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Wednesday
Jan052011

Fables for Our Time

When I was in middle school I was briefly addicted to James Thurber.  I thought he was the funniest writer on the planet, and was thrilled to learn a decade later, in a literature course in college, that he was not only a funny writer but also an exceedingly skillful one.  For a time I had the bad habit of trying to describe every situation in Thurberesque terms, but over the years I kicked the habit, mostly.

Thurber wrote a series of satirical short stories, called “Fables for Our Time,“ one of which involved (and was called) “The Owl Who Was God.”  A series of woodland animals approach an owl who, limited in his vocabulary to the expression “to wit” and “to woo,” miraculously answers every one of their questions with wisdom and accuracy.  Word quickly spreads that the owl not only sees at night but has supernatural wisdom, and a great crowd of animals make him their leader and follow him while he marches them, in the (to him) blinding noon-day sun, into the path of an onrushing truck.  The owl, unafraid, marches right onto the highway, the awe-struck animals, shouting “He’s God!” follow, and the inevitable catastrophe ensues.  Thurber’s modern moral:  “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.”

It is easy pickings to Thurberize the venture industry.  We are repeatedly fooled by the latest hot catch phrase (we lost our to-wits during the dot com craze, and we have been easily to wooed by the cleantech goldrush).  We have an exceedingly high false positive rate when it comes to choosing our entrepreneurs.  We most certainly engage in group think.  We pride ourselves on our pattern recognition skills, but (and this is a topic I hope to take up in the future) what we recognize are mostly important bricks in the edifice but not the underlying architectures of success.

What I like about the story is less the lemming-like quality of the secondary characters but the deep innocence of the protagonist.  Investment crazes are not led by cynical schemers; rather, they are led by true believers who, having made perhaps one or two perspicacious comments, suddenly find themselves anointed and quickly believe their own press.  Those of us who have lived through a few bubbles and have perhaps even benefited once or twice by being on the right side of one, know what it is like to believe – at least for a few glorious months – that everything your grandmother ever bragged about you was the gospel truth.  It turns out that it is not that hard to be blinded by a noon-day sun.

The best defense against being fooled is a very healthy sense of modesty and a religious commitment to asking questions, including dumb ones.  In Thurberland, the most successful and long-lived characters are usually the most modest ones.  The dog who is loathe to fight; the fox who asks the question everyone else thinks is moronic; the sparrow who accepts the premise that air has crystallized in a nearby field (a large piece of plate glass) and refuses to try to fly through it.  I suspect that modesty is a key success factor for venture capitalists as well.  

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