It’s hard to go on social media these days and not get hit with all sorts of #EntrepreneurPorn.
None of this is technically wrong…
… but the picture is definitely at least little photoshopped with cherry-picking and survivor bias.
In other words:
The lie: Entrepreneurship is intrinsically glamorous, meaningful, high-status, intuitive, and a grand adventure.
“It’s all goodbye cubicle — hello freedom, vitality, creativity.” – Morra Aarons-Mele, The Dangerous Rise Of Entrepreneurship Porn
You too can go from being a lowly employee to becoming a Founder/CEO of Your Great Idea, Inc! Anybody can do it, as long as they’re passionate enough. You just need to stay hungry and foolish.
This had the an unpleasant effect of attracting all the wrong sorts of people to entrepreneurship, and the costs percolate through the rest of the ecosystem.
If you think about it, today’s “entrepreneur” label is a lot like yesterday’s “cowboy”:
This romanticized self-perception is also something that we’ve seen before: long after the Wild West had been closed off by the railroads, and the long cattle drives had ended, new-middle-class Americans living in emerging industrial towns continued to delude themselves that they were rugged frontier individualists in some vague philosophical sense. – Venkatesh Rao, Entrepreneurs Are The New Labor
The reality: Entrepreneurship is a rough ordeal, painful and perforated with failure
“Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” — Elon Musk
And it can be merciless.
“The customers aren’t going to measure us on how hard people tried or how hungry they were. They’re going to measure us on what they see.” – Steve Jobs
Becoming a full-contact entrepreneur can be a lot like deciding to pick up an Olympic sport.
This in turn leads to a lot of costly failure and heartbreak for people who went in with rosy expectations.
When did the story begin?
According to Paul Graham, this wasn’t the case half a century ago.
Even as late as the 1970s, when I grew up, the ambitious plan was to get lots of education at prestigious institutions, and then join some other prestigious institution and work one’s way up the hierarchy. […] People did start their own businesses of course, but educated people rarely did, because in those days there was practically zero concept of starting what we now call a startup: a business that starts small and grows big. That was much harder to do in the mid 20th century. Starting one’s own business meant starting a business that would start small and stay small. Which in those days of big companies often meant scurrying around trying to avoid being trampled by elephants. It was more prestigious to be one of the executive class riding the elephant. – Paul Graham, The Refragmentation
The central lie is that entrepreneurship is a path to freedom and glory, where you can spend your days on your laptop while sitting at the beach.
The book that comes to mind in recent times that perpetuated this was Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Work Week:
The title was meant to be a sort of radical thought experiment. The cover photo has a hammock between two palm trees – somehow the image of this relaxed person on a beach vacation.
(When did the beach vacation get so fetishized anyway?)
In reality, most entrepreneurs tend to be a little restless, even manic.
“The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing just sounds like the worst. It sounds horrible to me. I would go bonkers. I would have to be on serious drugs. I’d be super-duper bored. I like high intensity.” – Elon Musk
When you take a step back to make sense of the disconnect of it all, it’s really a little absurd.
Here are some of the subsets of The Big Lie:
1. “Anybody can be a successful entrepreneur!”
There are always a few great, inspiring stories of entrepreneurs coming from tremendously difficult backgrounds.
Unfortunately, these stories are the exception and not the norm.
The reality is that entrepreneurs predominantly come from a rather narrow socioeconomic background.
It makes sense: It’s very helpful to have a supportive family background, to inherit savings and wealth, to have connections to borrow capital from, and to have a network to hire from and so on.
This doesn’t mean that people from tougher socioeconomic backgrounds shouldn’t try to be entrepreneurs, of course.
But the disparity is something we should all be mindful of.
2. “Passion is all you need!”
Passion is a nice thing to have, but it’s simply is not enough to build a sustainable business.
This is very well explored in Cal Newport’s blog and book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
Entrepreneurship is about making something that people want enough to be willing to pay for it.
This requires a thorough understanding not just of the thing that you’re passionate about, but of the people who’d be willing to pay for it.
It’s such a ‘full-stack’ endeavor that you’re inevitably going to have to perform tasks that you’re simply not going to be passionate about.
3. “Entrepreneurship means lots of flexibility and freedom!”
You could theoretically design for that – but it’ll be very hard, especially when you’re just starting out.
This comic by EntrepreneurFail does capture it quite well:
You won’t have anybody watching the clock to see if you get into work on time, which is great. but you’ll also now start having work on your mind 24/7.
You might not have a boss, but you’re now accountable to all of your customers or clients, and the buck stops with you.
You might quit your job because you find it tedious to deal with colleagues – but if you’re serious about entrepreneurship, you’re inevitably going to have to hire other people to help you.
You get to work from home, but work always being on your mind means that you’re sometimes going to miss out on what your family says.
Conclusion: The story isn’t WRONG – it’s just not the full picture.
There are many scales at which a person can be an entrepreneur, with fewer and fewer people ever knowing what it’s like to be in the higher levels.
Not all of the misunderstandings about entrepreneurship are of the “it’s so easy” variety. Some people also exaggerate the risks and costs.
But for the most part, I do believe that the toxic thing about entrepreneurship today is how many people treat it with this bizarre mix of of escapism and mysticism.
Next week, I’ll dive into more detail into that now-famous Simon Sinek video that’s been going around. 🙂 Stay tuned!
Update: Here you go! The 4 Prevailing Complaints About Millennials (And What We Should Do About It)