Self-worth if you’re self-made: reaction to Diaspora* co-founder’s death

diaspora, Ilya Zhitomirskiy

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Diaspora*,  an open source social network meant to rival the corporate machine that is Facebook.  An idea created by four NYU students, the story was the epitome of what it meant to be young, smart, and willing to change the status quo as far as social networking was concerned.  It was a reflection on my generation; wanting to change the world and plan for the future while having endless possibilities to make that dream a reality.  However, it was still shocking and terrible news to hear about the recent suicide of Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy.  

The reality is that not all startups succeed and no one can escape the fact that big plans need funding and funding has to come from the generosity of people, which during a recession everyone feels tapped out, no matter how much they would like to give in order to invest in the future.  Someone with years of experience would understand that reality, but for someone young and always taught that their dreams can become reality (along with all millenials), it can be heartbreaking. There must have been many thoughts on Ilya’s mind as of late, especially knowing that the Diaspora* project was in desperate need of funding.

Having not known him personally, I can’t say for sure what lead him to make this decision, but I can imagine the pressure he felt, since it’s similar pressure I have felt for years. It’s tough to be in my generation.  For one individual’s view, check out the The NY Mag article “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright” (and my rebuttal), where Noreen Malone demonstrates how our generation has been told they are special, that true success is accessible and that we are smart and tech savvy and valuable.  Unfortunately, we live in a time where many outside forces are out of our control.

A recent article in the NY Times called Generation Sell talks about the fact that while past generations have stood for love or rebellion against the government system, ours is ironically feeding into business culture and believe that you have self-worth only if you’re self-made. We have seen tech entrepreneurs find success at a young age and, seeing how working at typical institutions doesn’t lead to complete financial freedom or fame, we hope to create something for ourselves.  How many successful entrepreneurs smirk as they talk about dropping out before they  graduated from an Ivy League school? We are constantly selling ourselves so every introduction becomes an elevator pitch, whether it’s at an interview or inside of a bar.  Before I graduated from college I was educated to have the mentality that no matter who you meet or where you meet, it might lead to a new opportunity so don’t screw it up.

As Gawker writer Ardian Chen says, this recent event calls into question the pressure the Diaspora* founders felt after raising $200,000 on Kickstarter, gaining buzz and recognition, and yet had their initial release be a laughing stock in the tech world.  I personally feel that someone so young isn’t ready to deal with the pressures of life, let alone the pressure that media can bring.  When you seem like another young hot shot, many are hoping to knock you off your pedestal.  Even I sometimes roll my eyes when another startup guy talks to me about this burgeoning business that really would not make sense in this culture climate. However, we need those dreamers to bring progressive ideas and allow us to rethink business, communication, and how we live our lives.  As Chen summed up,  “As thrilling as it is to watch brilliant young people make cool stuff, it’s equally as wrenching when things go horribly wrong.”

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