not that it was the best but simply that it was the first. "First-starter advantage," it’s called, and it explains a lot, not only about the Valley but all innovations. Consider your laptop keyboard. The top left letters spell QWERTY. Why? Is that the most efficient way of arranging the keys? Hardly. In fact, it is purposefully inefficient.

The early typewriters jammed frequently, so designers arranged the keys in a way that would slow the typist and minimize the risk of jamming. Improved typewriters were no longer prone to jamming, but the QWERTY keyboard had already caught on. Typists got used to it and worked around the constraints it imposed. Typing schools taught it. So it stuck, even though it was not the "best" arrangement, just as the VHS video format bested Betamax, a clearly superior technology. Likewise, the Pilgrims settled in Massachusetts Bay and not Virginia, as they intended, simply because they got lost.

The point is, the "best" technology or idea doesn’t always prevail. Sometimes chance and the law of unintended consequences win out.

More important is what happens after these forces have had their say. We adjust to the inefficient keyboard and our fingers fly. VHS works fine, until it is supplanted by DVDs and now streaming video. The Pilgrims endure the brutal New England winters and eventually thrive. It’s the same way with places of genius. They may not be perfect or beautiful, but they challenge us in certain ways, and when we respond to these challenges in a bold and creative way, the foundation for a golden age is laid.

But for that to happen, you have to get there first. This explains the Silicon Valley philosophy: better to get an imperfect product to market today than a perfect one tomorrow. As Steve Jobs once observed, when the lightbulb was invented, no one complained it was too dim.

First-starters such as Silicon Valley become magnets, and once magnetized, an irresistible momentum takes hold. Again, creativity is contagious. Several studies have found that we are more creative when surrounded by creative coworkers, even if we don’t interact directly with these colleagues. We also get a creativity boost from merely watching "schema violations"—someone eating pancakes for dinner, for instance. Something about being in the presence of creativity inspires us to think more creatively ourselves.

Fewer Real Risk-Takers Than You Think

On my way to meet Chuck, I had spotted a moving van, parked outside a nondescript office building in Mountain View. The movers were busily carting off ergonomic chairs and Danish desks, no doubt discarding the carcass of some failed venture and making room for the next. Silicon Valley’s most iconic symbol is not the iPhone or the microchip but the moving van.

This fluidity, says Chuck, is the key to understanding the Valley. Nothing stands still in Silicon Valley; the place has a kinetic energy. Look at the top ten firms in Silicon Valley, says Chuck. Every five or ten years, the list completely changes, with perhaps one or two exceptions. "There is incredible, incredible turnover," he says. This is not a new concept. I’m reminded of Florence and how the committee overseeing the famous Duomo, the Opera del Duomo, rotated its leadership every few months.

One of the biggest myths about Silicon Valley, says Chuck, is that people here take risks. It is a myth that is simultaneously true and untrue. Chuck says Silicon Valley celebrates risk, yet at the same time "it has some of the best mechanisms for avoiding the consequences of risk in the world."

"Such as?"

"Just think about it. These entrepreneurs, we’re told, deserve their money because of the risks they take. But you don’t see people jumping off the tops of buildings here. They tend to land on their feet. They tend to land in places like this, drinking cappuccinos, because the risk is a peculiar kind of risk. Most of the people in high tech will admit if they lost their job, they would find another one. They might even find a better one."

"So they’re working with a net?"

"Yes. A huge net. It’s easier to take risk when you are insulated from it."

It’s Not About Great Ideas Or Even Technology

I’m sipping my good coffee, gaping at the Google driverless cars that glide by, when the Man with No Cell Phone demolishes another Silicon Valley myth. Specifically, the myth that it is a hothouse of good ideas. It is not. I confess this surprises me. I always thought Silicon Valley’s forte was the good idea.

"Bullshit," says Chuck. What makes Silicon Valley special is not the idea itself but what happens once the idea washes up here. The region Siliconizes ideas just as India Indianizes them. What comes out of the blender is recognizable but fundamentally different.

In Silicon Valley, ideas aren’t invented but are processed in faster and smarter ways than they are elsewhere. "If you have an idea, people will tell you where that idea fits in with the ecology of ideas that is operative," explains Chuck. "There are mechanisms in place, institutions set up, to bring together bright people." If Silicon Valley were a brain, it wouldn’t be the frontal lobe or even a brain cell; it would be a synapse, a connector.

Silicon Valley is not about technology. Sure, the products are technological, but those are the ends, not the means. "People say they come here because it’s a technology hub, but that is merely a way to legitimize the move," Chuck says. "The real reason people come here is that deal-making happens here in different ways and it’s possible to realize deals in different ways."

The Valley is good at absorbing new arrivals, and just as adept at spitting them out. "You can talk to people who have been here only a few weeks and they talk to you as if they’ve always been a part of Silicon Valley. It’s an absolutely amazing place for taking people in and for releasing people, letting them go." A magnet, in other words, but also a sieve.


This article is adapted from The Geography of Genius: Lessons from the World's Most Creative Places by Eric Weiner. Copyright © 2016 by Eric Weiner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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