The person who is sitting across from you in the conference room, more and more often, doesn’t look like you.
Neither does the person who gets off at your subway stop. The PTA Board is changing, too.
This doesn’t sit well with most people, but not because they’re bad people. It’s because we are pattern matchers.
If you live in a city, you’re probably more used to this change than most—but you would be lying if you have never, ever in your life had a moment where you paused because someone was different.
You found out your college roommate was gay. Your brother brought home someone of a different religion. As much as this isn’t 1958 anymore, all of these things happen to us for the first time once.
And it gives you some pause.
Over tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years of evolution, we’ve learned to judge our surroundings based on stuff we’ve seen before. Our brains, slow to think and fast to remember, operate quickly on recall. Changes slow us up. That makes us rather resistant to change.
Evolution, in fact, has *rewarded* us for being resistant to change.
For example, when we see fire, and learn to avoid it, we are generally ahead of the game for avoiding anything else that looks like fire. If it wasn’t for learned patterns, we’d be flailing around eating poisonous berries and jumping off cliffs over and over again. Or, we would have stopped so often to think about everything in our environment that we would have been eaten by tigers eons ago.
Society—a relatively recent construct relative to the age of our ancient mammalian brains—is changing faster than we can physiologically adjust to it. The patterns we’ve based judgements and assumptions on are failing us. People are encountering different ages, races, genders and sexual persuasions in places they never have before.
As a VC, it would be nice to think that the only thing I cared about when I was talking about an entrepreneur was whether or not they could make me and my investors a shit ton of money. That seems kind of empty, doesn’t it? Unbiased, for sure, but unfortunately empty and not how I like to work.
The second you start thinking about an entrepreneur or an investor as a person and the working relationship you’ll have with them—as opposed to just a money making machine—then you bring all sorts of behavioural patterns into the picture.
What types of people have I generally gotten along with before?
Who do I get along with the best?
Is this person like the other people I’ve seen succeed at this job?
And therein lies the problem. Some of your old patterns are going to fail you in this situation. Weeding through them is a minefield.
Is this person aggressive enough to win a sale? Is my definition of aggression just a superficial pattern of general male-ness (loudness, overreaching statements, big arm movements) that I am mistaking for the right kind of approach to win friends, clients and generally influence people?
If I don’t know, am I a bad person? Can I ask? Will I be judged for not having the right answer?
In New York and San Francisco, it’s easy to dismiss tolerance as an easy task—and to think of it being anything less than easy as a sin. We’re all not only supposed to accept, but to know exactly how to handle ourselves in every situation, without hesitation.
This is unrealistic—and actually, unfair. If you want to be accepted, you first need to accept where others are coming from and why they act the way they do. This is something I learned firsthand.
I don’t drink and I never have. It’s not something I have any problems with, addictive or moral. It’s just not part of who I am. I’m fine if you drink, in the same way I hope you’re fine with my meat eating if you’re a vegetarian. I can be around alcohol, and if you need or want a drink after work, I’m happy to hangout and have a seltzer or just get something to eat.
I understand, however, when people get weird about it. It’s not a usual occurrence that someone who doesn’t drink at all is totally fine with other people’s drinking or the presence of alcohol. They assume I secretly judge them or take issue with it or am just cringing every time they take a sip. I don’t.
But I understand the problem with unusual patterns. I’m different and so I give people pause. (Note that I’m not trying to compare not drinking to being on par with being gay or being black—it’s just one of the few things that makes me stand out as being different in society. Otherwise, I’m pretty generic … so I have to work with that I’ve got to try and relate in my writing.)
Some people brush it off. They get past their natural instinct to feel weird. These people seemingly naturally have amazing self-confidence and self-control. They are awesome.
A few other people ask a few questions. They work through it. They admit their discomfort with it and come to accept me over time. These people are even more awesome because tolerance didn’t come easy to them but they worked through it.
Other people just never seem to get it. They judge and avoid. They’re not awesome, but I try not to harbor a grudge because I understand why it’s hard for them.
In the same way, I understand why a few extra neurons fire when you approach a business office and the person at the front desk is male. I understand the pause people feel when you look at a startup bio page and you notice that the CTO is female. I don’t think you are a bad person for noticing this difference. In fact, I’d venture to say you’d be a little less human if you didn’t because it is simply that: different than what you are used to.
In our current environment, there are undoubtedly some bad actors. I don’t believe these people are evil. If anything, they’re more scared than anything else.They’re undoubtedly sticking to old ways out of fear, lack of self-confidence and resistance to change. They see change as a threat to power and they are lashing out at it. Many of these folks will never change and will eventually be surpassed by those who can build and leverage more diverse networks.
Or, they’ll just grow old, retire, and die.
There are also a bunch of people who mean well, who may be open to change, but just literally haven’t gotten a chance to show it yet—or who don’t know how.
What I fear is that we’re not going to be patient and careful enough to sort these two groups out or to enable and encourage the latter to help create change.
We’ll be too wrapped up in finger pointing, headline generating and divisiveness to actually make real progress. When you’ve got so many people who benefit financially from creating controversy, you give people very little incentive to have a productive, intelligent and open public conversation.
Ask yourself this: The last time you noticed that someone seemed to be on the wrong side of history with regards to diversity and progress, what did you do? Did you immediately tweet it out, hoping to cause a linkstorm? Did you fan a fire or did you reach out to this person to understand their behaviour and hope to influence their next opportunity to improve? Did you extend a hand or shake a fist? Did shaking a fist really solve any problems? Did it help the misguided efforts of your target?
What would happen if some top tier investor came out and admitted that they’d never funded a female founder because they feared their own ability to relate to one and to be a good mentor?
That fear undoubtedly exists in otherwise really well-meaning, helpful people.
That investor should probably be applauded for having the courage to admit their fear. An ideal community would reach out and find some way to mentor the mentor—maybe have an experienced female advisor tag team working with him on advising a female entrepreneur to teach him that, yes, men and women are different and yes, business is still business.
I’m pretty sure we don’t have that kind of environment now and that we’re moving further away from it with each headline. That investor, old white male and card carrying member of the Boy’s Club that he is, would get burned at the media stake—and that the whole conversation would take one giant step backwards because of it.
Instead, we keep our fears to ourselves, and generally avoid difficult conversations that could result in breakthrough understanding.
How can we foster understanding, outreach and openness? A series of small group conversations away from the media? Mass retraining?
Is there any way to move forward productively other than to just let time march at its own pace?
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