He sprinted across the campus, ran up the stairs frantically, as if to put out a fire, and plopped down in front of his workstation*. He punched in his password, and began furiously typing out lines after lines of code, carefully crafting, envisioning his ideas becoming something concrete, something useful. Line after line, hour after hour he worked, oblivious to the clocks that signaled the passing of the many hours he'd already put into the project. But this was the final touch, the last piece of the puzzle before it was complete, and he couldn't afford to lose any more time. It was done, complete. Not much of a final product – certainly not nearly as perfect as he'd imagined it would be, but it was good enough to go live – in industry jargon, the MVP – minimum viable product. And with a “cheers” from his friends online and a deep breath, he issued the final command with a smooth keystroke, and the servers whirred to life, running his code, sending and receiving. His idea came alive.
That wasn't a specific account of any particular event, but it's the typical, idyllic account of the bootstrapped start-up in a strange, emerging Silicon Valley culture. It's vaguely the story of Facebook, the history of Snapchat, and the earliest days of Meerkat. In these myth-ified stories we tell of how these giant corporations in the tech space come to be, the driving characters – the central group of individuals around which the world seems to grow and bend – are almost always young, fresh out of college, or sometimes, still in school.
And for the first few years of the century, this principle held more often then not, that the entrepreneurs that push the possibilities and imagination forward, especially in the technology and Internet industries, are relatively young. And examples range from the obvious, like Snapchat, to the ephemeral, like GrooveShark, to the legendary, like Facebook.
Think about it: the apps you use every single day on your phone, the websites and services you depend on for your day-to-day life – more often that not, those weren't built by experienced researchers in their late 50's backed by millions of dollars of cash funding; they were crafted by developers, designers, and entrepreneurs born in just the last thirty or so years – not a single generation ago.
Obviously, entrepreneurial success depends on far more than just age and generational differences, but it's difficult to pretend this “age gap” doesn't play a role when the reality so starkly reflects the correlation: innovation in ideas is led by the younger, emerging generations.
That's the positive side of the story I want to tell, but on the other side of that coin is an issue I want to address.
Innovation, by its definition, requires something to change. In the technology space, where it's most often used, that usually means faster, lighter, smaller, and cheaper – technological innovation very seldom has serious drawbacks. Sure, you might get some outdated components once in a while, but generally, innovation is taken to mean some objective improvement or upgrade. But the same isn't true for an arguably more important kind of innovation, social innovation.
Social innovation encompasses everything from the gay rights momements to the rise of social media to online video and digital education. Social innovations change the way we communicate and go about leading our lives, and unlike always-forward technological innovations, social changes usually require a mindset shift, rather than just a forward step. To move to a scientifically more effective, digital education model, for example, the idea that computers and smartphones are “for play” or “bad for studying” needs to be completely thrown out – that's a mindset shift. For same-sex marriage to have been legalized nationwide, a huge minset shift about sexual orientation and the idea of marriage had to take place. And there's a constant social change still happening around the extent to which social media and our online identities can merge with our more “physical” ones – also a mindset shift about the reality of digital objects.
And these mindset shifts require adaptability and mental flexibility. The people who stand at the forefront of these changes are always the contrarians, those who love to take risks and experiment. They find satisfaction in having made a dent in history in some way, and they don't hesitate to doubt the people around them.
Keep that in the back of your mind, and let's return momentarily to our entrepreneurs. They like to experiment with new ideas. They invest heavily – both their time and money – into ideas that are potentially very profitable or utter failures. They stand against the odds to bring their risky ideas to market because they find satisfaction in having made something that didn't exist before.
See a pattern here?
The youngest generations – the twenty-somethings and under – have always had a certain air of rebelliousness associated with their age. And what do you know? I'm a part of that crowd. Clichés about diversity and inclusivity aside, we – my generation – have something in common within. We're incessantly focused on a lifestyle that's media-centric, connected, and wireless. Smartphones and wearables are our must-haves. We're focused on STEM, “digital natives” living and adapting to a lifestyle that's radically different from those of the previous generations. And with that, we have different perspectives. We spend more of our lives in front of screens and less in front of faces; we consume more content and information, and we're immersed in a culture and economy closer than ever to realizing the daring dream of “try hard, and you will succeed” – the mantra of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial culture, and an idea that's closer than ever to reality, thanks precisely to the innovations in software's reach in our lives. Simply put, we are different, as is every generation.
But these differences aren't so much seen as innovative or futuristic as they are dismissed as phases or annoyances. Our digital-centric lifestyles aren't so much innovative as they are risky, or so I hear. Our blatant mindlessness about privacy online is dangerous and reckless, or so I hear. Our reliance on technology for the essentials of our livestyles is making us mindless zombies, or so they say.
But come 2060, that's what we'll be saying to the next generation. New generations always bring with them something new – a new lifestyle, new values, new ideas, and new ways of navigating life. And we can either choose to enforce the traditions until we no longer can't, or we can give way to the turning tides in time, naturally, to accept changes and innovations that occur naturally to our lives.
We aren't, contrary to what you may hear, being different for the sake of being different. We're different because the time doesn't wait for the last decade to catch up to the newest ideas and lifestyles.The rebellion of the younger voices isn't so much ours, as it is the fault of the ticking clock of innovation itself.
* Sorry about the obvious gender bias in this section, folks. But I had to choose a pronoun, and the unfortunate reality in the technology sector is that males still greatly outweigh females. Hopefully, though, this statement is incorrect in a few years.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Not quite.
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