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Eric Schmidt: Silicon Valley's Only Grownup Wants to Have Fun Too

How soul-crushing it must be to be constantly referred to as the “adult in the room” when you are, in fact, always in a room full of actual adults. Though ostensibly a compliment, it’s not entirely flattering. It is the equivalent, more or less, of being the guy you can count on to turn on the lights and turn down the music just when the party is getting fun.

That has been the fate of 55-year-old Eric Schmidt ever since, nearly a decade ago, he stepped into the job of Google CEO, one that by all accounts involved a certain amount of wrangling the company’s brilliant but immature co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Schmidt, who popped up in the news this week for his somewhat inexplicable fact-finding trip to North Korea, certainly looks the part, with his perfect-circle glasses that make you think how well his face would fit around the OOs in a Google doodle, and his penchant for ties and blazers in a sweatshirt world. There is a perfect picture of the triumvirate, taken outside a Google building, and often used by press to illustrate stories of that management structure. Brin and Page are seated inside a mint-green car, hanging out the windows with palms raised out in joyous, if staged, possibility. A sweater-and-button-down-clad Schmidt is standing in the background of the picture, arms folded and rested on the top of the vehicle, a proud, fatherly grin on his face, as if he has just handed his 16-year-old twins the keys for the very first time.

That “adult in the room” description became such a canonical one for Schmidt that when he decided to step down as CEO (or was pushed from it, or some combination thereof) in order to make way for Brin, he announced his new, more nebulous role as executive chairman with a tweet that read “Day-to-day adult supervision is no longer needed.” In other words, he was sending the twins off to college. What exactly does a tech CEO do in his empty-nester phase?

Just about the same stuff other Boomers do, only on a rather larger scale. He’s taken up art collection, both in the traditional way and the Silicon Valley way (his investment firm, Tomorrow Ventures, invested in, a newfangled art market). He’s acquired some silly hobbies, like investing in journalism and space robotics mining, along with new buddies James Cameron and Richard Branson. He’s explored second careers, like TV talk show host. (Didn’t get any takers.) He’s rumored to have dallied with at least a few pretty younger girlfriends. (Schmidt and his wife famously live on opposite coasts and appear blissfully unconcerned with each other’s personal doings.) He’s traveled, too, as one often does once the kids have been sprung: frequently to France (to deal with some pesky antitrust litigation) and now, rather inexplicably, to North Korea.

Google has said quite clearly that Schmidt’s visit is not in an official capacity, and the State Department went so far as to warn against it. Bill Richardson, Schmidt’s travel companion, offhandedly remarked that Schmidt was there to check out social media usage, such as it is, in the draconian state. (The country’s official Twitter account has a paltry 11,000-odd followers, probably because most North Koreans aren’t allowed to use the service.) One of the oft-cited reasons for Schmidt’s stepping down was that he argued with Brin and Page over how Google ought to handle its relationship with China, another famously cyber-repressive regime. He wanted to make friends—or at least make money. They wanted to take a stance for democracy and withdraw censored searches. It was, in a nutshell, the main tension of their adult-kid dynamic. Not all of Schmidt’s post-CEO wayfinding has been mere gallivanting: He has also worked hard to ally himself with the eminent and fusty Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, where he has established himself as one of the establishment voices on how we ought to be thinking about the relationship between the Internet and governance in places like China and Iran. He’s cowritten a book, of the “visionary” variety, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, all of which, as TNR’s Lydia DePillis described, adds up to a project of “making himself the beneficent avatar of the Internet.” This is not an accident or a hobby: it is a business decision.

Schmidt has also acquired a reputation as being the guy who is pushing Google away from its founding “Don’t Be Evil” ethos. He once tried to get his own publicly available political donations erased from his search results, for instance. (Schmidt donates to Democratic candidates, and has in recent years become close to President Obama.) “In our society, bigness is often associated with bad,” he told the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta back in 2008, dismissing concerns with how Google has gone about building its business. He’s been the guy going to bat most publicly against privacy-rights advocates, too. "There is what I call the creepy line. The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it. I would argue that implanting something in your brain is beyond the creepy line—at least for the moment, until the technology gets better," he joked once, to very little laughter in the Google-watching sphere.

Schmidt’s wide-ranging projects over the past two years suggest that perhaps he was sick of being the responsible one tamping down the dreamers, of translating moody programmers’ plans into something verbally-inclined journalists could quote, of soothing intra-office squabbles. Why else, after all, would someone sign on for any kind of project that involves the words “space” and “James Cameron”? Really, what kind of actual adult dreams of having a talk show?

After all, when you look around the tech world, it’s not the “adults in the room” who get the buzz—or, more to the point, the truly big bucks. The Mark Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers of the world have a famously complicated relationship with maturity, but so, in his own way, did Steve Jobs, with his refusal to compromise his vision. Even Bill Gates, who certainly looks the part of the adult in the room, could be cutting, impatient, cruel, and so competitive that he once spent days learning how to beat a video game just so he wouldn’t have been bested by an employee. It’s not just that a certain kind of precocious and socially ungifted mind happens to create the world’s most compelling tech products; it’s that the industry is also structurally one that rewards many of the adolescent qualities—like a certain kind of autocracy that often come along with that personality type. (Kim Jong Un, child tyrant, probably was not a type unfamiliar to Schmidt.)

At least for now there are rewards. The further a company (and industry) gets from its initial bursts of venture capital, of course, the more it is pushed to monetize the big ideas that the children have been pushing around their playpens. As the New Yorker’s Auletta reported in 2004, “Page and Brin wrote of their six-year-old company, ‘If it were a person, it would have started elementary school late last summer … and today it would have just about finished the first grade.’ Eric Schmidt thinks that Google has skipped over adolescence and advanced to ‘middle age,’ and with that has come the wisdom of experience.” Schmidt was always there to guide the company through growing pains. His two-year long rumspringa suggests that maybe he’s wistful that he, like Google, skipped the adolescent phase.