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How Tech Hype is Ruining College Students in Tech
College campuses are filled with entrepreneurship LARPers. These students, inundated in startup mythology through their teens, look at creating startups like religion. To achieve salvation is ‘starting a (venture backed) company one day’. Influencer VCs are the saints that will help them get there. They obsessively read the same 10 books, quote the same people, and consume the same information. An excruciatingly small section of the internet is both their Bible and their Church. They rediscover normal concepts like friend groups as heavily corporatised ‘communities’. Somehow, they’re all mildly discontent with life. They’re always thinking- thinking about ‘what to work on’, where to live, but there’s often a curious lack of doing to match it. They look down at almost everything institutional, but it’s unclear whether this is an aesthetic and logical conclusion, or merely because they can’t seem to find their place in them themselves.
I’ve seen this weird young-person-in-tech angst frequently enough that I’m convinced it’s a real thing. But I don’t think it’s helping on the innovation front, and it’s not upping the life satisfaction of these people either. Kids should stop being religiously obsessed with the tech industry and go and think for themselves, cultivate their taste, and make unique things. I’d bet that this would lead to more innovation too.
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Escaping tech hype cycles
I’ve met probably hundreds of ‘interested in entrepreneurship’ kids in Berkeley/Stanford/ around the bay area, and the lack of diversity of thought is terrifying. It is close to impossible to have a long conversation without someone bringing up mimetic theory (the irony!).
Way too many people are drenched in the talking-points-du-jour of Twitter, conversations can sometimes circle around startup raises, where people are consulting or interning at etc. etc. And yes this is common to any industry, but tech is in a weird position where a lot of these kids want to ‘change the world’ but are actually stuck in industry gossip.
Somehow, everyone’s main interest ends up being the main tech trend at the time. This is often justified as ‘being where I can cause the most change,’ but what I think it really is is lack of conviction.
The problem with constantly thinking about what technologies will change the future and then working on those is that there’s always a new trend in silicon valley. There’s always something new and shiny to work on. A better question might be- what is unchanging? What do/will people always need? And then work backwards from there to see what technology fits to fix those problems, and maybe they involve the latest new fangled trend, but maybe they don’t. Amjad was obsessed with online IDEs for years, and he’s supplementing that vision with new trends like AI and online education, not pivoting to the generic idea of the quarter.
I have a test that I’ve started backtesting with myself- what’s the chance I’m interested in thing X, when thing X is also what literally everyone else is interested in right now? If someone is interested in machine learning and tech, and everyone around them is interested in machine learning and tech, it’s probably a low signal. They could be people who are actually passionate about it, and found/got themselves in the right place. Or they could be going along for the ride. But if there’s someone who’s very passionate about, say, vertical gardening, when everyone around them is interested in machine learning, that’s a more interesting signal.
This obviously begs the question- how do you develop those esoteric interests?
A lot of this comes down to the question of taste. What problems are important to solve. And how should they be solved?
The issue with sticking to the same bubble of content consumption and talking to the same tech people is that you don’t really create an individual viewpoint, and so you don’t end up solving truly unique problems or coming up with unique solutions.
Steve Jobs studied calligraphy, and that influenced Apple Fonts. How many people would coast into a class that esoteric today? How do you learn about problems outside the tech bubble until you speak to enough people who aren’t in tech? Do people realize how little non-techies care about things like GPT-3 or Stable Diffusion? So much work lies in making things that people actually find useful, as opposed to simple wrappers.
What frustrates me a lot is that students who are still in University complain about it so much. I think college is actually a great place to develop taste. But for that, you need to see school not as a place for training, but rather, a place for education.
If someone thinks school is a stupid waste of time that inefficiently teaches technical skills, that’s all school will be to them. But there’s an unmistakable pattern of highly influential people who come out of elite universities. Zuckerberg studied classics at his high school. Peter Thiel studied philosophy and is clearly one of the most well read people in the industry. Paul Graham studied philosophy at Cornell and then went to Harvard.
To have the opportunity to go to a college, let alone an elite one, is a huge privilege. If college is such a waste of time, then drop out. And if you aren’t doing that, use it fully. But I don’t see the point in needlessly parroting the usual talking points about the uselessness of college and how the education system sucks while staying in it.
Here’s an excerpt that really clarified things for me:
“ Sometimes high school students and others ask me whether they should first go to college, or start working as animators right away. When asked, I respond as follows: It doesn’t matter, so just go to college. Go to college and, while enjoying four years of student life, study art if you really want to.
I give young people this advice because jumping into the industry four years early isn’t going to help them become full animators any faster. Once you’re in the industry, you will be overwhelmed with work and you won’t have any time to study or learn for yourself.
One of the things about drawing is that, if you put in serious effort, you will become good at it, at least to a certain extent. But that’s all the more reason to study a variety of things that interest you while you have time, before you enter the professional world in order to develop and solidify such fundamentals as your own viewpoint and way of thinking.
If you don’t do this, your life will be treated as just another disposable product..”
Excerpt From: Hayao Miyazaki. “Starting Point: 1979-1996.”
So many people ‘interested in tech’ just treat school like a training ground. Why not treat it as the fertile ground for intellectual exploration that it really is? Follow curiosity. Find your equivalent of that Calligraphy class without caring whether it’ll matter. Develop weird and interesting opinions about the world. If you’re lucky enough to be able to attend a university, treat it like the privilege it is.
Innovation and happiness
I’m going to admit why I wrote this. I have a friend who is one of the most gifted physical builders I’ve ever met. He made an arcade machine from scratch in 24 hours. We needed a foam machine for a party, but instead of buying one, he macgyvered one for free using parts from around the house.
The other day, he came up to me and said he’s going to work on a no-code machine learning platform. I wanted to punch something. I convinced him out of the idea, which was probably for the best- he said his dream since he was a kid was to build physical things, but he felt he was ‘supposed to’ work on this other ‘startupy’ stuff instead. But the question of why he did that remained in my head. This black hole of tech hype is a real thing that real people get sucked into.
I don’t think you need to be happy to innovate, but I do think you need to be sufficiently compelled by what you’re working on. And that can only happen if you truly believe in it. If doing that thing is truly you.
A builder chooses what she wants to build, and she holds herself accountable for the work of building it. She is not beholden to any inner or outer drill sergeant; only to her own independent, carefully formed judgment of what is worth building and how best to go about it. And she neither beats herself up nor lets herself off the hook when something unexpectedly cracks or falls out of place; rather she problem-solves like mad until she finds a solution. - Gena Gorlin, The builder's mindset: a way out of the "drill sergeant" / "Zen master" dichotomy
Tech hype draws people away from who they truly are. Makes people not follow their ‘independent, carefully formed judgment of what is worth building and how best to go about it,’ but an artificially manufactured FOMO fueled version of it. So develop that judgement! Read broadly, find your taste.
You can tell when builders are compelled. When they clearly have had a vision in their head that has not, maybe cannot, escape them. When they have to bring something into the world. And if you don’t feel like you have that yet? That’s okay. Don’t force something that sounds sexy for the sake of it. It’s okay to explore a bit in college. And when the time is right, you can pick an idea, no matter how big it is, and just do it, and when you do, it’ll be you, and it’ll be glorious.
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