Gabe Gets It

My late maternal grandfather, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, once introduced me to an army friend of his named Ray Hunt. The occasion was an annual meeting of the Legion of Valor, an organization for veterans who’d earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, or Air Force Cross.

Sgt. Hunt had a remarkable story to tell. He’d escaped the Bataan Death March and fought behind Japanese lines, fighting as a guerilla soldier in the jungles of the Philippines for three years. When I met him in 1996 he was a man in a blazer nursing a scotch on the rocks in a Red Lion ballroom in Glendale, California. I asked him how he managed to stay alive and sane in such a dangerous environment. He had a simple answer: “I never stayed in one place more than a week at a time, and I woke up every morning  convinced I would die that day.”

I thought of Ray Hunt recently when I read about remarks about VR’s prospects by Valve CEO Gabe Newell. Here’s the quotable bit:

We think VR is going great. It’s going in a way that’s consistent with our expectations. We’re also pretty comfortable with the idea that it will turn out to be a complete failure.

Gabe Newell

I already admired Valve for its supportive and generous relationship with the indie game community. Of the big players–Oculus, Google, Magic Leap–Valve and HTC have by far endeared themselves most to the entrepreneurial VR pioneers who are actually making this technology a reality. Mr. Newell’s remarks, greeted with some perplexity by the business press, strike me as more reason to bet on Valve as a garden from which virtual reality will continue to blossom.

Newell’s seeming indifference to failure reminds me of something I heard Jeff Bezos say in a conference room in 1999, that he woke up every morning thinking about how everything could fail. This was during an era when the media was gushing about Amazon and the company could seemingly do no wrong. Bezos’s emphasis on failure hit me the same way as Ray Hunt’s blasé attitude about death. This is where thinking about business strategy and market forces become an existential meditation.

But if you don’t think about these things in existential terms, you might scratch your head at Newell’s assessment of the VR market. One passage in the Ecotimes article linked to above stood out to me:

As Business Insider notes, someone like Newel [sic] who is worth a little over $4 billion can certainly afford to take chances with regards to untested products and concepts… In any case, it would certainly appear that Newell has a rather cavalier attitude towards business success than most would think.

There’s an implication here that only those who have achieved a certain degree of success can take risks. I am surrounded by people who are “taking chances with untested products and concepts,” and I can safely say none of them are worth $4 billion. In the past couple weeks I have talked to game designers who are worried about being able to make their rent, students who want to get involved in the VR industry and are concerned about their prospects, and artists who know there’s a future in immersive media and who are trying to figure out just what that future is. When you work in VR, you by definition are working on untested products and concepts.

And “rather cavalier attitude”? The real cavalier attitude is to construct a walled garden of developers and make unsupportable predictions about market share in order to make your investors less jumpy. Gabe Newell’s attitude strikes me as utterly sober and refreshing.

The other part of Ray Hunt’s strategy of guerilla warfare is vitally interrelated to embracing one’s own mortality. Never stay in the same place longer than a week. In other words, constantly move and change. That’s another reason I’m bullish on Valve and HTC.

Making peace with the possibility that you will fail and moving forward anyway seems like not just a solid strategy for business, it seems like a solid strategy for living as a human being. Each of us has, at best, eighty or so years on this rock hurtling through a void, so why not just embrace your mortality and go for it?