America is historically a frontier society. “Go west, young man,” Horace Greeley famously intoned.
What do you do if your country has the imagination of a frontier nation but has no physical frontier to conquer? There is only one obvious outlet that comes quickly to my mind: Entrepreneurship. That is today’s new frontier. It is a wondrously good fit for the courageous risk-taker who no longer has an unexplored American West or a mysterious deepest, darkest Africa or the longing to reach the moon, to challenge her.
There are several reasons the mythos of the entrepreneur has so captured the popular imagination. It is certainly the allure of the cultural frontier ethos (self-made man hews out a place for himself in the raw wilderness.) But I believe it is much more than that at the deeper level of our consciousness. It is rather a visceral longing to create meaning itself.
We live in an anomic world that has little of the cohesive, society-knitting homogeneity of the past. Ours is a restless, unmoored society that has no real outlet for the Randian hero, the existential voyager. It is a world comfortable with irony, but bereft of spiritual essence—a world where the best and brightest increasingly compete for positions as bureaucrats and oligarchs.
In such a world, entrepreneurship engages the soul of those who long to find a human center and, I would argue, even a theological center, to anchor their raison d’etre. For example, there is almost an apotheosis that has occurred around Steve Jobs and other entrepreneurial heros—a sort of low-level semi-deification of the innovative business striver.
We’re in a brave new world that longs for Truth, even if we are inarticulate and unclear in that longing. Entrepreneurship is the real-life modern gamification of the hero’s search for the Holy Grail. A new business is a self-created church for some. It is a grotto of escape from the meaninglessness of the quotidien, a defiance of the amorphous new normal. Society has come to a place very similar to where William Butler Yeats was when he spoke into the political and economic vacuum between World Wars I and II:
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.” (The Second Coming-1919)
Entrepreneurs hope that they can at least create a personal fulcrum where the center can hold. They hope to create their own sea of tranquility, clarity and personal satisfaction–inured to societal dysfunction.
Yet there are evil portents out there concerning this dream (the entrepreneurial idyl.) Note the recent survey by the Traveler’s Institute that reveals entrepreneurs are reluctant to start new businesses because they can’t rightly judge the costs of massive new regulation, tax increases, The Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and unfriendly governmental rhetoric. (You didn’t build that!) Carl Schramm, formerly of the Kaufman Foundation, reports a troubling economic trend: a decline in the formation of new businesses. Schramm notes that approximately 700,000 firms came into existence each year in the 2000s, but only 500,000 so far this decade. (December 16, 2012, 4 Percent)
The importance of entrepreneurs to the health of the economy is not disputed. The educational community’s response to this is basically, “No problem. We will simply train up lots of new entrepreneurs by teaching a specialized skill competency around our traditional business school curriculum.” But, as Schramm says, “…such entrepreneurship programs may be something like sleeve buttons on a man’s suit—they are there but serve no real purpose.”
Entrepreneurship is a most elusive concept. I personally believe entrepreneurs simply are either hard-wired for passion, individualism, and an unshakable thirst for freedom, or evolve into those things as part of a fully lived life. I always find it remarkable that there is a proliferating business in teaching up hundreds of thousands of insta-presto parvenu entrepreneurs. It’s a bunch of snake oil hooey to my mind. (There are over 6,000 professors of entrepreneurship today who are putting out putative entrepreneurs, while every year new company formation steadily declines.) It is a case of academia’s taking advantage of the deep longing for autonomy and personal meaning among students, who don’t realize that entrepreneurship is not an academic skill-set, but a spiritual frontier for the intrepid.
So beginning a new capitalist enterprise is as close as we are offered to pioneering on the old frontier. As an old Eagles song once noted, “There is no more new frontier, we have got to make it.”