The Philosopher Kings

I would like to build upon my previous post, “The smallest market is about to become the largest market”, in which I argued that Maslow’s pyramid of needs is about to be turned upside-down, such that the largest market today - providing for our basic needs - will be the smallest market in the future, and the smallest market today - helping people self-actualize - will be the largest market in the future. As I concluded, I think that this structural shift has implications for investors and entrepreneurs. In this post, (and the next and the next), I would like to begin to unpack them.

Where to begin?

Let’s shift our gaze to talent. It’s not an obvious place to start, but I’d like to suggest which skill set will become the most scarce and sought after as the market undergoes this shift. The world is changing. Who will rise, who will fall?

Plato’s Republic describes a utopian society in which philosopher’s rule. They preside over the workers and the warriors, ensuring that every newborn child discovers his or her calling and talent (as a worker, warrior, or philosopher), and is groomed and educated for it. That, in short, was Socrates plan for ensuring justice and happiness in a benevolent kingdom.

That is also what is about to happen to Silicon Valley.

Despite the 10,000,000 views that this video received in the last week or so, in which Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey take to the microphone to encourage the ‘newborn children’ of our society to code, they are no longer coding every day. Engineering may be, along with design, one of the primary skill-sets of the future - for the workers - but not for the warriors (Peter’s ‘jocks’: salesmen, deal-makers, marketers, operators), and not for the philosophers. Those roles have very different skills.

They are right, of course. Engineering talent and skill is scarce. That’s why engineers are paid such high salaries. To increase supply in the market, coding should be taught in schools. That will bring costs down, and create more high-paying jobs, which is something our economy needs.

But, as I am sure they would readily admit, they have not risen to their level of success by their mere ability to code. It certainly gave them an advantage. Perhaps it helped open some doors, especially in the beginning. Hire more easily? Oversee product development efforts with an appreciation for process, technical challenges and architectural issues…

My point is, that there are lots of engineers in the world, but only a handful have accomplished what those three have in their careers. Nor are they the most deeply technical people in their organizations. That’s not what differentiated them. Their true genius lies in their ability to think about the future.

As a counter-point, think about Mike Moritz, Peter Thiel, or Steve Jobs. Moritz studied history at Oxford and was a journalist at Time before joining Sequoia. Peter studied philosophy and law at Stanford. Steve didn’t even go to school, but he did read a lot, and cultivated an amateur appreciation for the making of consumer products, until he had, through working closely with hundreds of product people throughout the course of his career, an extremely refined taste for what people want and sense for how to go about building it.

Ironically, what Moritz, Thiel and Jobs have in common with Gates, Zuckerberg, and Dorsey is that they wished they had each other’s skill sets. Here’s Dorsey going on and on about one of the master skills of the liberal arts: storytelling. He’s obsessed with it, and that passion drove him to teach himself. Look at how he’s applied the art of crafting narratives at Square. Two years ago I remember reading a brilliant article on TechCrunch, which I can’t find right now, about how Dorsey turned product development into a story-telling exercise. He’s certainly applied it to forming a culture and marketing. Here’s Moritz, a trained story-teller, telling Charlie Rose how much he wishes he had spent more time studying math and the hard sciences. Maybe Jack and Mike should trade.

I think that’s instructive. The lesson: have a skill set, and cultivate an appreciation and respect for others' disciplines. Thiel, for example, has researched a number of fields of deep technology at great length. I read an article last night by Ross Anderson about Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, which is basically an interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has become an expert on artificial intelligence and it’s implications. Clearly, thinking thematically and broadly about the world is not hurting these people’s abilities to understand technical issues in-depth.

We do that at Everest. I am involved in design and engineering discussions, but they are also kept abreast of business decisions and strategy. I think a narrow person wouldn’t fit in our culture.

There is one skill set those six individuals have, and they didn’t learn it in school. They learned it by being curious and thinking. They think about people, products, history, trends, and the world we live in. I’ll say it again: their true genius lies in their ability to think intelligently about the future.

These are our philosopher kings. They rose through the ranks of the workers and warriors, but their true calling was to think about society’s problems, imagine solutions, and organize talented teams around solving them.

Let’s return to the original thesis: the smallest market is about to become the largest market. So, if that’s the case, why would this skill set - the ability to think intelligently about the future - be the most valuable?

I’ll explore that in my next post.