STRIVECon Recap: “The Spirit of Atlas Shrugged is Alive in Silicon Valley” by Jason Crawford


From November 6th-8th, enterprising students from across the country (and even beyond) gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for STRIVE’s annual student conference. At this year’s event, on “The Morality of Value Creation and Trade,” students attended lectures and breakout sessions by entrepreneurs, professionals, and intellectuals on the philosophical and business principles necessary to create and trade value. The following is one in a series of reports composed by enthusiastic attendees on their favorite among the weekend’s presentations.

Entrepreneurs everywhere start companies to create value. They see something missing in the world, or something that could be improved, and they set out to bring their vision into reality. Silicon Valley is the epicenter of high-tech enterprise and research, seeing $48 billion in venture capital investment in 2014.

But Silicon Valley is more than a place: it’s a mindset. And students at Jason Crawford’s STRIVECon presentation were offered the opportunity to understand that mindset through comparisons to the ideas animating Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas Shrugged involves a number of enterprising heroes fighting to bring their own productive visions into reality—quite like what’s happening in Silicon Valley. The ideas put forth in Atlas can serve as a powerful guide for those who want to bring about groundbreaking innovation.

Crawford, co-founder and CEO of Fieldbook, as well as the founder of Free Objectivist Books for Students, mentions that while there aren’t a lot of Rand fans in Silicon Valley, her worldview deeply resonates with the worldview of the investors, workers, and founders who inhabit it. He suggests five key points of overlap between Silicon Valley culture and the ideals of Atlas.

First, there is the “maker mentality.” In Silicon Valley, creators are revered. Those who act on their ideas and make them real are highly prized.

“[The] heroes are those who are driven to create and invent,” said Crawford.

So, too, is this the case in Atlas. Industrialists Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are two of the heroes of the novel whose lives are built around creating value. The outstanding products and services they provide are both highly prized among the book’s protagonists, and serve as the central purpose of their lives.

Second, as in Atlas, independent thinking in the Valley is held as an ideal.

“In Silicon Valley, you get more respect if you try a new idea and fail than if you copy an idea and succeed,” said Crawford. “You need to find a good idea that looks like a bad idea. You can’t just be right, you need to be ‘non-consensus’ right.”

Students noticed the parallel. “I can see how that connects to Rand’s philosophy,” said Jin Yu Li, 19, a student who attended Crawford’s presentation. “Many people [who want to be Silicon Valley entrepreneurs] initially think that their ideas are bad and don’t try to expand upon them—because of critique from others, they are afraid to pursue their passions.”

Crawford’s third point of consensus between the Silicon Valley ethos and Rand’s ideals is the goal of “creat[ing] more value than you capture.” Rand’s “Trader Principle“—featured heavily in Atlas—could be paraphrased as: “seek only win-win situations,” according to Crawford. When there is mutual benefit in a deal, value is created.

“‘Create more value than you capture’ doesn’t imply that you’re giving away something for free, but rather that you are creating more value instead of taking up what’s there,” observed Hayden Martz, 18, another student in attendance.

The fourth shared value is an emphasis on “playing the long game.” Folks in the Valley look down upon those who treat others unfairly and gain respect for those who admit their mistakes. There is recognition that a short-term mentality is ultimately self-destructive. The characters in Atlas and those in the Valley who think long-range are ultimately the most successful.

Fifth, and finally, both Rand admirers and Valley professionals have a shared affection for “unlimited ambition.” Here, Crawford quotes from one of Rand’s heroes in Atlas:

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.

But as one student observed, this ambitious mentality thrives best when left free: “I think what allows Silicon Valley to have a great culture is that it is largely free from the modern cultural obligations and government regulations that plague other declining economies, like the healthcare industry,” said Martz. Valley innovators—at least for now—are free to dream.

Crawford’s talk demonstrates that the spirit of Silicon Valley is akin to the spirit of Atlas Shrugged, and the Valley is living proof that Rand’s ideas can aid in your pursuit of success and happiness. Whether you’re a budding entrepreneur or a curious student, if you’re out to produce and create value in your life, Atlas is a wonderful guide to the creator mentality.

Photo credit: Eric Rosenberg/The Undercurrent

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