The Giant Wasteland and the Tiny Vault

This post was originally published on the 42Floors Blog.

So there’s this popular series of video games with the title “Fallout,” which are set in various post-apocalyptic versions of the US. In addition to presenting hours of engaging gameplay, they represent a rich metaphor for startups and life in general. In each game, the hero emerges from a tiny underground vault where he (or she) has lived his entire life thus far. The vault is completely isolated from the outside world, both to keep the residents safe and to prevent them from leaving. Never mind the reasons for the hero’s emergence; they are slightly different in every game, although always related somehow to saving the world. The first thing that the vault dweller notices is how big the outside world is. He never realized how tiny his world was until he left it. The second thing he realizes is that the world is full of radioactive mutants (or are they zombies?) who want to kill him. He proceeds to spend the rest of the game blowing those mutants to pieces (and that’s where this parable starts to diverge from the point I’m trying to make).

I would say that all of us (at least everyone reading this) have at some point had an awakening. We were toiling away at our corporate job, or suffering through some unsatisfying relationship, when at some point a light went off. We realized that we didn’t have to stay in the vault, or possibly we even noticed for the first time that there was a vault at all. A lot of vault dwellers just sort of assume that the world begins and ends at those doors marked “don’t enter”, and never really give much more thought to it. Or, for the startup founders out there, possibly we became obsessed with an unsolved problem, and realized the only way to solve that problem was to go out on our own.

So we packed our bags, and said goodbye to all our friends (or maybe we snuck out at night), and headed out those big doors. The first thing we realized was how big the world out there was. And that’s just what we can see. It goes on and on and on and on. For a while, it’s fun. We’re on our own, doing our own things. And killing mutants is kind of fun, and least for the first few weeks or months. But then we realize that it’s sort of lonely out there. and that we don’t always know what we should be doing. Maybe our first startup idea didn’t work out, and we had to pivot, or maybe playing the field was fun, but we realized that we only get to eat what we kill (even lions and tigers don’t get to eat every day). Somewhere down the road, there was the realization that if you stay outside by yourself for too long, eventually you turn into one of those mutants.

Around this time, we started to notice that there were a lot of doors out there. And they led to other vaults. Some of them said things like “Big Corporate Job,” while others might have said “Series A Startup,” or even “Developer Training Bootcamp.” I bet that a number of them were labeled with various types of self development programs or meditation retreats. And I’ll also put money on the fact that a bunch of them even had people camped outside, trying to get us to come in. Some of us were able to ignore those doors, and decided to hold steady and pitch our own tent, but most of us probably tried visiting a few of those enclaves.

As we entered some of those doors, we realized that these vaults came in all shapes and sizes. Big and small, accepting and exclusive, homogeneous and heterogeneous. We could find pretty much anything we were looking for, if only we knew where to look for it (this is San Francisco, after all). But, most importantly we realized that we could only visit one vault at a time. So we had to make choices. And once we stepped through those doors, there was a certain amount of gravity keeping us there (it was almost like they wanted us to forget that the outside world even existed). Some of the vaults were led by charismatic and well-spoken leaders (the Paul Graham type, or the Steve Jobs type, or maybe even the Charles Manson type in some unfortunate cases). Some of the people in one vault would tell us about the evils of other vaults. “That one is a cult,” they said. But that always shifted the burden onto the accuser. “Why aren’t you a cult as well,” we would ask.

But at some point, we realized that they were all the same. Not in that they were all actually the same, but in that they were vaults. They all contain interesting and potentially valuable things, but are designed as vaults, which mean that they try to keep other things out. And since we made the decision up front to not be contained, it probably isn’t in our interests to join one whole-hog. But rather, it makes sense to stay for a while, to absorb what we can, and to take it with us. And then to head back out into the radioactive wasteland, to do it again. Maybe one day we will find a vault that fits us perfectly, but more likely, we will eventually build our own vault, which contains an amalgam of the things we discovered while we were out there. Some of them came directly from other vaults, while others may have come to us while we were camped out in the wastelands. And some may even come in the form of other people, whom we met along the way and decided to team up with. Because it’s a lot easier to kill a mutant when you have him flanked.

So what’s the lesson here? First of all, you’re probably doing a lot better than you think. You took the hardest step when you decided to leave the vault for the first time. Everything after that is just keeping the momentum. And don’t let anyone force you back into a vault. And make your time count. Because, at the end of the day, none of us wants to turn into a radioactive mutant.