Midnight in the Valley of Good and Evil

There’s a story in the Bible about a deeply righteous man. So righteous, in fact, that he was described by God as a perfect man so upright in his dealings and eschewing of evil that there was not another to be found like him on the earth. He was good, and that goodness was rewarded with tremendous riches and a happy, vibrant family life.

Then, one day, that all started to crumble. He lost his kids, his riches, his wife, even his health. Everyone in town was convinced that Job had turned evil and this was his punishment from a just God. 

How could someone so good, as manifest by his worldly success, have become so evil as to lose it all?

The answer, of course, is that he didn’t. He was the same person among his riches as he was in sac cloth. Those who judged him for being evil in his moments of failure and weakness would have been wrongfully condemning a perfect and just man.

What does Job, or any of this good and evil talk, have to do with startups? 

I didn’t think much, until I started to notice a theme emerging recently attributing success as founders and investors directly pegged to their “goodness”, “benevolence” and “trustworthiness”. 

Being a deeply religious person who wrestles with ideals of good and evil and how they’re manifest in not only myself, but in my community of faith, I have seen how they can be twisted and contorted to create a feeling of trust or assurance where none is warranted or earned. 

In both church and state, it’s a slippery slope to suggest that someone’s success is tied to their morality or “goodness”. 

Which is why I haven’t been able to shake PG’s post from a few weeks ago where he makes the argument that, in the startup world the most successful investors are also the most moral, upstanding and “good”:

In almost every domain there are advantages to seeming good. It makes people trust you. But actually being good is an expensive way to seem good. To an amoral person it might seem to be overkill.

In some fields it might be, but apparently not in the startup world. Though plenty of investors are jerks, there is a clear trend among them: the most successful investors are also the most upstanding.

If you’re going to be two-faced, you have to know who you should be nice to and who you can get away with being nasty to. In the startup world, things change so rapidly that you can’t tell. The random college kid you talk to today might in a couple years be the of the hottest startup in the Valley. If you can’t tell who to be nice to, you have to be nice to everyone. And probably the only people who can manage that are the people who are genuinely good.

In a sufficiently connected and unpredictable world, you can’t seem good without being good.

Attributing success to one’s goodness is dangerous. Smarts? Tenacity? Cunning? Yes. Yes. Yes. But, goodness It gives founders a false sense of unearned trust. 

If we apply the same success to goodness equation to founders we get a similarly dangerous result.

There is certainly a place for morality, goodness and evil within the construct of startup culture, but I’m not comfortable with how we’re trying to apply it here. Some of the people who exhibit the most “goodness” may not be the most successful. And those with evil tendencies may be able to maintain a veneer of success for extended periods of time due to the quid pro quo culture of the valley, not their own benevolence. 

So, it seems a stretch to pull the ideals of good and evil into the conversation around startups. 

If you’re a struggling founder or investor, you should not be labeled as evil any more than Job was. Everyone goes through their own challenges in life that push them to the edge. 

If you’re caught in the trough of your own trials, calling your “goodness” into question isn’t helpful or instructive. Push on and remember that things worked out for Job in the end too.