Gravitas and anti-gravitas in the Land of the Rising Dot

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gravitas. It's the Latin for "weight" - Sir Isaac Newton derived the word gravity from it. My friend Anne Peterson has just used it in a conversation about startups. Anne, it should be known, is the executive director of a church in Pasadena - a very large, Episcopal Church. "Episcopal" is what we-all call what you-all call the Church of England.

Gravitas. It's the Latin for "weight" - Sir Isaac Newton derived the word gravity from it. My friend Anne Peterson has just used it in a conversation about startups. Anne, it should be known, is the executive director of a church in Pasadena - a very large, Episcopal Church. "Episcopal" is what we-all call what you-all call the Church of England.

Anne is serene, graceful, warm and charming. She has the grace of someone whose life has been all about God and morality and justice and compassion. Anne is, in almost every respect, the inverse of the sort of people who run around here in the Land of the Rising Dot. We're undignified, ungraceful and our live are all about technology, stock options and the frantic pursuit of competitive edge.

You no doubt wonder what Anne was doing talking to me, but, remember, good Christians are duty-bound to extend their hand to the most wretched among us.

Anyway, Anne was talking about how you sometimes wake up and realise that you are the most senior person in some situation. You're supposed to be wise and know what to do, and everyone looks to you to make decisions. She summed it up by using that word, gravitas. I kind of know about gravitas.

When my wife and I were younger and coping with jobs and raising a precocious child, we often fell back on the advice, help and financial aid of our parents. But we all got older, and one day we realised that we were no longer dependent on them.

They, in their golden years, had come to be dependent on us. It was kind of scary - no matter which way the buck was going, it stopped here. We had to be the responsible people, and make all the decisions, and not screw things up. In short, we now had the gravitas.

Venture capitalists like folks with gravitas: they send them in to protect and grow their investments in crazy little companies. Problem is, the crazy little companies are loaded with creatures who have their own kind of anti-gravitas. Basically they're very young and bright, and they think they can solve anything by sheer force of will.

Truth is, people long on brains and short on experience are perfectly capable of screwing up. In fact, empirical data indicates they are quite likely to screw up. I've seen young colleagues make $200,000 mistakes and not get fired. Not only not fired, but left wondering: "What's the big deal?"

When I worked in the old economy - for newspapers - a person who made a $200,000 mistake wouldn't have been fired, either. No, they would have been shot, but only after being drawn, quartered and hung. Their remains would have been fired, in some grisly public fashion that would serve as a lesson to all of us in the newsroom.

So, gravitas works a little differently here. We talk about technologists who have chops, meaning, guys who really, really know their stuff. Chops are a kind of gravitas. And we have young, fierce, in-your-face confrontationalists who screech and shriek and stop most enterprises dead in their tracks until they get their way.

There's a Silicon Valley theorem that states the qualities of obstinacy and acting out are present in a person in direct inverse ratio to their ability and knowledge. So, by definition, the most fiercely held viewpoints are always the worst - another kind of Silicon anti-gravitas.

And then there is situational gravitas. Think of it as someone who steps in at the right moment. For example, I was in Fry's, the Silicon Valley nerd superstore that sells everything from Jolt Cola to hard-disk arrays.

Fry's weekend special was a $149 BYO (Build Your Own) computer system. You got a motherboard, case, floppy and CD drive - you added a hard disk, CPU, RAM and an operating system, and then you put them together yourself. The clerks at Fry's are notoriously clueless - they never stay long enough to learn anything, so hot is the Silicon Valley job market.

A person barely has time to get off the plane from Kansas, Bangalore or Vladivostok and fill in the job application at Fry's (main requirement: are you breathing?) before they're recruited away as CEO of some startup. So it was no surprise when I got home and discovered that the clerk who assembled my pile of boxes made a little mistake. My brand new AMD K6 processor wouldn't actually fit in the socket of my new motherboard.

Back to Fry's for the dread exchange line. Home again only to discover that the new "correct" board would take the CPU, but wouldn't show video. The dread exchange line again - but this time, a different clerk whisked the box to a corner where a monitor, small table and set of tools waited. As soon as he confirmed the problem, he said: "Wait here. Pull your CPU and RAM. I'll be back in a moment."

He came with a new board, installed my components and checked that it worked. Then he set me up at the table, showed me the tools and said: "Switch your hard drive and other stuff." In five minutes I was done, and he handed me the paperwork. Impressive situational gravitas, especially considering it was Fry's.

So: at Church, at Fry's and elsewhere in the Valley - we need more gravitas. Anne, can you e-mail Her and arrange?

cg@gulker.com

Comments