Desert Wisdom

On February 2, 2019, I got the opportunity to present at the inaugural TEDxUTEP conference. The theme of the event was “Access and Excellence” which is the dual mission set by our long-time University President, Dr. Diana Natalicio. I’m incredibly grateful for the experiences I received at UTEP, and I love El Paso, so I decided to speak on the growth mindset imparted on the people of the desert. Friends have been asking for a video of the presentation. I don’t know when that will go live, so in the meantime, I thought I’d share the transcript I wrote to prepare my talk. This isn’t 100% what came out on stage. I’m less eloquent in speaking and memory isn’t perfect. But the message I wanted to deliver is here.

“Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert.” - Frank Herbert, Dune

The desert is a place of scarcity. No water, no vegetation, little in the way of natural resources. Few people view this as an ideal place to live. Our desert community is often seen as being a nowhere in the middle of nowhere. Many see this as a place where you only live when you’ve got no other choice. And so it's remained a frontier. From a business perspective, this means no capital, no experience, no ecosystem to build on. Some may view this as a challenge but being in the desert and being on the frontier makes the perfect breeding ground for entrepreneurship and growth. 

On the Frontier, New is Normal

The dictionary gives two definitions for the word “frontier.” A frontier is a border between two places. And it’s also the edge of settled land. When you’re on the frontier, you’re either a pioneer, or an immigrant.  In either case, you’re a stranger in a strange land, on the fringes of the old, pushing for something new. Being on the frontier makes people good at doing new things. 

Whether you’re either a pioneer or you’re an immigrant, being on the frontier means that everyone is first-generational. It’s hard to find someone in our community who isn’t first generation something. I’m sure if everyone here looked in the mirror, they would see someone who was doing something for the first time in their family history. You may be first generation American. You may be first generation English speaking. First generation college graduate. First generation professional. First generation El Pasoan. First generation in the military. First generation artist or entrepreneur.

And if you’re first generation something, new is a way of life for you. Perhaps the people and the culture are new, the language may be new. The laws may be new, or maybe the liberty itself is new. But whether you’re a pioneer or an immigrant, the challenges and the opportunities are definitely new. New is what you see and breathe and think. So you become really good with dealing with all of the unknowns that come from the new.

And this is really important because in regular places of the world, newness is hard. Newness creates uncertainty and uncertainty is difficult. For many people, uncertainty causes anxiety. The human brain does not like not knowing what will happen to it. And those who are afraid of uncertainty will not embark on the new. They won’t create new things. They won’t challenge the status quo, whether it's their families or societies or their businesses or their own. 

Not people on the frontier. We’re not afraid of the new, and so we’re comfortable with accepting the risks that come from uncertainty; the risks that others might see as intolerable. We’re willing to take on the new because, for us, new is just another regular day.

You’ll find the proof in the people around us.  Everyone here is comfortable with the unknown. The people who migrated here from other places were risk-taking enough to leave their homes and to take a shot on a new city or a new country. The people who’ve stayed here are the people who are willing to build a foundation on a place without foundations. And I mean that metaphorically and literally. You’re going to spend a lot of money to build on the side of a mountain or in the ever-shifting sand

Small Downside, Big Upside

Why are the people here willing to do this? Being on the frontier creates a compelling risk profile that is perfect for growth. 

In the business world, investors look for various characteristics in their investments, but one of the most simple and effective investment strategies  is to find investments with a small downside and a big upside. Which is exactly what you’re presented with when you’re on the frontier. 

When the world around you is new, you don’t have a lot to fall back on.  When you’re new to the world around you, you have no legacy to ruin. There’s no path for you to follow, so there are no standards for you to fail. The downside is small when you don’t have a whole lot to lose. 

On the flip side, wen everything is new, you’re presented with a lot of promise. When you’ve got no history, all you're left with is a future. People talk about this in business all the time. Companies fight to be first to market. Inventors toil to innovate on emerging technologies. If you are in an open space for yourself, when there’s nothing to box you in, you have all the room you need to grow.

So being on the frontier not only means that you’re accustomed to dealing with the new, you’re actually presented with a very compelling risk profile, this small downside and big upside. The opportunity lives all around you, and you’re well equipped to take it.

Deserts Make people resilient

The desert itself imparts a certain level of wisdom on us that better enables us to take on these opportunities. Living in the desert is hard and weird. Going outside on an average day is tough.  It’s bright and hot. But even if we get a nice day of rain, that usually leads to flooding. If you’re hoping for a nice breeze, that wind is probably going to kick up a bunch of dirt. The plants aren’t friendly and all the animals are trying to kill you. 

The sun burns. The rain floods. The wind stings. The plants stab. The animals poison.

Deserts are harsh, they’re full of extremes. And that makes the people here really tough. We’re resilient.  When there’s a tough day outside, we learn to take on the difficulty. We’re not going to hide away because we know that’s not a good way to live life. We know that just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it's impossible, and so when things get hard, we don’t quit.

Tying it back to my experiences in business, not quitting is one of the key skills you can have as an entrepreneur. Every entrepreneur will struggle at some point. Every one of them will see some sort of failure. There’s a common saying that entrepreneurs don’t fail, they give up. The successful ones are the ones who don’t give up. They’re the ones who have learned to manage the struggle. More importantly, they are the ones who have learned how to grow from difficulty and from failure.

Successful entrepreneurs have a special power of perception. They learn to find opportunity in the challenges that confront them. I think living in the desert naturally imparts that special perception. We view the world in a different way than most.

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I’ll give a simple example: rain. When it rains in the desert, everyone here sees it as nice weather. People will post pictures and videos on social media. Everyone will comment about the nice day we’re having. I didn’t know this until I moved out of the desert, but this is really weird. In other parts of the world, rain is seen as bad weather. Rain is seen as gloomy and dreary. Even the colloquialisms we use rain in have negative connotations. It’s not nice to rain on someone’s parade.  If somebody has a black cloud following them, it’s because they’re depressed, not because they’re having a great day.

But here, rain is seen as beautiful. Even with something as simple as rain, we find opportunities where others see challenges.

Openness & Growth

“So what?” You might be asking yourself. We live in this unique place. We’re still in the middle of nowhere. We may have these great personalities and characteristics, but we still don’t have all the things other people have. You can look to other places and say, “They have more. They can do what we do easier. They’ve accomplished more.” And there is some truth to that. But to look at things that way is to fail to see the richness of opportunities ahead of us.

I’ll share two personal stories that have changed my perspective on this.

I grew up on the outskirts of town in Canutillo. I came to UTEP and was the first in my family to graduate from college. Like many kids growing up here, I wanted to leave as soon as possible, so I put my head down and graduated college in 3 years. I did a lot of homework, but little of anything else. On my 21st birthday, I moved to California to start law school, and when I arrived I was overwhelmed by the talent and experiences of my classmates. I went to the dean of admissions and I shared my existential dread. I had done no more than any of the people around me, and in many circumstances, I’d done less. I knew nothing, I was a  nobody from nowhere. I didn’t know why I deserved to be there.

Her response to me applies to everything we have going on in the desert. "It’s not what you’ve accomplished,” she said, “it’s your trajectory that’s exciting.” That really changed my perspective. I was so obsessed with looking at myself in the moment, at measuring my accomplishments and making comparisons to myself, that I paid no attention to the rate at which I was moving. 

The second anecdote has to do with our desert again. When I first moved to California, I was claustrophobic for some reason. I chalked it up to the anxiety of law school or the stress of being in a new place. Every time I drove around, I felt there were walls closing in around me. It wasn’t until I visited home for my first holiday that I realized what it was. The trees were blocking my view. I had grown up having these massive expanses of sky, and in California, everything was blocked by trees and buildings. I felt out of place not being on open ground. I felt out of place not being able to see horizon to horizon. I had moved to a place with all the resources at its disposal, but I had left the openness that we have in El Paso.

This openness and this growth trajectory aren’t for everyone. Some people like being part of something established or part of something bigger. They crave the electricity that comes from big, energized crowds, they enjoy living among history, and they relish the vantage-point that comes from standing on the shoulders of giants. That can be fun, but over the last few years I’ve learned that I prefer the blank page over the well-written story book. Perhaps we’ll get to a point where we’re more established and we’re no longer so open. But for now, there’s something special about being on the frontier, about the unknown, and about the struggle. To people on the outside, I may be a nobody in the middle of nowhere. But to me there’s nothing more exciting, and there’s nobody I’d rather be.