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The One Thing You Can't Be in Silicon Valley

Justin Barber
3 min read

When you meet someone in Silicon Valley, the very first question they’ll ask you is “what do you do?” It’s a great question! In fact, it’s one of my favorite things to ask. I love hearing about the eccentricities of other people’s work.

But I also think that the frequency and prominence with which the question is asked reveals something deeper about the area than just an affinity for work. It reveals the two most deeply entrenched values of Silicon Valley: ambition and intelligence.

Ironically, being ambitious and intelligent isn’t something that boosts your social status here because the Valley is brimming with smart, driven people. It’s a self selective area. So to be held in high regard by others, you need to have proof that you’re smarter than the smartest and harder working than the hardest working.

And that proof comes in the form of nonlinear wealth – Silicon Valley’s holy grail.

Of course, applying your ambition and intelligence doesn’t guarantee an outcome of wealth, but it is the only way to give yourself a chance. And if you’re trying to generate wealth as quickly as possible (remember, we’re being ambitious), there’s only one way that journey can begin: ownership.

Which means there are two types of people at the tippy top of Silicon Valley’s social ladder:

  • Those who are running companies (founders and CEOs)
  • Those who are funding companies (venture capitalists, angel investors)

They’re at the top because starting or leading a company requires an objectively high level of ambition and (presumably) a high level of intelligence for that company to succeed.

In other words, being a founder or investor is pretty much the only impressive answer in the Valley to “what do you do?”

So while there isn’t much you can do to climb the social ladder without financial success or starting your own company, there are definitely certain things you can do to place yourself at the bottom.

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