The Best and Worst of Silicon Valley

Julie Zhuo
Jul 22, 2015 · 6 min read

“Why don’t you grow up and become a doctor?” asked my mother. This is a conversation we’ve had hundreds of times before. For her, there is a nobility to healing, mending, comforting. Her father died young of cancer. This is what she would have chosen, had she the choice.

“You should consider a career in Wall Street,” said my father. For him, growing up under the oppressive thumb of communist China’s Cultural Revolution, there is no greater symbol of capitalism and freedom than the sharply-suited men and women closing deals in high-rise offices.

I grew up with a deep phobia of needles. And the one time my dad tried to explain the stock market to me, we both ended up exhausted.

I wanted to make things.

So I ended up in Silicon Valley instead.

Oh, much has been said of the good, the bad, and the weird of this little strip of land. I have lived and breathed this place for more than a decade, gotten to know it like one gets to know a famous persnickety neighbor, first by reputation, and then, through a thousand little interactions, by experience, until you have become so familiar with the stories you realize you are a part of them.

Today, mainstream media blows kisses at this so-called “cradle of innovation,” writes scripts about its mad geniuses, shuffling savants, and douchebag leaders. But to me, Silicon Valley has never been an archetype or a situation. To me, it encapsulates a feeling, both the very best and worst of it.

My first day working at a startup, I was told that I should check in a diff before the end of the day.

This sounded rather far-fetched to someone who had just spent the morning filling out mounds of paperwork. The clock on the wall ticked nearly noon. Surely this was a joke? I was new, and weren’t there new-people things to do? Like get introduced to the team? Get explained things to? Get some docs or books or articles to read?

I glanced around. Everybody was working with headphones on, deep in a state of code-trance or music-trance. The guy across from me wore his thick brows in a perpetual state of furrowed.

My mentor nudged me over so he could sit in front of my computer. Fingers flying, he checked out a copy of the repository and quickly shared a few nuggets about how the file tree was organized. Then, he stood up and said he had some other things to take care of.

The rest of the day passed almost in the blink of an eye. I don’t remember what my first diff was — something trivial like finding-and-replace a string, most likely — but I remember how nervous I was, and how crazy it seemed to me that they would ask somebody who was clearly unqualified to make a change to the product. After it was done, somebody forwarded my commit e-mail to the rest of the engineering team, and people responded with congratulations. My podmate, he of the deep furrowed brows, glanced up from what he was doing to give me that universal sign of approval: the ever-so-slight chin-tilt.

I went home that day, half dazed and half giddy. I was unsure of what I had gotten myself into, but felt like a MiG jet had suddenly pulled up beside me and invited me to hop in, and despite not knowing anything about jets, despite all the precautions conventional wisdom would have me take, despite some part of me thinking, hey, this might not be easy— it somehow felt right — felt inevitable — to jump in and attempt to fly.

This is the feeling of Silicon Valley at its best.

There is nothing better than the unabashed optimism of Silicon Valley, bottled with fizz, shaken vigorously, and unleashed. You can taste it at a good company all-hands, when the CEO gets on stage and describes the future everyone is building towards and it is so clear and enticing you wish you had a magic remote control to fast-forward time. You can sense it in a recruiting meeting, when the idea of two people combining talents to do something greater than each could individually accomplish creates a kind of energy that amplifies as the conversation continues. You can see it in the eager look of a colleague as she pulls you over and utters the magic words, hey, I’ve got a new idea

When you feel Silicon Valley at its best, nothing seems impossible. And the things that might have felt so are suddenly rearranged before you into a division of smaller, more tractable problems. It seems perfectly logical that you would simply put one foot in front of the other, and before long, you will have walked the entire length of this earth.

The best of Silicon Valley can be captured in two words: of course.

Of course the best idea will win.

Of course this problem can be solved.

Of course you can do it.

Change is the road beneath our feet, and in this state, we are curious, eager to learn, happy to debate, fueled by exuberance.

It’s grandiose to claim that one is changing the world.

But the best of Silicon Valley is the belief that you can — and should — try.

The worst of Silicon Valley is the same, just flipped over and dipped into darkness.

Listen, can you hear it? It is the sound of some other company as it hockey-sticks across graphs. It is a rags-to-riches story of a group of hardworking dreamers. It is one elite list after another, ranking everything from creativity to zeroes in one’s bank account to midas-ness.

Ours is a culture that jumps from one golden myth to another, building up heroes that are larger-than-life, heaping praise upon the good, the promising, the worth emulating. When we tell stories, it’s of what we’ve learned, and how we’ve gotten better. When we speak, our voice drips of success and earnestness.

Of course these things are possible, we tell each other, and ourselves. Of course we can do it too.

Except when we can’t.

And then, what of those feelings? You’ve disappointed everyone — most of all yourself — and shattered that beautiful chorus of of course. You feel worthless. You feel like everyone else is shooting ahead, and you’re stuck, some invisible ceiling above you, and worst of all, you feel utterly, terribly, horribly alone, because it isn’t supposed to be like this, you’re supposed to be able to do these things.

The worst feeling of Silicon Valley can be captured in two words: I expect…

I expect to succeed.

I expect to solve this problem.

I expect to be great.

These self-imposed expectations build into pressure that expands to fill all the spaces in our lives, and that pressure translates to stress, anxiety, and paralyzing self-doubt.

I feel these things every month. I felt them all last week. And yet, where are the headlines about that? Silicon Valley is built on myths that ignore the silent pressure, that side-steps the stories of failure, that prefers to spotlight tomorrow’s promises rather than today’s shortcomings.

The more I spend time here in this sliver of tech, the more I hope to master the following: embrace vulnerability; find support; stay curious.

And maybe in another ten years, I’ll have figured out the secret to treading that delicate line between Silicon Valley’s boundless optimism and its weighty expectations.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Product design VP @ Facebook. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.