Avoid Monoculture. Travel. Read Widely. Let Experience be Your Compass.

Posted on Aug 25, 2011 | 75 comments


I sometimes feel that the Silicon Valley culture and we as technologists more broadly can breed monoculture in our approach to entrepreneurship, problem solving, market analysis and technology solutions.

Experiences way beyond any hack-a-thon, startup blog or your current company engagement can enrich your thinking and challenge you to think more broadly about the solutions you offer in the market.

I remember once sitting on a panel with Esther Dyson who is one of the most travelled and broad-experienced technologist I know. It was an “enterprise 2.0” panel at the dawn of what people began calling “web 2.0.”

Esther was talking about problems and entrepreneurs as far away as Russia. She was talking a lot about how the broader world doesn’t operate how we in Silicon Valley always perceive that it does. She encouraged people to get out and travel, see the world, see how other people live and operate.

I was living in Silicon Valley at the time of the panel, but I had been living abroad for 11 years before returning having lived in England, France, Italy, Spain and Japan as well as establishing physical offices in India. I felt that each of these experiences were data points – input – for me in establishing a compass for my own personal sense of the where the world would head.

You’ll see a world like I did – with limited landlines and electricity (India), a world with tiny apartments and thus less room for extra tech equipment & TVs (Japan), where having a sale anytime you want it isn’t legal (Germany), where corporate boards split the role of Chairman and CEO, which is much better corporate governance than the US (the UK) or where a version of the Internet (the Minitel in France) existing long before it became realized globally and we had open standards

Om Malik was also on the panel. As was Shel Israel. In retrospect it was quite an established, senior and worldly panel.

I don’t profess to have all the answers or to always be right. But I do make sure that I have a broad horizon from which to make decisions. My intuition is not born of monoculture.

I have talked about this before. Even from a young age, my experiences as president of my college fraternity were more formative in my experiences as an entrepreneur than my economics classes were.

My political science degree was more helpful than my economics degree. Don’t get me wrong – I loved economics. But poly sci taught me critical thinking and writing skills that I didn’t get in my econ classes.

It’s not always the obvious sources of education that shape you the most.

Challenge conventional wisdom. Fight monoculture. Question authority. Take lots of inputs but then let your internal compass set your course. If “all the cool kids are doing it” make sure you have strong internal logic for why you’re going to follow them. Often it’s not the best course.

Experiencing the world will be a lesson in and of itself. Reading widely can also broaden your thinking.

I love reading Eric Reis, Steve Blank, Clay Christenson, Brad Feld and others. You should draw inspiration from all of them.

But when you’re in the mood to draw in a few new sources for entrepreneurship you might consider these two books non-traditional books on entrepreneurship that had an impact on me.

1. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
(I won’t give away any great spoilers, don’t worry)
Philip Roth is one of America’s great treasures. He writes about the fabric of American life, often from the perspective of his Jewish, New Jersey roots.

American Pastoral is a story of generational aspirations of Americanism. The protagonist grows up in an upper middle class neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. He is the son of a successful glove manufacturer.

The story gets framed from perspective of immigrant families with no money and no means of acquiring wealth. These were in the days where you couldn’t just be super smart, be disciplined, program computers well and get rich.

The patriarch of the family works his arse off developing expertise in making gloves for other people. Slowly he branches into selling them on a small scale and the whole family joins him in the endeavor.

The next generation takes the baton from their patriarch’s achievements and learn how to do better distribution, how to win over large customers, how to scale manufacturing, how to develop a niche market and be known as best-in-class in that niche.

But then the world changes. It globalizes. They struggle to maintain cost advantages. Many manufacturing companies move operations abroad leading to urban blight in Newark, New Jersey. Unions have more power and exert their pressure.

They are faced with decisions about whether to support their long-time employees who are increasingly hostile but have worked hard for generations with the need to compete on costs and quality.

And the generations who inherit the “easy life” of a family that has acquired wealth and prestige take their riches, their comforts and indeed their country for granted.

I won’t tell you where it goes but American Pastoral is a wonderful read for thinking about the city beyond you. For thinking about the physical and not just the virtual. For understanding the struggles of those who came before us. It is also a historical novel offering perspective of the US’s struggles through the 1960’s and 70’s. It’s not an “entrepreneurship manual” but it will broaden your thinking nonetheless.

And don’t just trust me. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize! It was also voted by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 novels of all time.

2. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger is set in India. It’s a story that I think Vivek Wadhwa would appreciate because it tells the story of modern entrepreneurship in the broadest sense. It shows us how the other 6 billion humans live, compete, struggle for resources and find clever ways to rise above their means. (I don’t know if he’d agree or disagree with the book, but he’s always encouraging us to think more broadly about the definition of “entrepreneur” is a global sense)

The White Tiger was Adiga’s first novel and won the Man Booker Prize (which is similar for the UK & Commonwealth to winning the Pulitzer Prize in the US).

The protagonist is Balram Halwai. He is born in abject poverty in the city of Laxmangarh in India. He grew up in what people in India call “the Darkness” and he is of the class that is called “untouchable.” To put things for perspective for those of you sipping Café Lattes at Coupa Café, there are approximately 200 million untouchables in India or about two-thirds of the entire US population.

Balram is smart and stands out in school. He is lauded and told that he should study. But family needs place him into work at a young age so he has to leave formal schooling. He parlays his experiences into learning how to drive a car so that he can get ahead.

From here he figures out how to get a wealthy family in Delhi to take him in as a limo driver for them. It is very common for wealthy families in India to have drivers.

The story is that of Balram’s struggles to get ahead. He is enterprising and liked. But his society doesn’t make it easy for him to succeed. The way the wealthy family protects itself from staff going astray is to make sure that they get to know the extended families of each employee. Any wrongdoing offers the threat of collective punishment against the family of perpetrator.

Balram commits a murder to get ahead. Shocking, I know. But I’m not giving anything away. He talks about this early in the book as a foreshadowing technique. He explains how he parlayed murder into becoming a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore later in life. Trust me, it’s not as “obvious” as you might think.

The book is framed in the context of Balram writing a letting to the leader of China trying to explain how India works. He wants him to see beyond what the politicians will tell him about the country. He wants him to understand how it really works. The author wants us to understand these lessons. That india isn’t just a headline about call centers, computing programming and offshoring. These topics all feature in the book.

Balram goes on to describe the system how he sees it. He takes on tough issues such as corruption – not just in politics but also in business. He takes on the class system and what he perceives as its inherent biases in keeping poor people poor. He shows how in business a small act of corruption makes the difference between his become a prominent entrepreneur or being out of business.

Shocking, I know.

But in my limited experience in India I dealt with “payoffs” directly. We shipped servers to set up in our Bangalore office (before we relocated to Pune) and they somehow got “stuck” in the import process. A local government official was willing to go and look for our equipment personally, but it would cost money. I’m not trying to paint an unkind version of India – I found it a wonderful place and I’m very fond of the people. I just want to point out that the world isn’t always as it seems at the surface.

And it doesn’t take a huge imagination to see parallel’s in Adiga’s assessment of Indian politics in our own country, where powerful lobbying groups line the pockets of politicians who increasingly need big money to win the never-ending campaigns in which they must participate. I’m not saying it’s absolutely corrupt, but it’s clear the interests of the poor and disenfranchised are not always adequately represented. That is part of his tale.

Whatever the “truth” is, you will gain from understand entrepreneurship from a totally different class structure and political environment from which you have come. It has dark comedic undertones that make it a page-turner and pure enjoyment.

I hope some of you get to enjoy it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed on all counts. I hope I didn’t imply that the only way to grow your experiences was to live abroad. I meant “experiences” in the broadest sense. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Great idea! Actually, that’s where Dave McClure shines – he does the Geeks on a Plane trips. If I would have thought of it I would have included it in my post.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Great quote! Unfortunately if you read American Pastoral you’ll realize that several generations in it gets a whole lot more complicated!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Reading makes you wiser, for sure. I never started reading novels much until after college. Until then it was all non fiction.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I’m in Santa Barbara every month. I LOVE it. I would love to retire there.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The movie equivalent is Mike Leigh (british writer and director). All of his films are great character explorations. The best is “Secrets and Lies”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed on all fronts. I actually think I gain by being in LA as it helps me stay out of that monoculture.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Both are a bit irreverent and explicit so I hope that’s OK with you.

  • http://twitter.com/iofferdeal Chris Vo

    Thanks Mr. Mark for opening my eyes & ears to the world, can’t wait for next blog. 

  • Nandan Jha

    Work in tech, India and run a hobby travel site – http://www.ghumakkar.com which says ‘Traveling is good’ :-) so could not resist leaving a small comment. Thank You Mark.

    White Tiger is a “Fiction”, pure ‘Fiction’ and probably written keeping ‘foreign/urban’ readers in mind. Its a good book and I also recommend it but mostly for being a ‘different’ book and not necessarily for knowing about India. Would rem’br to pick pastoral when I can. Visit India when you can, you would love it.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_B5RY3VVBWQELHSONJELP5M7K5U Sw T

    I take strong exception to the recommendation of The White Tiger in the context of trying to understand India. You come away with the feeling of ‘oppression’ and start to believe that India today is where the U.S. was before MLK’s efforts to end segregation. 

    The very fact that you quote millions of “untouchables” (without mentioning that a political party that represents them is so powerful to hold power in successive elections in the most populous state in India – just one e.g.) conveys the understanding of a bygone era. It is like talking about the number of blacks (or any other minority) in the U.S. and suggesting that a fictional story of one minority community chauffeur’s hard life is going to give you insight into the lives of the typical U.S. population is a stretch too far. Readers may very well end up with wrong assumptions.

    I’m a big follower of your writings and learn a lot from them, Mark. But, the very suggestion (of White Tiger) in the Context of your message could leave entrepreneurs with a very wrong impression of India. FYI: I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last 12 years and have started and have been running companies in the U.S. and India. Corruption in India is unbelievable and today’s India can probably be better understood by the headline news about Anna Hazare’s movement.

  • http://www.theYakRanch.com Grunniens Ranch

    Lessons from farmers? Sounds like a massive hate against Monsanto. You don’t even have to travel to learn from entrepreneurs like Joel Salatin. 
    Thanks for a great post. 

  • Jeff

    Great post. I think this broadening  of perspective concept also applies to undergraduate study. My high school senior son, has an ambition to study philosophy and religious studies in college – he discovered the work of Joseph Campbell in 10th grade, and has always been intrigued with the history of ideas. While I didn’t discourage him, I didn’t exactly embrace it.  Now I realize that this kind of critical thinking major will benefit him and shape his world view, regardless of whether he becomes a professor, or chooses to purse law, business or politics…I am good with it, really good with it!

  • Anonymous

    Amen & Amen.

    Mark, I’d also like to suggest that readers extend their avoidance of monoculture to their businesses. We all need to vigorously pursue inclusion of new ideas, points of view and people  into our companies from other countries, other states, heck even other parts of our state.

     I’m fortunate that my startup is cooking in the cultural stew of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. My team members and peers come from all over the world. They include; students straight off the hog and soybean farms of northern Missouri, a Columbian researcher, a couple of NYC bulldog journalists, a Nigerian MBA, kids of wealthy Chinese industrialists, an amazing S.Korean designer from LA, a copy writer from east St. Louis, a Pakistani IOS programmer, and a super coding-whiz CS Masters candidate at Carnegie Melon from suburban Tulsa.

    One of my partners, a recent Mizzou MBA grad, is from China and through him we’re exploring opportunities in Nanjing and Beijing and with who I took my first trip to mind-transforming China last April.  In the last couple of weeks I completed my first UX design project using a guy I met on the net from Bosnia. He wrote very functional English, took direction perfectly, did great work quickly and at a fare price, and worked east coast hours. We never spoke on the phone and have never seen each other. But I recieved a design that was delightfully east-European, super functional, and I would never have gotten if I only used designers from Columbia, MO.
    The mix can make for some pretty interesting meetings when ESL is the majority and the limitations of English as the language of ideas is stretched to almost breaking (and everyone is talking at the same time!). But somehow it works and something amazing and better always comes out of it.
    I’m committed to making this omnicultural approach part of my business, not just because 
    it broadens our minds/markets/creativity –  but because I also think it’s a huge competitive advantage …  

     Bring on the Startup Visa!

    BTW:  My book recommendations:  
    The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Audible) 
    Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey 
    Listening to now: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout  by Philip Connors

  • Turki Fahad

    I couldn’t agree more, as an Arabic user of the net (Saudi) it really frustrates me seeing solutions that are great but fall badly when they put on a version for Arabic for example without considering that its read from Right-to-Left and such a small thing really kills the solution for me because it tells me that you did not do your job. The monoculture effect really kicks in and becomes more clear when you try to expand to unknown territories. You need to consider so many things and there is no better way than to travel, read and be open minded.

  • http://www.hypedsound.com jonathanjaeger

    Not only does it convert better, but people usually stick to the same email address for years (as opposed to the same social networks), which is great for repeat business for years to come.

  • http://twitter.com/srhas Sam H

    Thanks for these recommendations Mark – I look forward to getting my teeth into them after I finish off Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath (a book I recommend to a lot of people)

    In terms of getting to see places, I took a year prior to University volunteering across the UK teaching sports in schools, prisons and youth clubs. I’m 24 now and that experience, although only in my home country, had a great impact on my life. For one, it  helped me learn, very quickly, how to address problems that existed – which proved invaluable in my early years as an entrepreneur. 

    I’m excited to learn some more!

  • http://dissertation-service.co.uk/ dissertation online help

    what a great photo!! really nice!

  • http://www.aboutventurecapital.com Nate

    Headed to Amazon right now…Thanks

  • hat

    experience is the best lesson..but not always an easy one. From someone starting to go through it – it’s great to see insight from someone who’s been goin’ through it, so thank you!

  • http://sortapundit.hubpages.com Keith Taylor

    It’s always interesting to see how problems are overcome and challenges faced outside the world I recognise.  I’m particularly impressed when I visit developing countries that have chosen to leapfrog landlines in favour of much easier to implement cellular technology.  It’s great to find people thinking beyond a linear technological progression, choosing the solution that works in their environment rather than attempting to play a game of catch-up with a disadvantage of a century.

  • Anonymous

    Very interest topic.

    Different countries and continents do indeed offer a very different view of live, but as others have touched on you don’t have to go far from where you live to find a very different view of life.

  • Rest of the US

    Lol “rest of the US”.

    There are a couple of states outside the US too. They don’t have drive through ATMs or burgers the size of satellite dishes, but hey, they’ve got people who speak funny.

  • http://webpromoexpert.com seo company

    Great post, I enjoyed ready reading it, Keep posting good stuff like this.

  • http://www.missi.com/ Peter Beddows

    Very insightful discussion Mark. This set me thinking: I believe we actually have a far bigger problem before us than the one indicated here by your suggestion but the fact that you have even thought fit to make the suggestion points, at least it has to me, to the fact that we have quietly been literally encouraging our up coming youth to become lost in a monocultural void.

    In fact, we may now just be beginning to see the tip of a major, dangerous, iceberg, thus slowly becoming aware that we need to urgently look for more reaching solutions than those suggested here by you in this article and by the responses in general.

    Consequently I started to detail my thoughts here but then realized, as my reply was growing, that I was in danger of turning my response into a typical “comment bloggers” reply so I cut and reposted and further developed this theme at http://bit.ly/oC29KJ with a track-back link to your blog. I think this is a really fundamentally important issue that does need to be addressed in more ways than have been suggested here. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this topic.