When I came of age — this was back in the ’80s — my tribe of impressionable youths all wanted to be performance artists like Laurie Anderson, writers like Bret Easton Ellis, rockers like …? True, it wasn’t a golden age for rock. (Cue Flock of Seagulls, Pet Shop Boys). Nor was it, possibly, for fashion. (Think moussed hair, parachute pants, eerily shiny Members Only jackets).
By contrast, today, in the “twentyteens,” it seems what many dreamy-eyed, creative young people aspire to be are not artists or writers or musicians but … entrepreneurs. Like — wait for it — Gary Vaynerchuk! Doesn’t ring a bell?
No matter. All this — and more — is what I learned when I attended South by Southwest (SXSW) recently in Austin, Texas. A trendsetting music, film and interactive media festival, SXSW also features a tech-based “Startup Village.” My colleagues Mark Davis and Sarah Mojarad (both joining the USC faculty this year) had invited me to their panel “Getting to Yes: Communication and Entrepreneurship.” Communication for techies is my expertise: I’m a specialist on what I like to call, with apologies to Mark Twain, “The Awful Scientific Language” — a hodgepodge of Greek, Latin, mistranslated German and pirate-speak, it often does not make sense to ordinary humans. I couldn’t wait to share my “soft skills” with our next-gen Bill Gateses.
But SXSW Startup Village entrepreneurs weren’t just nerdy science-mathletes. Here were guys sporting new-growth, mountain-man beards and modern-primitive ear plugs, and gals with nose piercings, blue hair and combat boots. They were inventing fashion apps and microbrews and, I want to say, crowd-sourced design memes for sustainability — sometimes all at the same time! Even the food trucks were mix-taping disruption. Picture a $12 Korean-Mexican Belgian waffle rolled into a cone filled with kimchi pork and panko fried chipotle avocado.
On the one hand, it was easy to get caught up in the DIY (“Do It Yourself,” for you laggards) excitement. Sample SXSW presentations included: “The Pitch: Selling Your Disruptive Health Startup,” “Shark, Billionaire, Activist” and “Outthink the Future with Just 10 Ideas a Day.” There was a strong spiritual element, too, à la “The Love Algorithm,” “Good Is the New Cool” and “The Future of Emotional Machines.” The futuristic neo-words were dizzying: “grocerants,” “chatbots,” “artivism,” “foodporn,” “wayknowing,” “biopunk,” and “hackpharma”! More familiar, but just as zeitgeisty? “Burkini,” “cannabis” (along with its amiable bro “cannabis startup”) and, of course, never out of style (“Keep Austin Weird”!) “vinyl.”
And yet, there was a palpable undercurrent of stress, too. For such young people, time is fleeting. With “Seconds Matter: Capturing Attention in Mobile Feed,” seconds mattered so much there wasn’t time for an article. Rows of conference rooms featured “speed pitches,” “accelerator pitches” and “super accelerators,” flanked by: “It’s Not Ready Yet: The Perfectionist’s Struggle,” “You Can Survive Creative Burnout Meetup” and “The Threat Is Evolving: Are You?” Was there an unspoken connection between “Psychopaths in Silicon Valley: A Guide” and the
“Entrepreneurs’ Guide to Battling Depression & ADHD”? (Description: “49% of entrepreneurs have some form of mental health condition and 30% of entrepreneurs suffer from depression [2x more likely than non-entrepreneurs]).”
The aforementioned Gary Vaynerchuk — an online marketing guru — said it best to a crammed ballroom of rapt SXSW-ers. Vaynerchuk’s talk was essentially a Q&A session for aspiring entrepreneurs. As he noted while pacing, in athletic shoes and headset, “Starting 15 years ago, suddenly everyone wanted to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are like rock stars now! And that’s great for me personally. I work 18 hours a day because I love it! But not everyone’s like that. Maybe you’re not an entrepreneur. And that’s fine. Number 11 at Facebook makes more than everyone in this room combined!”
Wisdom to ponder. In the meantime, many of the rest of us will just have to seek comfort in microbrews, chipotle avocado and some kimchi. Sustainable kimchi.
Sandra Tsing Loh, a former USC Dornsife student and faculty member is a writer/performer whose latest play is based on her book The Madwoman in the Volvo (Norton, 2014), named one of 2015’s “Most Notable Books” by The New York Times. A contributing editor for The Atlantic, her radio show “The Loh Down on Science” airs daily throughout the nation. She teaches science communication and drama at the University of California, Irvine and beyond.