Josh Haas's Web Log

WASP Values

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I was going to write about metrics for startups, which is an easy topic for me to go on about, but one of my new principles for this blog is, write about what I least want to talk about, and that’s pushing in a different direction. So if you’re interested in what metrics should go on your dashboard, or the difference in paradigm between Google Analytics and Kissmetrics, that will have to wait for another day.

Instead, I’d like to journal on my moral shortcomings. “Character” is a word that’s so out-of-fashion these days that it’s not even out-of-fashion, it’s almost completely outside the realm of discourse. Character? Huh, what?

I’ve been reading Harlot’s Ghost which is a deep-dive into the psyche of the WASP establishment as seen through the CIA, an institution that epitomized their values. A lot of it is pretty horrifying. Completely arrogant, geneology-driven, xeno/homo/communist-phobic, ubermenschian intellectual bullshit that fed directly into travesties such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. But then there are other moments where I’m like… huh… maybe they were on to something.

I have some friends who grew up in the wealthy and WASPy Greenwich, CT community, and watching the way they interact with other people, there’s a certain grace, an ethos of self-sacrifice and noblesse oblige that’s more or less absent from the technocratic, baby-boomer-liberal, heavily jewish and asian culture I grew up in and associated with at school. As the “establishment” gracefully disappeared itself, offshoots of this technocratic culture seem to have taken its place in the halls of power (in fact, the point where I’m at in Harlot’s Ghost, the old-school CIA adventurers are dying out to be replaced by bureaucrats). McKinsey consultants now rule the universe.

I’m now in the world of entrepreneurs and creators, hackers and designers, which I think is a new cultural manifestation that is in the process of replacing the old technocratic culture. But creator culture is new and fresh and unformed: it’s still in the process of figuring out how to be the establishment instead of the rebels. On a personal level, I’m still in the process of figuring out how to be a creator, how to live by my wits and survive in the free-flowing dynamic of the markets as opposed to, like the good people before me, find a corporation or university to babysit me and 9-to-5 my way into retirement.

Being an entrepreneur calls for more personal strength than being an employee; frankly, it’s just harder. Looking at the values of the technocracy, I haven’t found enough resources to help me: hard work, education, diversity, moderation, creativity, intelligence, and self-awareness are a good set of values, but they aren’t adequate. The WASP establishment valued courage, honor, self-sacrifice, physical hardiness, and “manliness”, which I think are also necessary supplements. As the word “manliness” suggests, they were imbued with a lot of garbagey patriarchal notions, but if you mix in a healthy dose of contemporary androgyny, you might be able to toss the bathwater and keep the baby. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship resembles a diverse, intelligent creative bunch of thinkers sitting around an academic table (technocratic values), but it also resembles jumping off a cliff into frozen water naked and screaming.

Here’s a passage from Harlot’s Ghost that gets at what I’m trying to say:

“No, God is not a St. Bernard dog to rescue us at every pass. God is near us when we are rock climbing because that is the only way we get a good glimpse of Him and He gets one of us. You experience God when you’re extended a long way out beyond yourself and are still trying to lift up from your fears. Get caught under a rock and of course you want to howl like a dog. Surmount that terror and you rise to a higher fear. That may be our simple purpose on earth. To rise to higher and higher levels of fear. If we succeed, we can, perhaps, share some of God’s fear.”

“His fear?”

“Absolutely. His fear of the great power He has given the Devil. There is no free will for man unless the Devil’s powers were made equal on this embattled planet to the Lord’s. That is why,” he said, “I don’t want you to continue rock climbing. The brute fact is that you don’t have the exquisite skills that are necessary. So you will keep finding a little courage and losing it.”

This passage immediately precedes the speaker recruiting the narrator into the CIA, a domain in which the speaker suspects that the narrator will have the exquisite skills necessary to continue rising to higher and higher levels of fear.

Anyway, my confession: I am bad at this. I run from my fears. I rationalize and procrastinate, and worse, feel sorry for myself. I’m like Woody Allen but not funny. One of the things I’m afraid of is going to parties where I don’t know anyone, and I got myself worked into a state last night because I was torn between going out and feeling inadequate to the task of befriending strangers, or staying at home lonely, admitting I was a failure at socializing. The fact that this was even a dilemma for me disgusts me. It’s not that hard! I did go out, after bitching and moaning over google chat to some friends, who kicked my ass and sent me out the door. It wasn’t so bad, of course, once I actually got moving.

I’m afraid of being afraid, or more precisely, I’m afraid of not having those mental guardrails, those friends, those values, or whatever it takes, to reorient myself towards “up” and get me to take the first step on the ladder. My life is right now is purely self-motivated. I could hibernate in my room for a couple years, burning through my savings, if I let myself. It’s a hard thing to want to have more character. Character is a habit, a way of seeing the world, a default reaction; building that in a mind that doesn’t come with it natively installed is a challenge, and it feels like bootstrapping because rising to a challenge is in itself a form of character. My one asset in this fight is my survival instincts; if I don’t tolerate mediocrity and anesthesia, I have nowhere to run but up. That, and a couple of good friends.

Written by jphaas

December 18th, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized