Humility in Silicon Valley

Thoughts from listening to people wiser than myself

I spent the day listening to writers, philosophers and academics talk about cities, police violence and social injustice at Oakland Book Festival. My weekend was a journey towards some unknown quality I was seeking in answer to whether I should start a certain project. The festival itself brought me into Oakland’s city hall for the first time, only to hear about the shortcomings of city administrations. I was amazed to see the festival organize itself around diverse panels and attendees, entirely free and without any advertising visible. I understand that credit goes to Kira Brunner Don and Timothy Don plus the people and sponsors they rallied.

One of the themes was about the fundamental unit of a city — claimed to be the sentient being. By all measures, cities attract us because of the opportunity for interaction, of people, of ideas, of economies. The question we we’re all wondering — even the visiting Brooklynites — is how do we avoid the Brooklynization of cities, the sameness of business, patrons and landmarks. How do support diverse ecosystems such as Oakland while avoiding monocultures and megacultures? The answer seemed to lie in the emphasis of people, stories and communities over abstractions and production. This is really a story about the person I met after the event.

I boarded the transit train south and sat down with a new book I was deep into, “The Road to Character.” Sitting across from me was a man in his 60s with a long greying goatee, dressed in an oxford shirt, slacks, Asics wearing an eagle pendant around his neck — his bag branded with a rather successful CRM startup which made it odd. He’d stroke his long goatee which I found natural and I’d assigned him to one of Berkeley’s more eccentric quarters — I found out later he had just visited Holy Hill in Berkeley so I wasn’t too far off. He was also reading a book, I don’t remember what, but we didn’t speak to each other at first.

Later we transferred trains and once again happened to sit across from each other. We were traveling from the East Bay down to the peninsula. I joked that we must be heading in the same direction and a natural conversation followed. He was pleasant, a software engineer with 30 years in the industry and a wealth of experiences and we openly shared our similar views on technology, culture, engineer and design. I don’t recall our entire conversation aboard Caltrain but he’d once mentioned how early in his career as an engineer and blogger, he’d written a particularly critical piece about a startup, only to be hired by them later. It echoed my own experience launching Absurdist, with it’s critical views of technology, culture and especially the startup circus.

We’d disembarked the bullet Caltrain, as it doesn’t make all the stops, I’d asked if he wanted to share an Uber — he seemed to be headed in the same direction as me. He said sure but later asked if I just wanted to walk to the next station. Feeling like I was already on a vision quest and finding myself lacking in slow thoughts, I agreed and we followed the 2 mile path along the tracks. It was around dusk and the full moon was visible in the sky, the path was arched with blooming trees and a scent of lavender and sage. That’s when I asked him about the eagle pendant around his neck.

He told me that he’d been a devout atheist for some 20 years after having studied Hebrew & Theology. However, while living in Washington state, he’d befriended an eagle. Every morning, the eagle would perch on a tree beside a bench where he sat, and this relationship continued for months. During that time, he began to see the world through the eagle’s eyes and pondered on animism — seemingly more real than other ontologisms he’d studied.

One day the eagle stopped returning leaving him a little distraught — particularly because he was about to undergo heart surgery. As one does when faced with uncertainty, he revisited the question of God, meaning and existence. Sitting alone on that bench, in what sounds like a final plea, he invoked God’s name, asking for help. When he opened his eyes, the eagle had returned and was perched on the limb. Staring down at him, it acknowledged him as if to say, I have heard you, and took to the air with a grand sweep of the bay before returning one last time.

He knew that this would be the last time he saw the eagle, but noticed in that moment a placard on the bench he’d never spotted before. Most placards in the town were dedicated to some patron, and he’d assumed this would be much the same. He wiped the dirt off the placard and inscribed was not a name but a bible verse, reading:

“But they that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” — Isaiah 40:31

We continued talking much of the way home as we were the only people out at dusk. After those two miles we reached Colorado Street in Palo Alto, said our goodbyes and laughed again about the synchronicity of heading to the same place, or at least within a quarter mile of each other. Our entire conversations seemed to reaffirm my own questions over the weekend about choosing a career or a vocation and success or service. I didn’t tell him that I’d once seen an eagle’s vision in Colombia but I will soon.