Two All-Too-Human Desires That Thwart Entrepreneurial Success

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“Fake it until you make it.”
“Move fast and break things.”
Sound familiar?

It’s no secret that Washington is giving Big Tech companies the stink eye these days. Probably the only thing Republicans and Democrats in Congress can agree on is that big companies need more regulation, more scrutiny.

Why should a small business owner care? Because there’s something else going on under the surface of the “get Big Tech” consensus in government, and it’s something every entrepreneur needs to be concerned about.

The quotes appearing at the beginning of this column symbolize the attitude many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs adopt when starting their businesses. A little bit of recklessness, if not ruthlessness, is considered necessary when trying to break through the startup crowd and stand out as a potential unicorn.

Within limits, these attitudes can be predictors of entrepreneurial success. Taken too far, of course, you end up somewhere not so nice.

By faking it too much, too long before you make it, or by moving too fast and breaking too many things, you risk becoming a Theranos.

As always, when government steps into someone’s life, there’s a tendency to overcorrect and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Most people in Washington, having a bureaucratic orientation, are a wee bit jealous of those who break the rules and not only get away with it but also get filthy rich doing so.

Too much regulation and oversight kills the entrepreneurial spirit and leads to a nation of bureaucrats.

But beyond government, there are some disturbing trends in society, especially (although not exclusively) among young people, that are threatening the entrepreneurial spirit in America. A growing population is being overcome (some would say “brainwashed”) by two common and extremely natural human desires that, if taken to extremes, make entrepreneurial success impossible.

No 1: The desire to be safe

Speak to any member of the millennial or Generation Z population, and sooner or later — usually within a minute or two — the word “safe” will be uttered. Somehow younger people have bought into the idea that the most important goal in life is to be safe — free from threats, free from hostility, free from contradiction of one’s worldview.

The desire to be safe is of course one of humanity’s oldest and most deeply held desires. Our primitive ancestors were focused every day on basic physical survival, to an extent our mollycoddled selves find difficult to comprehend.

But they learned sooner or later that hanging around the cave too much meant you starved sooner or later. At some point, you had to take the risk of being chased by a saber-toothed tiger or eating the wrong type of mushroom to survive and reproduce.

Taken to extremes, the desire to be safe is antithetical to the entrepreneurial spirit. The entrepreneurial life is anything but safe. You are sticking your neck out in a big way, working 100 hours a week and living on Red Bull and ramen noodles, with only the slimmest hope that your business concept will catch fire and grow.

Getting where you want to go is largely a function of damning the torpedoes and going full steam ahead. If you want to be safe, go to law school. Better yet, get a government job.

No. 2: The desire to be loved

You can blame this one on social media.

Many if not most young people are consumed by the desire to look good to their peers. OK, that’s not such a recent development, but social media has magnified it thousandfold.

When you are posting things online that can be seen by the entire world, you work hard to cultivate your online persona. When college students present their business plans in campus “Shark Tank” type competitions, they inevitably focus on how their product or service will benefit humanity and make everyone love them.

No one desires to be hated, of course, but many of the most successful entrepreneurial ventures were not viewed favorably at the onset. People hate change, and entrepreneurs who swim against the tide are a little bit crazy.

An entrepreneur is like the grain of sand in an oyster. He or she is an irritant. The oyster works very hard to expel the grain of sand by secreting fluids that try to dislodge it. If the oyster fails, those fluids coat the grain of sand and produce a beautiful pearl.

Successful entrepreneurs — at least the vast majority of them — do not give a good damn what people think about them. They have a goal, and they are fixated if not obsessed by that goal to the point of ignoring everything else in their lives. (Thomas Edison went weeks without taking a bath sometimes.)

Many endure opprobrium, divorce, estrangement from family, rejection, and (increasingly) cancellation. If they think at all about society at large, their attitude is, “When I have a billion dollars in the bank, I will be sure to do some things to improve the lot of humanity.” But first you have to get those billion dollars, and the things you have to do sometimes to get there will not generate admiration.

We all admire successful entrepreneurs, but only after they have become successful.

Disclaimer: This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.