What's in a place?

Back in 2014, towards the end of my first year in US, I went on a pilgrimage to the mecca of any self-respecting technophile- ✨Silicon Valley✨. After all, this was the place I had heard about all my life, this mythical birthplace of Apple, Google, Intel and so many other companies whose products we all use and love. Amongst other things, I walked the streets of Palo Alto in search of one particular place. I was looking for a garage.

The HP Garage
The Garage where it all started- the HP Garage


From the outside, this garage was absolutely no different from the hundreds of other garages I had passed by on my walk. If it wasn't for the plaque outside, I wouldn't even know that this was it- The Birthplace of Silicon Valley. In this very Garage in 1938, Hewlett and Packard started their eponymous company, thus marking the start of a technology revolution that we are still living in to this day. And yet. when I finally found it, I was almost disappointed by how ordinary it looked. 



This was a pattern that would repeat for me all over silicon valley in that visit. Be it Apple's HQ in Cupertino, Google's HQ in Mountain View or the hundreds of other offices I passed by were all remarkably, ordinary. Don't get me wrong, they were nice offices. But not so unlike nice offices anywhere else in the world. 

Apple's old HQ at 1 Infinite Loop

Over the years, I would go on to visit a lot more places that I had grown up reverently watching on TV as a kid in India. The buildings of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, MIT's campus near Boston, Boeing/Amazon/Starbucks offices in Seattle and so many others. 

It was a similar feeling when I started working at Ford Motor Company. Here was an office space that for 60+ years had witnessed the decisions that had shaped a global automotive empire and seen the birth of iconic name plates like Ford Mustang, Bronco and the GT. And yet, working in that space, you wouldn't know there was anything remarkable about the building. 

In hindsight, I don't know what I expected to see instead. They were all just buildings after all. But I think somewhere deep down within me, as a kid growing up on the other side of the world, my imagination had imbued these places and their accompanying physical resources with mythical qualities. "There must be something about these places", I told myself,  "that leads to them creating the kind of amazing work they do". Clearly, the answer wasn't the buildings (duh).

So what does explain the extraordinary work that comes out of these places? In my limited experience- a network of amazing people (otherwise called an ecosystem) and pure hubris. Let me explain. 

Every one of these places represent a concentration of smart people. The reasons why they concentrate vary- some are brought together by employers, some meet at a university, some start off as creative people start co-living in an area due to presence of major employers in the area. Silicon Valley, for example, started off when NASA Ames research center brought together a lot of high-tech talent to the valley and then Stanford university acted as a precipitating agent. However it happens, a concentration of a lot of smart people seems to be the pre-condition to creating great work. 

But smart people by themselves are not enough. After all, there is no dearth of smart people in the world. What I do believe is far rarer is the second factor- supreme self belief to the point of hubris.
I truly believe a large part of why these institutions end up changing the world is they truly believe they are the ones to do it. American exceptionalism is often vacuous and unjustified but when it comes to entrepreneurship and bleeding edge endeavors, it manifests itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy. How these institutions instill such self-belief in their organizations is more of an art than an exact science. Leadership, history, external factors all play a role. But you need your people to internalize the feeling of "If not us, then who?".
There is nothing surprising about either of these. They almost seem obvious. But for me, I had to viscerally feel these in-person to know they were the magic ingredients. The institutions I had grown up with always had an internalized inferiority complex that explained away the successes of others. But it's only when you stop giving yourself an excuse for your mediocrity that you can begin to work towards greatness.

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”- Steve Jobs

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