by Mike Cassidy

 Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
March 27, 2000

Mar. 27--ARE THERE REALLY ANY WINNERS IN THE SILICON VALLEY GAME? If I may interrupt the dot-com, IPO, blizzard-of-dough party for a moment, I've got one thing to say:

This is nuts. Not just the boom, the longest in history, etc. Not just the record amounts of venture capital pouring into newborn companies. Not the run-up in the cost of housing, domestic help and latte.

But the people, too. Yes, I might mean you and even me, for that matter.

I've been asking around and it turns out this is not an entirely healthy way to live. It's like pigging out on filet mignon, baked potatoes with butter and asparagus in hollandaise every night. It feels great and then it kills you.

I'm not making this up. I asked an expert, an expert, who in far more words than this, says Silicon Valley is one big basket case.

"It's like rush, rush, rush, rush," says Beverly Potter, an Oakland psychologist who wrote "Overcoming Job Burnout." "We've got to put in 12-hour, 14-hour, 15-hour days, Saturdays, holidays. Your family is on your back."

But you do it to get that product out. Then?

"No sooner than it comes out, probably before it comes out, they start up again."

And these are the people who are doing well, some very well. They pick the right start-up, stick around long enough and make millions. Plenty enough to retire, but do they?

"They can't get out," says Potter, a Stanford grad who started writing about burnout in the 1970s. "They have plenty of money. Some of them are working because the money is the game board. I'm still winning."

Some job hop. Don't like your boss, your commute, your parking spot? Change jobs. Workers have been empowered. Hallelujah!

"It's sort of like the promiscuous lover syndrome," says Potter. "You get that high again, the chase, the seduction. There's a buzz."

Then you realize your new job throws his socks all over, leaves the toilet seat up and defines social drinking as a belt before breakfast.

"You get through that initial stimulation and then the depression moves back in."

And those are the lucky people. What about all the people working at McDonald's and Macy's and Nordstrom?

"They see all this money flowing through and they're caught in this comparison."

Even people whose jobs pay enough to survive in the valley are taking a beating. These people might even be doing pretty well, but so many are doing so much better.

"This all can get into this big cooker of people feeling powerless," says Potter, "feeling like they're not winning."

Potter does not see Silicon Valley as evil, just treacherous. She's actually been invited to the party by way of Palo Alto property she bought in 1973 and now rents at a rate that more than returns her initial investment every year. And she's done OK with an investment she made after being asked to speak at a valley start-up.

"It was the lowest level lecture," she says of her 1992 talk. "A brown bag in the lunch room of this company called Cisco Systems."

After lunch, she bought 11,000 shares. And so she is set, but she keeps working--writing and running a small publishing company.

"Then what would I do, if I didn't work?" she asks. "It's a Catch-22. I do not have it resolved."

What hope does that leave the rest of us?

Contact Mike Cassidy at or call (408) 920-5536. For previous columns by Mike Cassidy for SV and the Mercury News go to