Riding The Bench

ILLUSTRATION: Crop of Solla Sollew Marshmallowy Pillows • watercolor on paper • 22×30″

Today, I’m finally revisiting the theme of escape, of fight vs. flight, of running to responsibility versus running from it. It’s a theme I’ve wanted to think more deeply about in consideration of what I do next with my work and my life. Since leaving my job in 2013, I’ve tried to define what that path might be in theory…

I knew I wanted to make something myself again (and “something of myself”). If I started a business to do it, I thought it could be a small partnership with a few people I know and trust. If I couldn’t avoid building a company with a larger team, we would most definitely create art / media / content rather than technology to replace it. Ideally consumers, not advertisers, would pay for it. And regardless I would begin by paying my dues creatively—even if it meant working part-time and not grasping out at handholds from the discomfort and discomfiture of being on unsolid ground.

Last night, I attended the Fortune 40 Under 40 party where I was reminded just how unsolid that ground is. Now, I always feel uncomfortable at this party (see FB post in 2012) and know only a handful of people. The crowd seems very pretty and very moneyed and very driven—and very earnest and not conflicted about all three qualities. Looking for friendly faces, I found myself meeting journalists who befitting their profession were also content to observe the scene anthropologically: “As a lion stalks a gazelle, the recruiter deftly touches the arm of her prey and tosses her head back in laughter at an inane joke. Someone will lose a VP to their competitor tonight.”

In a setting like this, it doesn’t help to have an amorphous personal elevator pitch. I’m not exactly on the beach which is the only short break that SF techies give themselves between crushing it at their current company or starting up another one. It feels disingenuous for me to say so. I think I might be riding the bench, playing a little utility infielder for the league minimum. And I’m not looking for a starting gig on another team as much as I am looking to play a different sport altogether.

During cocktail party chattering, my superego tells me it can see one question in any conversation partner’s eyes, never quite voiced: why would anyone ride the bench on purpose? In other words, why would anyone miss out on the greatest period of wealth creation in Silicon Valley since the last bubble? This magazine’s called Fortune after all.

In defense, I’ve come up with a somewhat rational argument for my avoidance, an argument that can be met with more approving nods because I use the words valuation and equity and venture capital:

  1. With valuations so high and bubblicious, it doesn’t make sense to commit one’s soul to working a hundred hours per week only to spend the next four years vesting through down rounds. I took my at-bat with Rhythm, and we reached on a wild pitch. Done and done.
  2. Plus everyone seems like kind of a jerk right now. A bubble is the perfect spot to pick up bad behaviors and learn how to make bad decisions. Blergh.
  3. And if I decided to raise venture capital myself, an economically rational move, I would have to compete in a market full of jerks behaving badly and making bad decisions. I’d also need an idea, I guess.

“And so that’s why I’m waiting things out.” It’s the sort of argument that’s sufficient before clinking glasses to wish each other well. Because it’s important to have manners at a cocktail party and not make anyone too uncomfortable.

I always have this blog for that.

In I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sollew, the eponymous Vent No. 5 of this blog is a messy chute leading the unnamed hero accidentally to Solla Sollew (where they never have troubles, at least very few). In traditional mythology, Vent No. 5 might be described as the hero’s descent into the underworld, a last step before rebirth—very much an Act III sequence when this hero’s goal is reconsidered: survival. With the goal reconsidered, the hero can choose a different path altogether in the end.

It strikes me that one important difference between running from and running to is a difference in attitude. Describing why I’m not taking part in the, well, icky Silicon Valley scene is easy, but negative. I’m only running from this place, running from my responsibilities as an individual.

Describing what I want to do, no matter how amorphous and difficult, is positive—running to something new. As a friend said wisely last week: the act of leaving a bad situation and finding a good one are two separate events, as much as we like to conflate them. It’s good advice.

So now I leave this post strangely thinking not of the underworld journeys in Vent No. 5 in Solla Sollew or Rome in Catch-22, but of a friend’s work on Dante’s Divine Comedy. From my limited knowledge, Dante starts by settling scores with his political enemies in the Inferno before the pilgrim ventures to understand how individuals make amends for their lives or how to attend to some higher purpose (while still settling some political scores, of course—it’s Italy!). It seems appropriate that the pilgrim makes his journey at 35.

It certainly has to be an easier read than Godel Escher Bach.


From FB Post, 2012

Had to leave a party early in SF tonight after apparently using up all of my non-awkward interactions for the week. It was a cocktail party to celebrate Fortune’s 40 under 40 article, and one conversation I struck up went something like this…

Ben: If you can’t see, the Giants are up 2-0.
VC mktg girl: Thanks!
Ben: I’m Ben. Nice to meet you.
VC mktg girl: I’m —–. Good to meet you. Were you on the list?
Ben: Yeah, I mean I checked in upstairs and everything.
VC mktg girl: Congratulations! That’s great.
Ben: Um, yeah… well I only see two people I know here which is really odd. Maybe I travel too much. I don’t know anyone in SF anymore.
VC mktg girl: Did you travel from New York for the honor?
Ben: Oh God, you meant the 40 under 40 list?!? No, no, of course I’m not on that list. I just mean that I didn’t sneak in. I checked in on the list upstairs. I thought you were accusing me of sneaking in.
[awkward silence]

One thought on “Riding The Bench

  1. short stuff

    I love that you have opened up your writing/thoughts to the great wide web again!! I agree 100% on the awkwardness of it all in the Valley. A correction should reset the landscape. And then we can start all over again, yay!

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