Saturday, June 2, 2012
Schumpeter: In praise of misfits | The Economist
Today many suffer from the opposite prejudice. Software firms gobble up anti-social geeks. Hedge funds hoover up equally oddball quants.
Hollywood bends over backwards to accommodate the whims of creatives and policymakers look to rule-breaking entrepreneurs to create jobs. Unlike the school playground, the marketplace is kind to misfits.
Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.
Some joke that the internet was invented by and for people who are “on the spectrum”, as they put it in the Valley. Online, you can communicate without the ordeal of meeting people.
Wired magazine once called it “the Geek Syndrome”. Speaking of internet firms founded in the past decade, Peter Thiel, an early Facebook investor, told the New Yorker that: “The people who run them are sort of autistic.” Yishan Wong, an ex-Facebooker, wrote that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, has “a touch of Asperger’s”, in that “he does not provide much active feedback or confirmation that he is listening to you.” Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, says he finds the symptoms of Asperger’s “uncomfortably familiar” when he hears them listed.
Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor.
He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital. After noticing that there was something awry with the mortgage market, he made a killing betting that it would crash.
“The one guy that I could trust in the middle of this crisis,” Mr Lewis told National Public Radio, “was this fellow with Asperger’s and a glass eye.”
More broadly, the replacement of organisation man with disorganisation man is changing the balance of power. Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school.
They may be mocked by sports jocks and ignored at parties but these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s now cool to be a geek.”