Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Embracing stereotypes

As we come up on the end of another year, there are plenty of blogposts, info graphics, and videos summing up the best moments of 2013.  I wrote something similar myself last year, and I generally love these entries and find them quite useful in reflecting upon the previous 365 days.  However, this time I'd like to distill my various significant moments of 2013 into just one scary realization I have had from this year:  Stereotypes are (mostly) true.  

I hate to say it, I really do.  I love nothing more than proving people wrong, going against the grain, not submitting to popular opinion.  However, I have recently crossed a lot of borders, both literally and figuratively, and after changing industries, moving halfway across the world, traveling around Asia, starting a business, hiring a team, and meeting countless entrepreneurs, I have spent quite a bit of time looking in the rearview mirror and getting some real perspective.  It is impossible to see something for what it really is when you are entrenched in it.  You just can't.  It's too real, too close, too nuanced to draw conclusions relative to the rest of the world.  But with every new experience comes a new vantage point, a different context, and a wider angle lens with which you can see the past, present, and future.  

When I worked at Goldman Sachs, sure I had read Liar's Poker, I had seen Boiler Room, and I had heard plenty of people bash the world of finance and the myopic, testosterone-fueled personalities that had made it what it was.  At the time, these opinions gave me a twinge of mild offense and resentment, and I brushed most of it off thinking that these people didn't really understand how Wall Street worked and if they did, they would see it differently.  Please let me caveat what I am about to say by pointing out that, of course, there are always exceptions to the stereotypes, and these extreme views are not true for everyone that works in the industry.  There are plenty of very intelligent, down to earth, morally centered individuals who I have had the pleasure of working with in my time in finance.  However, now that I've spent time on the outside, I have realized that quite a bit of what is said about the trading world is (gasp) true.   A typical day at work did start with copious amounts of caffeine at 6 am, followed by co-workers putting their feet up on their desks, drinking Monster energy drinks and taking prescription drugs.  There was a lot of shooting the shit with clients on the phone and screaming at traders or brokers for (debatably) messing something up.  There were plenty of mini footballs being thrown around the trading floor, and superiors would regularly motivate people by employing frat-boy antics that were centered around challenging people to improve by constantly putting them down in front of others.  Then, we'd often end the day with drinks and fancy dinners in Midtown.  Of course, if that's all you know, you intimately understand the immediate motivations for each of these equally ridiculous rituals and truly believe that anyone who criticizes them is simply taking them out of context.  But that's just it -- then you venture out into the real world and realize your definition of "context" is highly limited.  It becomes clear that you've been seeing the world without peripheral vision.

After moving to Hong Kong, I've also been able to see both America and China with fresh eyes.  Looking backward and reflecting on my own upbringing, my own habits, priorities, and experiences, I have come to believe that what most of the world believes (and either vehemently mocks or earnestly glorifies) about Americans, is absolutely valid.  Indeed, American portions are unnecessarily large, and as a consequence so are many of our waistlines.  We produce awful, degrading reality TV shows, as well as the majority of the world's pop music and films.  We are also innovative, creative thinkers, who tend to be quite open to new experiences and ways of thinking.  We're friendly and largely welcoming to others, even if we don't like them, and unless we're deliberately taught otherwise, we don't really know or care that much about the rest of the world.  Yes, American suburbia is big and boring, lots of people own guns, and we consistently rag on our own government.  All of that is totally okay, and there are plenty of reasons why that is the way things are, but unfortunately the rest of the world is relatively on par with all of their American jokes.

I would also venture to say that China, too, is in many ways what people think it is.  It's loud, it's crazy, and it kind of feels like everyone is yelling at you all the time.  There are a hell of a lot of amateur photographers, even more Hello Kitty enthusiasts, and people really do eat chicken feet.  In Hong Kong, the majority of people work in finance, there are quite a few white men dating Asian women, and there are luxury cars around every corner.  If you go to Mainland, it is true that someone will shove you in front of a bus so they can be first in line (and I use the term "line" loosely), there are kids who open the flaps on their onesies and squat and take a shit in the street, nothing is exempt from forging, copying, or faking, and all agreements are subject to revision.  I don't mean this to be offensive, but simply an outsider's observation of the various ways in which images of China map to the way things really are.

Moving onto the startup world, there is no better place to observe tech culture than San Francisco.  Though I have spent time in the city twice before (once for an internship in 2005 and for another brief visit in 2011), this is the first time I'm here with the eyes of an entrepreneur, and an expatriate one at that.  Much of Asia sees The Silicon Valley through rose colored glasses; SF is a magical land of opportunity, where millionaires are made overnight, entrepreneurs run the show, being a geek is cool, and eager investors abound.  It is the epicenter of the entrepreneurship movement, and as such it is symbolic of the start up world at its best.  My first impression is that while much of the glorification is justified, there are also downsides to being the epitome of the entrepreneurial mindset.  

From where I'm standing, San Francisco is certainly a city almost exclusively consisting of hipsters, hackers, and the homeless.  The countless indie coffee shops are filled to the brim with people typing away on their Macbook Airs, surfing the web, writing their blogs, and working on that epic idea they have in the works while they search for that perfect CTO to help them build it.  Nearly every single male individual in the city has an ironic beard of some kind and is wearing flannel shirts and skinny jeans, craft beer is the drink of choice, and composting is commonplace.  It is the status quo to think big, think outside the box, and try new things.  Failure is accepted, if not encouraged, and people really do believe anything is possible.  There are also plenty of overly idealistic entrepreneurs who can speak with falsified confidence on any topic and truly believe they exclusively understand "the way things are" and "what people want".  And though this is a topic for another post, they're actually pretty fucking convincing, as I have spent a lot of the last week feeling vastly inferior in almost every way.  Which very well may be true, but I'm not sure yet.

In any case, seeing rumors match up with reality in so many different contexts is actually quite upsetting.  It feels like giving up hope that individuals can create their own identities independent of their environment.  It also scares me because it means that maybe what other people think about me upon first impression, the conclusions they may draw after learning I am from Illinois, went to Harvard or worked at Goldman Sachs, are actually true.  For so many years, I have been carefully curating my first impressions so as to make sure others know that I don't fit into any mold, that I cannot be defined by any of these preconceived notions.  But lately I've had to accept that I actually do fit into some stereotypes: I do pronounce my a's funny, I do like intense, philosophical discussions and cocktail parties, and I do believe that derivatives are interesting and serve a real and valid purpose in financial markets.  If you want to judge me on that, then… well, at least I judged me first?  Recognizing that I conform with the norm in some ways, however, doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of interesting things about me, or that I don't have a unique point of view, or that I'm not worth getting to know.  

The intention of this post is not to declare that it's okay to limit one's view of the world to sweeping generalizations, nor is it to condone prejudice or discrimination based upon said generalizations.  For starters, I was hoping this post would be kind of funny since many of these things have given me a solid chuckle, but I also intended for this to serve as a public acceptance that stereotypes are actually relevant and they exist for a reason.  That is, they exist as data points to help guide us based on aggregated knowledge and experience.  Stereotypes exist because a lot of people have observed similar things, they talked and drew conclusions, probably made some inappropriate jokes about it, and before you know it word had spread around the world.  There's no point to denying these time-tested observations when we can benefit by accepting them and looking beyond them. 

Embracing stereotypes as mostly true allows us to see the world as it is, and consequently liberates us to find joy in searching for the reasons why things are. After all, you can't dig beneath the surface and appreciate the nuances without first acknowledging the surface itself.  As we move forward into a new year, my resolution is to accept reality while also remaining open to new possibilities, welcoming exceptions to the rules, and persistently encouraging the world to prove you wrong.  So, in conclusion, cheers to continually evolving perspectives, and to the new and exciting things an ever expanding mindset can help us create in 2014.