Bottoms Down! Silicon Valley Sobers Up

When Peter Shallard goes to parties and networking events, he sometimes finds green juices, not martinis. Instead of shots, he hears excuses about waking up early to crush work. It’s just the “radical nature” of Silicon Valley — its all-on, all-off mindset — only this time it’s applied to alcohol, says the business consultant. Entrepreneurs are more “self-aware and more optimization-focused than ever before.”

In the Valley, the new burgeoning normality is to teetotal — at least for as long as humanly possible. From the Twitter blasts of Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof Coffee, urging his 350,000 followers to drink kava instead of alcohol, to life optimizer Tim Ferriss’ no-alcohol, no-masturbation 30-day challenge of a few years ago, the movement to put down the bottle has grown stronger. CEOs seeking an edge are abstaining, and employees are following their bosses’ lead, or that of life optimizers. Of course, in the metrics-obsessed Valley, it’s important to slap a number on heightened productivity without alcohol. Asprey points to a 15 percent boost, while Ferris claimed in a 2014 blog post that abstaining for 30 days meant he got “roughly 50 to 100 percent” more done while master of his domain. Even the Valley’s wingdings are changing, according to San Francisco tech party-planner Christina Millikin. That’s right: It’s mocktails on the menu or bust. “It’s kind of cool not to drink now,” Millikin says.

[I] found a lot of other ways to [create company cohesion] than having a fridge stocked with whiskey.

Elaine Wherry, co-founder of Meebo

As the world grows ever more competitive and automated, and as returns on startups decline for venture capital funds, turning away from booze is one way to remain successful. Texts about how to succeed in business without really drinking abound, including books with great titles like Drinking to Distraction and Drink Less, Be More. And while some high-powered teetotalers find abstinence can get in the way of closing deals, others say the stigma of going dry is fading. “If people say ‘I don’t drink’ or ‘I don’t want to drink,’ it’s usually a supportive response,” says Dan Scholnick, a venture capitalist with partners who abstain. Asprey, for instance, credits the Valley’s willingness to give the older generation the boot as a reason to say no to booze. Some believe that older employees cost more and are less productive. “If you’re 45 and looking to remain competitive, maybe having a couple glasses of wine every night isn’t going to serve you well,” he says.

The trend isn’t exclusive to Silicon Valley power circles, either. President-elect Donald J. Trump refuses to get boozy, lifting a glass of anything but Champagne when toasting. Other political teetotalers include Democratic rising star Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former governor and 2016 presidential candidate Gary Johnson of New Mexico and former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Abstaining from knocking one back is an about-face response to the narrative that Silicon Valley’s binge-drinking culture has gotten out of hand. Kegerators proliferate in offices and WeWork spaces. Research conducted by the University of Washington found binge drinking in Santa Clara County rose 28 percent between 2002 and 2012, the highest of any county in California. San Mateo County and San Francisco closely tailed Santa Clara. For some, the ubiquity of alcohol in tech fridges is causing an adverse reaction to drinking. “If someone wants to get something at the end of the day, it’s already there,” Millikin says. Instead, people find ways to get more, um … disruptive.

CEOs often get to encourage or discourage the taps, leading to top-down change if CEOs don’t drink. One study from 2015 shows that more than half of the executives interviewed thought CEOs had the biggest impact on company culture. For a non-drinking co-founder like Elaine Wherry (Meebo), abstinence proved to be a strength, she claims. While many leaders use alcohol to create cohesion, she says, she “found a lot of other ways to do that than having a fridge stocked with whiskey.”

Of course, the trend has limits. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg find time to eat, drink and be merry. Plenty of schmoozing sessions with venture capitalists still take place over drinks. The idea that alcohol might disappear as a social lubricant is “totally false,” Shallard says. And if you need an excuse to tipple, look no further than a 2012 study that showed drinking can lead to divergent, creative thoughts that fuel good work. Non-drinkers are in the minority, Wherry says.

Still, a backlash to heavy drinking clearly is occurring in San Francisco, which has the second-healthiest residents in America, according to a 2015 NerdWallet survey. Anyway, it’s not as though the bottle is the only reality-altering vice to enjoy. For instance, Potluck Mittal, a software developer at a San Francisco startup, may have taken time off drinking — but that was because of an acid trip. “At one point I became cogent enough to start typing my thoughts into Evernote,” he says. “I was kind of like, Potluck, why do you do drugs?” He made a pros-and-cons list for each drug and found that pot and others skewed positive. Given those results, it’s fortunate that Mittal resides in California, where voters have just approved the legalization of recreational marijuana.

By contrast, alcohol is bad for him, Mittal says, and doesn’t provide a big buzz. For six months, instead of nursing a beer (totally comfortably, he says) at many company happy hours, he brought his vape pen — proving that booze or not, innovation is alive and well in the Valley.