Masculinity, that wonderful human trait that gives us the ability to pry the lids off pickle jars and start wars, appears to be a meta-theme of our present moment, running through institutions from the White House to Silicon Valley startups.
There was the weird revelation that Vice President Mike Pence won’t dine alone with women who aren’t his wife. The omnipresent scandal of Bill O’Reilly, Roger Aisles, and the culture of harassment at Fox News. The slow-motion car accident that is Uber.
To wash these stories down like a cold brewski at a Super Bowl party, I suggest the smart editorial by Dan Lyon in Sunday’s New York Times titled “Jerks and the Start-Ups They Ruin.” America is wrestling with multiple crises related to the fact that, when it comes to total fucking assholes, men corner the market.
All of which begs the question: What’s up, dudes?
I was surprised to find myself, a 44 year-old man, launching a start-up. Even though I work out of a start-up incubator, the term “start-up” seems to exclude someone like me. People like me don’t start companies. I have kids. I don’t care for Red Bull. I flinch at the word “webinar.” I occasionally nap.
We’ve been conditioned to believe, to the economy’s detriment, that tech start-ups are a young man’s game. The youth part of the equation gets far less attention than the male part of the equation. I’ve become friends with a number of young men who are throwing themselves into the immersive media industry with full heads of steam and energy to burn. Getting to know younger dudes has made me reflect on how masculinity evolves over a lifetime. I have learned a lot from these guys, but also recognize that my years of wins and losses afford me a certain wisdom they have yet to acquire.
When you’re a man in your twenties, you become aware of your talents and are anxious for opportunities to demonstrate them. You hunger for external approval and your behavior is calibrated by the need to prove yourself. This describes me in my twenties quite well. In my case, I knew that my fiction was worth publishing and all I needed were chances to prove it. I cultivated what I liked to think of as my internal “relentless bastard,” a mental personification of my ambitions.
My thirties were nose-to-the-grindstone years. I fathered two kids, had three books published, and worked and got laid off from a number of jobs. When your responsibilities pile up in your thirties, every day is a battle with your inbox and to-do list. Weeks and months go by where you feel like you’re just treading water. You don’t have as much time to look at the big picture or question your own motives.
My forties are turning out to be the most interesting decade of my life so far, just as I predicted they would be when I was a teenager. One day when I was about 13, while watching a high school football practice, I was filled with the knowledge that my fortieth year would be one of the best in my life. I remember thinking, When I turn 40, things are going to start to get really awesome. And that’s pretty much what happened. The night I turned 40, Barack Obama was re-elected and my state legalized recreational marijuana. The last week of my fortieth year I gave a reading of my work to a packed audience at Iceland Airwaves. If you’re lucky, like me, you also end up going through a midlife crisis around age 40.
My midlife crisis resembled many others–a divorce, career upheaval–and it’s easy to view it through the filter of certain cliches. In our culture a man going through a midlife crisis is an occasion for mockery. There’s the whole Corvette and girlfriend twenty years younger trope (which, to be clear, doesn’t describe my own crisis at all).
We tend to focus on the flamboyant external symptoms of a midlife crisis without considering the more existential undercurrents. A midlife crisis is an adjustment or realignment with the person you truly are. You’re not so much chasing after lost time as re-establishing a relationship with your younger self so that your life has some semblance of continuity and meaning. It’s a time when you start defining yourself less by what you do than who you are.
One’s forties are a time to take stock of what you know. Every time I update my Linkedin profile, it occurs to me that wow, I have actually accomplished some shit. You look to your past for reminders that you can overcome obstacles and you get better at spotting opportunities. This is different fuel than the twenty-something faith in your unproven talent.
Another thing that happens in your forties is that it really sinks in that your actions have consequences for other people. If you’re a dad, you measure your fuckups and achievements primarily by how they impact your kids. You’ve had your heart broken and you’ve broken some hearts. You drift away from old friends, find new ones, and re-establish dormant connections to people from your past. The last line of the last Beatles song, “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” resonates deeper than ever before.
And if you’re a white man, you recognize that women and minorities have to work harder to achieve the level of success you’ve always assumed is your right. You see yourself less as an island than as a member of a vast, karmic archipelago. Or, you join the Republican party and erect a massive mental apparatus designed to protect you from these inconvenient truths.
When you’re less bent on proving your worth, when you have seen how a single success doesn’t prove that you’re in possession of a secret sauce, you can focus on contributing to communities and amplifying opportunities for other people. Refreshingly, you find yourself needing less credit for things.
Our startup culture puts male, typically white wunderkinds on a pedestal because the industry that supplies money to startups likewise employs the young, the male, and the white. While life is complicated, progresses through many phases, and involves interactions with a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, venture capital mythology has it that the path to success is to spot the right Zuckerberg at the right time.
Which brings us to the present moment, when we’re increasingly waking up to the fact that being young, male, and a dick has dire consequences. Palmer Luckey, notable shit-poster of pro-Trump memes, just exited through a side-door at Facebook. Uber grinds through the PR nightmare born in its culture of sexism. And then there’s the White House.
I’m reminded in moments like ours of the Icelandic financial crisis of 2008. I visited Reykjavik in 2011, when their monetary hangover was still throbbing, and again in 2013, when Laugavegur Street was busy with construction and tourists filled shops and concert halls. According to my Icelandic friends, the narrative of the crisis and recovery was based on gender. It was when the fishermen decided to become investment bankers, Icelanders claimed, that the economy tanked. Then the women, realizing with horror what a mess had been made, commanded the fishermen to go back to sea while they rolled up their sleeves and assumed control of the government. Things got better remarkably quickly in the most feminist nation on earth.
Which leads me to believe that the problem of sexism in the tech industry isn’t going to go away because young men will become more enlightened. It will be because women will assume more and more positions of real influence and build records of success that will be increasingly impossible to ignore. As a male startup founder, I’m excited for this coming wave of talent and imagination and know it’s going to improve conditions for everyone. I want to be part of the future that’s female.