Author Ryan Holiday on “the nature of world-altering success”

Author Ryan Holiday on “the nature of world-altering success”
From TechCrunch - February 27, 2018

It could be said that the first few years of this current tech boom were fueled by mostly harmless, relatively easy productswebsites for sharing your photos, for looking up stuff, for connecting with old friends. And the people who made them were seen as mostly good people.

Yet this feel-good perception has slowly and then suddenly disappeared. Users have begun to regard once trusted sites with suspicion over issues of privacy. The same reporters who previously lavished unthinking praise on every new startup now search with equal enthusiasm for scandals and mistakes. Those once harmless social networks, now at a scale unprecedented in human history, no longer look so innocent. The acronym we have for what were once upstarts or underdogsFacebook to Amazon to Netflix to Googlehints at the now ominous nature of their place in the world, F.A.N.G.

What happened?

What happened was success. What happened was not that power corrupts, but rather, as the biographer Robert Caro would say, what happened is that power revealed.

Cornelius Vanderbilt began his career in shipping in the early 1800s alongside a man named Thomas Gibbons who fought a monopoly (successfully) all the way to the United States Supreme Court, a case considered a landmark ruling in U.S. commerce. Decades and billions of dollars later, Vanderbilt would famously say, What do I care about the law? Haint I got the power?

This is the nature of world-altering success. Its easy to be good when the stakes (and the valuations) are low. We can count on it as an immutable law of history: in any space where fame and fortune and power are up for grabs, Machiavelli eventually makes his appearance. Even if you started as the little guy or you were certified as a B Corp or put Dont Be Evil in your public filing documents.

In present day, I like to think of this before and after picture of Jeff Bezosas a good example of the arc of a successful businessman or woman, one that is timeless and perennial. At first, you have a skinny nerdy guy who just wanted to sell us books over the computer, and fended off lawsuits by mega-retailers like Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart for the privilege. Now, twenty or so years later, hes jacked like a Terminatorthe physical manifestation of his trillion-dollar company which has eaten the worldand his influence is now distributed through one of the most prestigious newspapers in the countrywhich he owns.

We could compare two photos of Andrew Carnegie and see the same thing.

Perhaps whats set Silicon Valley apartthe difference between Elon Musk and John D. Rockefeller, Elizabeth Holmes and Jay Gouldis that it believes, since the disruption is orchestrated from behind a computer, its not the same. That it was somehow cleaner than coal or oil or steel. This is naive. Disruption is painful. People get hurt. And someone has to do that hurting.

Its called creative destructionfor a reason.

Good comes from it, but its not without its coststo society or to the people who make it their living.

The ability to willfully seek out this destruction on a massive scale is, in its own way, a skill. Not all of us have it. Its probably better than most of us do not. But certain people do. There are people who tastelessly start a business designed to put bodegas out of business (as one recent start up attempted) and there are people like Steve Jobs who artfully and heartlessly delivered a mortal blow to Eastman Kodak, a 129 year old company, with one addition to his design for the iPhone. And we cheered him for it. Between these two types, there is a Travis Kalanick who saw taxicab drivers not as solid middle class citizens, like many of us mistakenly did, but as a cabal of overpaid, rent-seeking obstacles to be broken apart and put out of work. Indeed, many of the early Uber investors I would speak to about Travis would remark that his greatest strength was his intense will to power. It was this unquestioning drive that allowed him to blow past technological hurdles, monopoly power, local regulations, unions, and in some cases, mob-controlled taxi companies.

It cant be said that power changedTravis. Thats the whole point. It didntchange him and that was the problem. He was such a natural fighter that he fought everything, and thus, ensured his own downfall.

In my study of the billionaire Peter Thiel over the last year for my book ConspiracyI found that he was one of the few from Silicon Valley who understood this as a precondition to success and was willing to openly discuss all of it. If you read Zero to One, its all there: the necessity of secrets, the drive to monopoly, owningthe future. He quotes Emerson, weak men believe in luck, strong men believe in cause and effect. Or as the deeply competitive Thiel supposedly said after a chess match, Show me a good loser and and Ill show you a loser.

You can see in Peters own development, a hardening that mirrors the evolution of the startup scene. His first company, PayPal, began in an attempt to create a kind of early cryptocurrency and as it got more successful, ended up, in one famous anecdote, having to debate whether to accept payments from pornographers and then after 9/11, whether they were hiding money for terrorists. Facebook, his best investment, went from a fun place for college students to share party photos to connecting the world to being a distributor of fake news. And Palantir, which he founded with PayPals anti-fraud technology, began as a big data companythat is now used for drone strikes and SEAL Team Six raids. Success raised their profiles, which raised the stakes.

And Peters merciless plot to destroy Gawker (itself a former startup that had become an enormously powerful media company)? Thiel was caught off guard when Gawkerouted him as gay in 2007. There was a time he looked to resolve things amicably with Gawker. One Gawkereditor would tell me about meeting Thiel in 2008 and finding him almost painfully naive about the media business, thinking that he could appeal to personal relationships to get gossip journalists to back up. By 2012, he had hardened, sold a billion dollars in Facebook stock, and become convinced that Gawkerwas an obstacle to his business plans, as well as his vision for the future and needed to be crushed. Part of that cold-eyed calculation was the belief that Gawkers power as a media outlet could not be met effectively in the marketplace of ideas, but rather had to be met with the power of his bank account. Which is what he did. It took nearly a decade, but at the end Gawkerfell and he remained standing. A $300 million dollar company with 300+ employees ceased to exist.


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