POSTED March 19, 2012
Pride Comes Before a Fall — Trevor Gilbert’s Small Argument ⚓
Trevor Gilbert took the time to sum up his impression sof the Midwest start-up scene (or lack thereof, from his perspective) in an article for PandoDaily.com today called The Midwest Mentality. It generated a thoughtful and biting response from Matt Moog over at BuiltinChicago.com.
If I look past some of Gilbert’s more flip platitudes, I think he makes some valid points. But I’m not sure they’re aiming at the right things. First, to say that the Midwestern mindset is the problem shouldn’t be to say that it’s somehow wrong, but maybe that it has drawbacks unfit for some contexts. A “problem” can be taken to mean a harmful situation, or it can mean “an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact.” He could have used more of the later — but his thoughts are worth some further consideration that he should have shown to his own topic.
The criticisms put toward the Midwestern Mindset can be said of any regional mindset. Different areas of the country have different outlooks, values and responses to stimuli. What bums me out is that he assumes that the Valley mindset is somehow better or more evolved, and permanently so. It may be so for now, and in certain contexts, like pumping out innumerable meaningless products without a clear value proposition or model in order to find the ones that stick, or organically (or luckily) stumble onto some relevance (I’m paraphrasing Gilbert’s summary here). But that’s just a numbers game, not passion, as he claims.
Certainly there is passion in the Valley, but largely around a few specific industries. These are the industries that developed out of a few ambitious and co-located entrepreneurs the same way any regionally specific boon started. Whether the agriculture of the south, lumber barons of the east, the auto industry of Detroit, the ad men of New York, or the oil barons of the southwest — it all starts somewhere, and tends to remain there, for a long time. Granted, the Valley’s success isn’t a natural resource issue. It’s more of a talent issue. But most of that’s as migratory as the gold rush, not something that can be attributed to a regional mindset.
He claims that Midwestern industriousness is a major component of Valley transplants’ success (work ethic). Why then would the Valley’s inspiration not do the same for us? I guess its still a migration issue in a certain sense, but the culture is transmittable to a degree. And many regions are transforming themselves with learnings from the Valley’s success.
In the same way, I think it’s valid to consider the residual mindset of the industrious, tangible types of industries that created wealth and a certain lifestyle with related values in the Midwest. These characteristics are markedly different. And it makes sense that it’s a bit more risk adverse. We’re still very connected to the natural decline of our industries here. Our values were focused on industriousness and families, and we fought for generations to maintain those jobs and businesses despite their seemingly inevitable decline. We had some of the first “too big to fail” companies.
But now we’re adapting, and by most accounts well. It won’t look like the Valley, despite it being an inspiration point. It’ll more likely look like the next wave of Midwestern Entrepreneurialism instead. And the good news is that we get to figure that out for ourselves. But it might not be as easily defined by a regional mindset as the transformations that came before us, because we’ll have the influence of a globalized economy, intertwined economics and a vast network of talent that thinks very little of uprooting and starting out again in a new region.
My trouble with this article isn’t that Gilbert didn’t like what he found in Chicago. He’s as partial to his culture as we are. It’s that he’s not looking at the bigger ecosystem. He’s looking at an arm and complaining that it’s not a leg. And the collective Midwest should just shake its pragmatic head in response, and get back to work.