There, I said it.
Oh, so you had noticed. Great... then at least we're all starting on the same page and I don't need to explain half the story to you.
Don't know who he is, besides that? Well, he's the Knick point guard who dropped 38 on Kobe Bryant the other night.
And also Asian, yes. A Harvard grad--all listed 6'2'' of him.
So who cares, right? Well, people did care--at least they used to, but not in the right way.
Amidst all of the talk about how this kid just came out of absolute nowhere, going undrafted and getting cut twice to getting "MVP!" chants in the fourth start of his NBA career, there hasn't been a lot of talk about the obvious.
Jeremy Lin is Asian--and that's why no one really took him that seriously as an NBA basketball player.
It's not because there's some kind of conscious anti-Asian conspiracy to keep all the amazing Asian point guards out of the league. The people that cut him and skipped him over in the draft aren't bad people.
It's because we pattern match. We do it all the time. It is a necessary part of our daily lives.
We get out of the way of moving objects in the street with four wheels because they look like cars. Some of these things could be holograms or some odd-looking new land mammal, but that's not very likely, so we play the percentages. We throw away junk mail without even opening it when it has that marketing heavy look. It could actually be a check for a million dollars but that's not likely. When homeless people who talk to themselves get near us on a subway platform, we step away because a pattern is emerging that seems to have a non-zero chance of getting us thrown in front of the subway in the future. That's not guaranteed, but we're playing the percentages.
It's the same thing that happens when someone e-mails me and says, "I have no tech team, but I'm going to create the next Facebook." There's actually some non-zero chance that, if I fund that person, they could do it--but it's probably not likely to so I play the percentages.
Why? Because I have limited resources and I have to make quick decisions. I can't meet with everyone. I can't fund everyone with just a little bit of a cash as a test. So I make a quick call based on incomplete information.
It's not really a problem when we do it with objects--like assuming anything that looks like a car in the street is actually a car and would hurt me if I stood in front of it. Those are generally useful generalizations that don't really harm anyone.
It's a problem when we talk about people and subjective judgements. Lots of high school kids score a lot of points for non-elite teams. They all wouldn't fare well in the NBA. Some would, though. So how can you tell?
In some respects, players with a size advantage in the NBA fare better than those who are shorter in stature. There are exceptions, but generally, especially for the power positions, it pays to be taller.
But what happens when you get into what a player looks like outside of size? It seems pretty obvious that at least part of the reason why no one handed Jeremy Lin a starting point guard position is that he doesn't exactly pattern match for the look of a point guard. Race undoubtedly played a factor--and now I'll bet you a lot of scouts and front office folks are feeling pretty bad about themselves right now. These are otherwise good people who now all the sudden are asking themselves, "Am I a racist?"
It's hard to fight a lifetime of built up patterns--patterns that, for the most part, serve us pretty well. When it comes to patterns about people and what they are capable of--we need to be really careful. Just the other day, I took a meeting with an entrepreneur who had a great mobile app with lots of downloads. She made the comment that being a 46 year old mother of three doesn't exactly make her the most appealing entrepreneur to most VCs.
That, I didn't get.
I understand how she didn't seem like most of the people I meet--but not because I'm purposely not looking for 46 year old mothers of three. It's just that most people in that mode of their lives aren't doing tech startups. Actually, I'm pretty sure raising three kids would make you imminently qualified to manage a bunch of immature 20-something developers in a startup, so it's not like they haven't built up the skills. They're just not out there pitching for the most part.
But I failed to see how age and parent status plays a role in your ability to run a startup. There is a difference between saying "Most tech startups are run by X kind of person" and "X kind of people are good at running tech startups." It's a HUGE difference that we need to be very very careful not to blur. The first statement is just a matter of fact. Most tech startups are not run by 46 year old mothers of three. I'm not putting a qualitative judgement on that. I'm just stating fact.
That doesn't mean that twenty somethings are better at being tech entrepreneurs or that forty somethings can't do it. It's hard for everyone to be a successful tech entrepreneur all the way around and we each have to deal with our biases and shortcomings, no matter what they are, and play to our strengths. We need to surround ourselves with teams that compliment us--knowing who we are and who we are not in order to figure out how we fit into a great team.
It is our responsibility to make sure that, in the midst of our best attempts at screening, picking, allocating, choosing--things we all need to do in a world of limited resources--that we don't signal to those who don't match what we're accustomed to that it doesn't mean they aren't capable. It also doesn't mean we won't pick them. They need to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it--and both sides need to adjust. We need to come up with better ways of screening that focus more on capability than appearence--and be much more conscious of our biases.
At the same time, the other side needs to adjust, too--proving capability rather than always fighting biases. When someone e-mails me and says, "I have 75,000 downloads of my app in the last few weeks" I'm not going to stop and ask how many kids they have or how old they are. That's the great thing about tech. The barriers to actually executing are coming down--tech is getting cheaper to build and you can prototype so much more easily. When you needed $5 million to start a business, knowing the secret white male handshake was key. Now, when entrepreneurs don't need VCs, with their money and connections, to create awesomeness--and awesomeness is everyone's main criteria for selection, then the world becomes a lot more meritocratic.
Would I have drafted Jeremy Lin? Who knows. I'd like to think that somewhere in a guy who can drop 38 on Kobe I would have seen enough talent to give him a shot, but maybe I would have thought he was too small or didn't have some wacky intangible like "court presence" that I was socialized to look for even though I couldn't explain what it was. I grew up in the same society as everyone else, with most of the same bald white male biases that I have to fight everyday. At least I'm fighting them--and I rely on my network and community, including this blog--to help point out where I might have missed a few.
So let's recount...
Jeremy Lin is Asian.
Most NBA point guards are not Asian.
Jeremy Lin looks like the best thing to happen to the Knicks in a long time.
More players besides Kobe are going to get schooled by Jeremy Lin. Read that as you will.