Today, the entrepreneur is praised everywhere. He, with genius and character, develops and scales a product that changes not just society, but the world. In return, he becomes, at the very least, a millionaire.
This story has become irresistible in the last few decades. Guys like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are now cultural icons, serving as identity models in a way that the Rockefellers and Carnegies never were. Well-educated people around the world are trying to improve their societies, mostly through technological development. And companies with little relation to tech innovation, imitate the work culture and ethics shared by these tech companies.
We, at Normalem, were also motivated in some way by this entrepreneur myth. Some of us tried, indeed, to become game-changer entrepreneurs. Others, on the other hand, came curious by the humanity that unfolds within it and the world it discloses.
The entrepreneur’s journey is often presented as hyper-stressed. It is widely known that Steve Jobs fired people in the elevators, that Mark Zuckerberg dresses the same way every day to optimize time, that venture capitalists listen to a pitch for no more than two minutes, or that Elon Musk declares he works every minute he is awake. The commitment and ambition expressed in these acts are proclaimed, therefore, as principles of behavior for those who want to be as highly successful as them. Success is a warrior’s game.
Given that a company’s culture is based primarily on the way its founders behave, the organizations founded and established by the entrepreneur myth are warrior-like. Innovation, the core activity of the myth, has evolved from a nerdy perspective, propelled by curiosity and the pleasure of making, to an accelerated activity, motivated by competition and the demands of growth; simply put, a warrior perspective.
There might be something dangerous with that style of leading and governing organizations, especially when taken to the extreme. For example, it may undermine reflection, and, with it, diminish ethics, politics, and aesthetics. In other words, it seems to deny humanness.
To defend our concern, we need to give a step back and say a couple of things about what it is to be human, from our perspective, of course.
To be human is, among other things, to be alive. But, considering other animals, the way we are alive is quite different. Our alive is self-conscious and open to possibilities, being the case that these possibilities are meaningful and, therefore, judged. The implications of these features are enormous, as we will see.
Let us begin with meaningfulness. Think about Michael Jordan. Everybody knows who he is because of his deeds as a basketball player. Basketball exists because we established a set of rules, indicating that points are given, for example, when the ball enters the ring. There is nothing natural in this. It is not the case that a tree grows and came to be a basketball ring. A ring is a basketball ring because we, humans, at a certain point, assigned to it the function of being a basketball ring. It is the same case with a piece of paper assigned to be money, or with a wine assigned to be the blood of Christ. A ring can be more than a ring; wine can be more than wine; they can mean something else. And Michael Jordan has lived a life moved by that something else that a ring is. A cat or a dog can play with things, but things mean nothing to them.
The things that appear to us are not just meaningful; also, their meaning is attached to value. To miss the shot when playing basketball matters to us. To drink wine as the blood of Christ is important for many. To cross the imaginary boundaries of a country matters. We care about things because of the meaning we found attached to them.
And there is one special thing that we perceive, think about, judge, and find meaningful: ourselves. We are self-conscious and experience ourselves as being something more than a living body. We are able to think of ourselves as the greatest NBA player ever, or as part divine, or as someone that has changed the world. This means we are self-reflective creatures that, in our self-reflection, judge ourselves as meaningful. Without this, identity politics, ambitions related to power and status, consumer culture, just to name a few random things, simply would not exist.
There is another important element to this story: freedom. For a dog to be hungry in front of meat and not try to eat it is almost impossible. A human can refrain from his hunger to worship a god. A human can establish goals that will take years to attain and refrain from desires that deviate him from the path to such goals. A human can refrain from pure reaction and positive activity and think about what is going on with himself and the world he inhabits. There, in that moment, a human being thinks and talks about what is wrong or good, imagine new meanings to things, and brings to life new possibilities of the world and himself, over which he can decide.
The human being that refrains from activity and thinks, realizes he is a task, a project that no one will make but himself. A table or a dog never came to say it will be this or that kind of dog or table. Only we, humans, live a life in which we are task of ourselves. That is an essential part of our humanness.
But the world the entrepreneur myth discloses and the human that shows within it seem to be, sometimes, more like an animal than a human, even when it is full of technology and innovation. Its hypercompetitive pace demands a mood contrary to self-reflection, careful judgment, openness to new meanings and possibilities. The mood of entrepreneurship seems more apt to dangerous situations, where one needs to be alert, react fast, not resting at all. In dangerous situations, our attention focus narrows, but just to superficial aspects of things. When we are afraid in front of a tiger, we do not ask what a tiger is or try to understand its meaning. When we are stressed and alert, we do not ask what our product is, what does it mean.
And then, we do not pay enough attention for its long and lasting consequences to democracy, or its impact on nature and human wellbeing. We pass by ourselves, implying we pass by our emotions, our doubts, our people, our sense of meaningless existences, when that happens. We take the risk to reduce ourselves to one confused attribute, one we share with animals: power.