P013: The Nostalgia Trap

“The best minds of my generation spend their time trying to find a better way to send pictures of their junk,” I said the other day, paraphrasing both the opening line of my favorite poem and a quote from Jeff Hammerbacher from a 2011 article about the (still pretty much un-popped) tech bubble. The article is chock full of the kind of utopian wisdom that can only come from a Facebook millionaire:

After a couple years at Facebook, Hammerbacher grew restless. He figured that much of the groundbreaking computer science had been done. Something else gnawed at him. Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at companies like his own, Google, and Twitter, and saw his peers wasting their talents. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” he says. “That sucks.”

And while I generally am less-averse to advertising (I work at an ad agency after all), I ended up falling into the same trap as Hammerbacher while grousing about all the stupid “anonymous” sharing apps that seem to be the flavor of the day.

The Thing About Expertise

We go to school to acquire the knowledge that lays the foundation for the skills of our trade. We use our skills each day and with that repetition comes expertise. The expertise leads to increased compensation, elevated status, a sense of comfort and complacency. We plateau, our focus shifting to maintaining our position in life rather than forging new skills. Upton Sinclair said it best:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But while our evolution slows, the market does not. Every day something new is identified as worthy of praise or attention. Some of those things gain momentum and become trends, some of those trends fizzle and die while some become institutions. How do we identify which is which?

The Nostalgia Trap

Humans are pattern matching machines. We use our experiences to inform our best guess as to what happens next, and our expertise in a particular area of subject matter serves to increase our confidence in finding those related patterns. But our experiences are, by definition, backwards-facing.

To me, Snapchat and Secret and Whisper and Sneeky and all the rest of those dick pic apps are patently ridiculous. Their staggering valuations are another sign that we are, as an industry, doomed. But my assessment of the situation is limited by my set of experiences – and I know it. If I was an investor, I’d be missing out on the next big thing, but that’s OK.

I’m Not Much Of An Investor

I resolve this conflict by building the things that I want to see in the world and paying no mind to the rest. I’m aware of my blind spots and am especially open to being convinced that I am wrong in those situations – just reply to this email to tell me how wrong I am about Snapchat. And maybe someday I’ll be convinced to make an anonymous sharing app, you never know.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron