October 16th, 2010

What One Does

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

One of America’s greatest strengths is social mobility. There are several cases of an individual starting with nothing and persevering to become rich, powerful, and influential. Success stories of this kind have become an important part of American business mythology, especially in the world of entrepreneurship. They are strong motivators for individuals embarking on companies of their own.

For those of us who start companies, we see the company as a vehicle to creating something valuable and lasting for society, while also advancing our personal goals. This isn’t usually hubris or ego, though sometimes it may be. Instead, it’s usually an attempt to make your time worthwhile: to yourself, to those close to you, and — if you’re lucky and persistent enough — to the entire world.

The problem with social mobility is that not every individual begins at the same starting line. In fact, the range is huge. Those who start with an influential family or significant capital resources have a much easier time getting to the top. For those who don’t have this head start, things are a lot harder.

Though America is not entirely merit-based, it can reward individuals for hard work. I’ve experienced the benefit both of an advantageous starting point and hard work in my 26 years on this earth. I also believe that with each step and milestone in my life, my potential to create enduring value for society has increased significantly.


The inspiration for this essay was a comment I read online about a successful young businessman who was the son of a successful businessman. “I’d [like to] read a story about a 25-yo [who] made good on the same scale[,] who went to a state college, had screwed up parents who were too busy fighting with each other or gettiing drunk to even have a clue what he was doing, isn’t childhood friends with a celebrity… Just happened to be smart and hardworking and optimistic even despite all those factors. That would actually be an interesting story.”

My parents weren’t screwed up, but they did fight a lot — my Mom and Dad separated when I was in elementary school and divorced shortly after that. I’ve not been childhood friends with a celebrity and I don’t have a trust fund.

I’m not saying I came from a disadvantaged upbringing — in fact, quite the opposite. I went to public high school in New York. To a New Yorker, that may not sound like a huge step up in the world, but I recognize that public school in New York represents one of the top educations you can get.

I grew up in a nice house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I had good, encouraging teachers. My parents were liberal and a positive influence. I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth, but I also didn’t have any serious handicap in my upbringing. Probably my biggest step up in the world, given my current trajectory, was that when I was 10 or 11 years old, my Dad noticed an interest I had in computers. And so, he bought me a PC (running DOS / Windows 3.1) and set it up for me on Christmas Day. From that point forward, I was enchanted by the machine. And once I got a 28K modem and dial-up access to the web (on one of the first ISPs, The Pipeline), I became a citizen of the world before I had even hit puberty.

This I do know — though I had a head start, I also worked hard. I was a geek — as I got older, I built my own servers in my basement, taught myself to program, and discovered Linux and Free Software. But I also kept ahead in “the real world”. I did feel a little disconnected from my peers in my private pursuits; reflecting on my childhood, I realize I “grew up” a little more quickly than my peers.

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