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Greatness and the Gold Rush

Posted on Sunday, Apr 3rd

Greatness and the Gold Rush

Imagine you are rich. Very rich. Obscenely rich.

Normal people in normal parts of the world only imagine being that rich at an abstract level. They don’t really believe it is possible. Or at least, they don’t structure their lives around the expectation of being obscenely rich.

In the mid-nineties, a phenomenon happened here in Silicon Valley, which defied all laws of market economics. Companies could be successful without having to make money or be profitable. Success meant Billions of Dollars in market capitalization, and consequently, very rich Venture Capitalists, founders, executives and employees.

Even receptionists, during this time, could conceive of making Millions. (Just to put it in perspective, a receptionist in India makes about $2000/year.)

People started believing that being rich was their birthright. It was no longer thought to be an exception, or a mark of extraordinary brilliance, vision, effort or leadership. It was more, being in the right place at the right time.

This was the California Gold Rush, replayed in Internet time.

Then, the nineties rolled into the Millennium. Rational thought prevailed. Wall Street crashed, taking with it over 3 Trillion Dollars of investor wealth. All those who grew up in the (brief) age of eternal optimism, mad euphoria, and unrealistic expectations, were suddenly halted in their Porches. They had to stop and rethink. Adjust their expectations, plans, career-tracks, and suddenly, $600 bottles of wines started disappearing from cocktail party conversations.

For people who live outside Silicon Valley in particular, and the technology world in general (there have been some demonstration of similar phenomena in Boston, Seattle, New York and other places to a lesser degree), this period held enormous intrigue. The before, the during, and the after of the gold rush, together represent a period that will go down in history as one that bred and nurtured greatness and wealth creation.

Greatness is important. An entrepreneur in Silicon Valley once said to me, It is better to be lucky, than to be good. I couldn’t disagree more. Luck is not and never was a repeatable event. Luck is not what builds greatness. Greatness is more fundamental, more intrinsic, and more rare. Hence, to me, greatness was the significance of this period. Wealth was a by-product.

I was asked to write this article for a Spanish Journal to discuss the differences between Eastern
philosophy and American philosophy. So, at this point, it would be a good idea to give the reader some background on who I am, and what experiences have shaped my perspective. I do not wish to comment on American philosophy and Eastern Philosophy in general. America, especially California, is a huge mish-mash of so many different contexts and personal histories, that it makes no sense to call any philosophy American. Rather, I shall share with you my personal philosophy, which I believe is a mixture of the East and the West.

I grew up in Calcutta, India, immersed in the philosophy of my favorite poet and thinker, Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. At 18, I left India, and started college in Massachusetts. Subsequently, I went to University at MIT, and then became an entrepreneur. My father was an entrepreneur, so this path was a natural choice for me. Chronologically, my entrepreneurial career synchronizes with the Internet revolution. I started, built and sold several companies over a span of 6 years, and lived in the heart of this Silicon Valley phenomenon.

In my upbringing as the daughter of an entrepreneur, the psychology of pursuing dreams at all costs and dealing with all the consequences – failure, defeat, disaster, pain, suffering, glory, celebration, faith — was life. I neither looked for luck as the primary driving force in my life, nor accepted it as a lasting factor when I was, indeed, very lucky. My approach was always to push myself to learn, and to become better, so that I could accept, within myself, that success is earned, not inherited, and not a chance factor. And then, I had faith. In myself. In my dreams. In my destiny.

I have often looked at Tagore’s life and work, for guidance, for philosophy. Tagore was a sensitive person who possessed enormous capacity to feel at great depth. His music, his poetry, his novels, essays, short stories [some 25 Volumes of prolific, profound literature] demonstrate how he derived music from every blow – every death, to be more precise. His first love, his wife, several of his children – all died in course of his lifetime. And those moments of his greatest suffering, most cutting pain, produced his works of maximum intensity.

Tagore lived during the period of India’s freedom movement. The poem below is his vision for a free country.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

This to me, is a vision for life in general. A search for greatness.

In my Silicon Valley years, I have encountered greatness in many people. I have, also, encountered mediocrity in many forms. Mediocrity searches for luck before excellence. Greatness searches for excellence, always. Wealth is incidental, not the end game. Luck facilitates the process of creation that is the destiny of greatness.

Faith in personal capacity for greatness is part of both the East and the West. Eastern philosophers say that God is inside man. The infinite potential for divinity is in the soul, which dwells within. Western Capitalists believe in the infinite ability of the individual, driven by ego or the desire to build, to innovate, and to leave a mark.

So, as Silicon Valley struggles with its current reality, perhaps, it would be appropriate to step back and celebrate the instances of greatness that have happened, and help young professionals refocus their philosophies and quests to emulate those who have sought greatness, rather than those who have sought instant riches.

And for the outside world that looks, still, at Silicon Valley, with wide-eyed wonder and awe, it would be appropriate to understand what makes Silicon Valley’s DNA sustainable.

It is the search for greatness, not gold.

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