Jessica and I have certain words that have special significance
when we're talking about startups. The highest compliment we can
pay to founders is to describe them as "earnest." This is not by
itself a guarantee of success. You could be earnest but incapable.
But when founders are both formidable (another of our words) and
earnest, they're as close to unstoppable as you get.
Earnestness sounds like a boring, even Victorian virtue. It seems
a bit of an anachronism that people in Silicon Valley would care
about it. Why does this matter so much?
When you call someone earnest, you're making a statement about their
motives. It means both that they're doing something for the right
reasons, and that they're trying as hard as they can. If we imagine
motives as vectors, it means both the direction and the magnitude
are right. Though these are of course related: when people are doing
something for the right reasons, they try harder.
The reason motives matter so much in Silicon Valley is that so many
people there have the wrong ones. Starting a successful startup
makes you rich and famous. So a lot of the people trying to start
them are doing it for those reasons. Instead of what? Instead of
interest in the problem for its own sake. That is the root of
It's also the hallmark of a nerd. Indeed, when people describe
themselves as "x nerds," what they mean is that they're interested
in x for its own sake, and not because it's cool to be interested
in x, or because of what they can get from it. They're saying they
care so much about x that they're willing to sacrifice seeming cool
for its sake.
A genuine interest
in something is a very powerful motivator — for
some people, the most powerful motivator of all.
Which is why
it's what Jessica and I look for in founders. But as well as being
a source of strength, it's also a source of vulnerability. Caring
constrains you. The earnest can't easily reply in kind to mocking
banter, or put on a cool facade of nihil admirari. They care too
much. They are doomed to be the straight man. That's a real
disadvantage in your
when mocking banter and nihil
admirari often have the upper hand. But it becomes an advantage
It's a commonplace now that the kids who were
nerds in high school
become the cool kids' bosses later on. But people misunderstand why
this happens. It's not just because the nerds are smarter, but also
because they're more earnest. When the problems get harder than the
fake ones you're given in high school, caring about them starts to
Does it always matter? Do the earnest always win? Not always. It
probably doesn't matter much in politics, or in crime, or in certain
types of business that are similar to crime, like gambling, personal
injury law, patent trolling, and so on. Nor does it matter in
academic fields at the more
bogus end of the spectrum. And though
I don't know enough to say for sure, it may not matter in some kinds
of humor: it may be possible to be completely cynical and still be
Looking at the list of fields I mentioned, there's an obvious
pattern. Except possibly for humor, these are all types of work I'd
avoid like the plague. So that could be a useful heuristic for
deciding which fields to work in: how much does earnestness matter?
Which can in turn presumably be inferred from the prevalence of
nerds at the top.
Along with "nerd," another word that tends to be associated with
earnestness is "naive." The earnest often seem naive. It's not
just that they don't have the motives other people have. They often
don't fully grasp that such motives exist. Or they may know
intellectually that they do, but because they don't feel them, they
forget about them.
It works to be slightly naive not just about motives but also,
believe it or not, about the problems you're working on. Naive
optimism can compensate for the bit rot that
rapid change causes
in established beliefs. You plunge into some problem saying "How
hard can it be?", and then after solving it you learn that it was
till recently insoluble.
Naivete is an obstacle for anyone who wants to seem sophisticated,
and this is one reason would-be intellectuals find it so difficult
to understand Silicon Valley. It hasn't been safe for such people
to use the word "earnest" outside scare quotes since Oscar Wilde
wrote "The Importance of Being Earnest" in 1895. And yet when you
zoom in on Silicon Valley, right into
Jessica Livingston's brain,
that's what her x-ray vision
is seeking out in founders. Earnestness!
Who'd have guessed? Reporters literally can't believe it when
founders making piles of money say that they started their companies
to make the world better. The situation seems made for mockery.
How can these founders be so naive as not to realize how implausible
Though those asking this question don't realize it, that's not a
A lot of founders are faking it, of course, particularly the smaller
fry, and the soon to be smaller fry. But not all of them. There are
a significant number of founders who really are interested in the
problem they're solving mainly for its own sake.
Why shouldn't there be? We have no difficulty believing that people
would be interested in history or math or even old bus tickets for
their own sake. Why can't there be people interested in self-driving
cars or social networks for their own sake? When you look at the
question from this side, it seems obvious there would be. And isn't
it likely that having a deep interest in something would be a source
of great energy and resilience? It is in every other field.
The question really is why we have a blind spot about business.
And the answer to that is obvious if you know enough history. For
most of history, making large amounts of money has not been very
intellectually interesting. In preindustrial times it was never far
from robbery, and some areas of business still retain that character,
except using lawyers instead of soldiers.
But there are other areas of business where the work is genuinely
interesting. Henry Ford got to spend much of his time working on
interesting technical problems, and for the last several decades
the trend in that direction has been accelerating. It's much easier
now to make a lot of money by working on something you're interested
in than it was 50 years ago.
And that, rather than how fast they
grow, may be the most important change that startups represent.
Though indeed, the fact that the work is genuinely interesting is
a big part of why it gets done so fast.
Can you imagine a more important change than one in the relationship
between intellectual curiosity and money? These are two of the most
powerful forces in the world, and in my lifetime they've become
significantly more aligned. How could you not be fascinated to watch
something like this happening in real time?
I meant this essay to be about earnestness generally, and now I've
gone and talked about startups again. But I suppose at least it
serves as an example of an x nerd in the wild.
It's interesting how many different ways there are not to
be earnest: to be cleverly cynical, to be superficially brilliant,
to be conspicuously virtuous, to be cool, to be sophisticated, to
be orthodox, to be a snob, to bully, to pander, to be on the make.
This pattern suggests that earnestness is not one end of a continuum,
but a target one can fall short of in multiple dimensions.
Another thing I notice about this list is that it sounds like a
list of the ways people behave on Twitter. Whatever else social
media is, it's a vivid catalogue of ways not to be earnest.
People's motives are as mixed in Silicon Valley as anywhere
else. Even the founders motivated mostly by money tend to be at
least somewhat interested in the problem they're solving, and even
the founders most interested in the problem they're solving also
like the idea of getting rich. But there's great variation in the
relative proportions of different founders' motivations.
And when I talk about "wrong" motives, I don't mean morally wrong.
There's nothing morally wrong with starting a startup to make money.
I just mean that those startups don't do as well.
The most powerful motivator for most people is probably family.
But there are some for whom intellectual curiosity comes first. In
his (wonderful) autobiography, Paul Halmos says explicitly that for
a mathematician, math must come before anything else, including
family. Which at least implies that it did for him.
Interestingly, just as the word "nerd" implies earnestness even
when used as a metaphor, the word "politics" implies the opposite.
It's not only in actual politics that earnestness seems to be a
handicap, but also in office politics and academic politics.
It's a bigger social error to seem naive in most European
countries than it is in America, and this may be one of subtler
reasons startups are less common there. Founder culture is completely
at odds with sophisticated cynicism.
The most earnest part of Europe is Scandinavia, and not surprisingly
this is also the region with the highest number of successful
startups per capita.
Much of business is schleps, and probably always will be. But
even being a professor is largely schleps. It would be interesting
to collect statistics about the schlep ratios of different jobs,
but I suspect they'd rarely be less than 30%.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Patrick Collison, Suhail Doshi, Jessica
Livingston, Mattias Ljungman, Harj Taggar, and Kyle Vogt for reading
drafts of this.