I recently received an email from a friend (we are going to call her X as she would like to remain anonymous) asking for my opinion on her blog/ manifesto “Why SF Really Is That Bad,” her assessment of being a single woman in San Francisco and the social dynamics of Silicon Valley.
Upon reading it, my first reaction was not to publish her piece as there are many points with which I disagree, but I realized that went against the very foundation of Vixely—a place where women can share their voices openly, especially when it pertains to societal stigmas and men. Her voice deserves to be heard (as does mine).
While my experience in business school and dating in Silicon Valley has been overall extremely positive, the “manifesto” is the precise summary of what I did dislike about Stanford business school—the constant analytic assessment of everything, the false-arrogance masking insecurity, and the disillusionment that one’s life, in our complete bubble, is of any relevance to anyone outside of it (I, unfortunately, am not saying this from a self-righteous throne—I became that person and I still haven’t quite shaken those aforementioned qualities).
First, let me allow you to develop your own opinion, because regardless of the merit to its arguments, the essay is a rarity in the raw lens if offers into the life and perspective of a single, very accomplished woman living and working in Silicon Valley, a society typically encapsulated from outside opinions. Furthermore, her opinion is not only very provocative but poignantly hilarious.
From X’s “Abstract:”
The essay takes a brutally honest look at the social dynamics at play in San Francisco, and seeks to articulate why people who complain about it have a point. Part I: Geeks, explores the ramifications of wealth accumulation by men unpracticed in social graces, and forms the crux of the argument. Parts II, III, and IV look at peripheral characters, familiar from other cities but re-cast by this environment. In Part II, the married and gay men who exacerbate the feeling that one’s options are terrible; in Part III, the alpha males encouraged and allowed to extend college lifestyles in pursuit of “the next big thing”; in Part IV, the shortcomings of an at first obvious solution, dating older men. Finally, in the Postlude, a look at those of us who remain.
So, as one of those “who remain,” here are some of my thoughts on her perspective. Note that our backgrounds, education and appearance are quite similar, so our differing opinions are based on a relatively neutral starting point. (Although she is a much better writer than me, thank God for my team at Vixely of fabulous writers and editors!)
On Dating Geeks (Part I)
First, X’s definition of a geek (in comparison to a nerd):
A geek, on the other hand, is an outsider who adopts nerd qualities in order to have an excuse for being socially inept. This is the guy who, for whatever reason, never really fit in with his peers, and ended up getting left behind. He turned the time others spent developing social skills to video games or computers, which allowed him a safe haven from the social interactions at which he was so naturally unskilled. A geek doesn’t necessarily have above-average intelligence, but he’s spent an above average amount of time on his craft and is therefore good at it in an above-average way…
Remember that anxious energy that used to exist at middle school dances? That’s what SOMA bars are like. Except instead of being able to escape into the silent comfort of a “Come on Ride that Train” dance line, you get stuck in conversations about the latest “disruptive technology” with the start-up junkie or suffer through the philosophical position on C++ of a computer programmer whose adolescent grin makes you uncomfortably aware he’s got a boner.
How do you explain without sounding mean that there is simply nothing remotely sexual about this exchange? And are you going to be denigrated as more of a bitch for not accepting his advances than you would have if you’d blown him off from the get go?
Personally, I primarily date geeks now, I am totally converted from my lacrosse-player days. Perhaps, this is just a matter of taste, talking about disruptive technology and creating sexual discomfort are both things I relish in.
Regardless of personal preference though, how people treat others is a reflection of how they feel about themselves. Social aptitude isn’t just being polite, it is recognizing others’ intentions with their behavior. I believe one’s self-preoccupation leads to the conclusions drawn by X in this section, and it is just a mere matter of changing your perspective. Empathy for others is a time-consuming process (but one which is required to draw the assumptions X makes), I find it is helpful when someone is being a jerk to think about how awful they must feel about themselves (perhaps they are going through a divorce) to treat you that way. Feel sorry for them for their anger, rather than take it personally. Get on with your life.
If you take something personally it is often probably because you are feeling insecure yourself. The self-rationalization that there must be something wrong with them (as a personal trait, not merely a current mindset) is what X expounds on:
They’ve hidden themselves behind computer screens since they were ten years old, limiting their interactions to people who were like them. And their parents and teachers allowed it because they felt sorry for them, wanted to shelter them from the rejection that came whenever they engaged with peers. Who could have predicted that all that programming would make them millionaires whose success would give them the power to influence a city’s social trajectory?
Just because they were not cool in highschool doesn’t mean they were not happy or satisfied with themselves. This is an extremely arrogant assumption to presume that everyone’s goal is to be part of “the popular crowd.” It actually takes a level of self-awareness typically not yet developed in high-school to find those like-minded to you.
On What You are Looking For (Part III)
You attract whom you want. In Part III: [Absent] Alpha Males, X describes the qualities of a man she is looking through which can be summed as a guy who 1. “played lacrosse at Yale;” 2. then “was in Private Equity;” and 3. now is “starting a mobile payments company.” The assumptions that are drawn from those facts can be anything you want to be, such as that: 1. he didn’t get into Harvard; 2. he is not creative and enjoys being someone’s bitch; and 3. he is now getting fucked by iOS 6. Or that could be your dream man. X, that is your choice. The safe bet, in my opinion, is to resist judgement as well as not to have such superficial standards in what you are looking for in a partner.
If you base the qualities you are looking for in a man on superficial characteristics, you are going to get yourself into a superficial relationship or find someone who is looking for the same in you. We live in a world of stereotypes and assumptions. In order to be successful, we constantly draw quick conclusions on people with little knowledge based on past trends in order to mitigate risk. I do this in hiring, investing, choosing friends and, of course, in whom I date. But I have always been proven the most wrong in drawing quick assumptions on whom would be a good match for me to date. X, step out of the bubble and get yourself to the Mission.
On Self-Perpetuated Disillusion and Women (Postlude)
My emotional roller coaster of feelings in reading the essay went from disagreement, to laughter, to anger and then sadness that an extremely intelligent, successful, single woman—similar to myself in many ways—would look at the same world I am seeing and draw such different conclusions on the people who make up our ecosystem in Silicon Valley.
X’s Postlude (or self-rationalizing) is the most disturbing part to me of the manifesto:
But here’s the big thing: all those achievements apply to women and men. If you didn’t hear the voice, it would be impossible to tell whether a bio (“I studied History at Harvard, then worked at BCG, then went back to Harvard for business school. During that time, I biked across the United States, hiked Kilamanjaro, started a nonprofit in Africa, and now I’m head of corporate strategy for a start-up travel website”) is that of a guy or a girl. Which complicates gender roles beyond logistics (whose career do we prioritize?) to fundamental worth (what do you bring to this that I don’t already have? What can you provide that I couldn’t provide for myself?).
In short,I fully acknowledge that there’s another piece of this argument, which is that San Francisco is so bad because the women here are so difficult. Were I a man here, I would be complaining that I “just can’t win” with women in SF: that they’re expectations are simultaneously incredibly high and very poorly articulated. I think the Hong Kong geek from my cocktail party had a point, if badly delivered: the women here have replaced traditional feminine charms (no one would argue that focus on personal appearance is significantly muted here relative to other cities) with gender equal pursuits. And yet we still expect to find a man whose power and ability-to-provide-something-we-can’t-provide-for-ourselves stirs our respect and desire. Men, meanwhile, understandably want to be with someone whose achievements and pursuits complement, not compete with, their own. Which makes you wonder whether gender equality is necessarily emasculating, and what that means for a generation bred in it.
Let me put this in layman’s terms: blame the wealthy, blame men, blame women and then blame our generation. This lack of accountability for one’s own outcome in life is what is depressing. Our personal satisfaction is a result of the expectations that we put upon ourselves. If we tell ourselves our goal in life is to get married to a tall, wealthy man by the age of 30, then we will either consider ourselves failures or find someone else to blame for us not achieving our goals. This is a vicious pattern—this anxiety and disappointment of some societal standards you have chosen to put upon yourself is like a Scarlet Letter of desperation.
On Redemption (Call to Action)
In X’s “Call to Action” there is ultimately some redemption, I couldn’t agree more with her perspective in this section:
We have to start acting a bit more on our feelings and a bit less on our life plans. Because we’re not even thirty: what do we really know about what life has to offer? And how will we find out if we don’t let ourselves experience something other than what’s pre-defined? We have to open ourselves to really-messing-up, to really-getting-hurt, to maybe even wasting-a-little-time. And whether that’s in love or in something else, I think taking that risk is the one thing that can save us from waking up in ten years and wondering what it was all for. If nothing else, it’ll give us a unique box to check, and make San Francisco a little more interesting.
However, this caveat does not excuse the prior 7 part manifesto packed with judgment. I would like to think that although we often cannot help ourselves, we all know life should be about people and experiences, not collecting points or superficial qualities. But actually living this is the harder part. So as not to only just critique X, here are my two thoughts for self-accountability:
1. We are the only person in control of our happiness. No one or no thing is going to change that—not a job, a husband, a child or a hot body. Self-satisfaction is the best reward because we can take it with us everywhere. It doesn’t matter if we live in San Francisco or Mexico City, we create our own happiness. And if you don’t like it then get out. This outlook on life is definitely not something that always comes naturally. It is the easier way out to blame others. Living life with gratitude takes practice and it also takes vulnerability to look inside, rather than outside, when we are not happy with our situations. Anger is much easier. However, this is the time in our lives, before we have families of our own, to nurture our self-reliance and self-confidence that is essential to make others happy, bringing me to my second point.
2. Self-preoccupation can be powerful. I, like X , as a single, late-twenties overachiever, have mostly only known self-preoccupation. Yes, I have experienced love for others deeper than myself as well as all-consuming grief and loss for loved ones, but let’s be serious, on a day-to-day basis, it’s all about me. But that is fucking powerful! I can do anything I put my mind to, create any future for myself, the world is my oyster. And right now I want to focus on building a company founded on a mission I feel passionate about and along the way I will probably find someone I love who believes in me as much as I do (and I in him). When derailed from the positive self-gratification of personal freedom, perhaps take the time to brighten someone’s day in an unexpected fashion or help others in a unique way only you can. This doesn’t have to be devoting hours to a non-profit, it can be telling that “geek” his haircut looks great or spending more time helping out a friend. I find when I remind myself of the pleasure derived from the positive impact on others, it becomes more ingrained in my daily actions.
In my own concluding caveat, I have to agree with X in her following point:
In its politically correct, let’s-find-a-solution-to-every-problem way of going about things, San Francisco has managed to wring out the feeling and wit and occasional irrationality that make life interesting.
I feel this is right on point with what I disliked about the start-up scene in the Bay (but not the diverse city of San Francisco which X fails to make the distinction between): that adjacent to a city where individuality is meant to be applauded—the world of Silicon Valley lives and breathes conformity. The result of this is frustration, bitterness and insecurity that underlies everyone from the top venture capitalist, to the “geek” to the single girl.
Hence, my recent move to New York (but I brought some geeks with me!).
For more Silicon Valley commentary, read Jen’s Sex in Silicon Valley Part I: The Ellen Pao Scandal , The Downfall of Michael Arrington, and What Facebook’s IPO Demonstrates about the Future of Entrepreneurship and Our Generation.