A Q&A with Rich Shapero

Q: In The Hope We Seek, you assay human aspiration.

RS: There’s a clearly defined moment for most of us when we enter the adult world. Often it occurs when schooling ends. It’s a threatening time, full of doubt, fears of the unknown, fears of failure. We know it’s going to be a long road. But we have aspirations. And most of us don’t have a choice. Earning a living is a matter of survival. So despite our dread, we plunge in. We find work. The work isn’t what we dreamt of doing, but we hope it will lead to something better. Our aspirations remain with us. If we grit it out we might get there. Somehow. Some day.

I left home without a nickel. I scraped through college. My first job was digging ditches for the gas company. I worked the graveyard shift. Then I ran a printing press. I was hired by a computer company and after years in the trenches, I got the chance to run one. The company was successful. I became a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. Ultimately, I caught up with my aspirations. But it was a long journey. The way turned and twisted, and it was mostly in darkness. The Hope We Seek is drawn from that experience.

Q: Most of us have closely-held desires, things we put in front of ourselves and say, “This is what I want.”

RS: Our culture, like most, celebrates achievement. Dreaming of a brighter future, realizing the dream, or trying to—that’s how we derive meaning from life.

Aspiration can’t exist without leadership. When a group aspires to something, a leader is chosen to fix the goal. When an individual aspires to something, there is an internal “leader”—a part of that person’s makeup that runs out ahead of the rest, to focus his or her attention and point the way.

Q: You have described a “proclamation of omniscience” that goes hand in hand with leadership.

RS: The leader says, “If we do X, then Y will be the result.” The leader doesn’t know that. He or she is guessing, hoping. The expression of certainty is a lie. But it’s a necessary lie. If we’re to throw all our energies at an aspiration, we need to know that the outcome is certain. We have to believe.

On the individual level, we need a component of our personality to see the world through tinted glasses. That interior leader says, “If you do X, then Y will be the outcome. Trust me.” And the rest of our nature signs up.

Humans require prophecy and vision. There is an element of fakery in that. Prophecy isn’t based on fact. It’s the deceitful vanguard of wishing and wanting. But it’s not something we can do without.

The miracle, of course, is where the imagined future becomes real. That justifies the guessing, the fakery, the deception. JFK says, “If we do this and that, we’ll put a man on the moon.” And one day, there’s a man walking on the moon. When the aspiration was first expressed, nobody knew if it could be realized. But the voice spoke with conviction, and people devoted themselves to the vision.

It doesn’t work for the leader—external or internal—to say, “I’m not sure we can do this. There are obstacles. There are questions I don’t have answers for. Maybe we should give it a whirl. What do you think?” That’s not leadership.

Q: Leadership implies power, doesn’t it?

RS: It’s leadership that matters. Without leadership, there is no power. People can argue about whether or not a leader’s goals are worthy, but power can’t exist for itself. It won’t be tolerated. One of the obvious proofs is the reaction we all have to a certain breed of politician. When it becomes clear that a politician’s only motivation is to retain power, and that his or her positions on key issues are infinitely flexible, the politician loses the tribe’s support.

For the individual, a change in the “interior” leader can pull someone’s personality inside out. We’ve all seen that. A vision of the future proves false, the inner leader is pulled down, and the person finds a new leader inside himself or herself, with a new prophecy to fulfill.

During my years in tech, I saw this relationship between leadership and prophecy acted out on a daily basis. When the alpha wolf says, “Follow me, I know where we’ll find caribou,” he’s doing the same thing as the product conceptualist who says, “ Follow me, if we build this product, people will buy it.” Neither the wolf nor the man can see the future. The essence of leadership is prophecy, and the foundation of prophecy is—hope.

Q: When Zack reaches Breakaway, it doesn’t take him long to see that the miners are motived by something other than material worth. In Breakaway, gold is “Hope.”

RS: Many of us associate gold with greed. Some would say that the pursuit of gold, by its very nature, is degenerate. Trevillian, the boss of the mining camp, challenges Zack to disconnect the two. He asks Zack to embrace the idea that gold is belief.

As impoverished and desperate as these folks are, in one sense, they’re as enlightened as humans can be, because they’ve bought the thesis that they’re not on earth to cash in. The goal isn’t gold.

The way it’s framed, of course, their existence in Breakaway is a desperate one. But finding Hope, experiencing her face to face—well, they seem to think it’s worth it.