The Limits Of The Entrepreneurial Mindset

Everyone Is a Solopreneur…

I recently finished Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, a book that recounts his journey to becoming an entrepreneur as well as the birth and success of Patagonia. There is much to praise in the book, not the least of which is Chouinard’s, and Patagonia’s, central commitment to trying to mitigate the worst effects of the ecological crisis. Yet what I would like to dwell upon here is the ‘entrepreneur’s mindset,’ most especially the limits thereof.

An anecdote: I was a panelist at a conference in Hungary in 2018 when another panelist, then a CEO at a major telecom company, said that the trend is toward every young person having to become his or her own “personal brand.” That is, each person would need to be more of a solopreneur-meets-self-promoter. It seems that becoming more enterprising is now, by a number of people’s lights, at once necessary because on the verge of ubiquity and virtuous.

I do think there are important entrepreneurial virtues and capacities of the kind that Chouinard embodies (courage: the ability to take reasonable risks; resourcefulness: the ability to get a lot out of very little; imagination: the willingness to picture what does not yet exist; and so on), yet this mindset soon enough runs up against its own unexamined limits. These are the very limits that I’ve observed during philosophical conversations over the years with many entrepreneurs.

Limit #1: It’s Not Always Win-Win-Win

The entrepreneur’s and the technologist’s presumption is that it’s always win-win-win: investors win, users win, and the entrepreneur’s team wins. But this is not even close to an accurate picture of how social and political life actually is.

Instead, social life is shot through with conflict. The simple yet undeniable truth is that so long as most humans are not enlightened beings (in the Eastern sense) their interests will continue to clash. Not always, to be sure, but frequently. Too often entrepreneurs spirit away this undeniable truth, which is a delusional (because overly optimistic) move. While the opposite–namely, that everything is zero sum–also isn’t true, there needs to be much greater understanding of the fact that conflict is something that ought to be accepted and, once accepted, taken as a starting point for deeper thought. This in lieu of whisking it away beneath the carpet on the assumption that everything is a problem that can be solved.

Limit #2: The Existence of Suffering

The first social truth is that conflicts exist. The second is that suffering exists.

A common move, evident as much in an entrepreneur’s startup pursuits as in his or her personal life, is to presume that suffering doesn’t really exist. You see this when entrepreneurs deceive themselves into believing that genuine suffering cannot exist. Next, should they acknowledge that there is some suffering–in others, in themselves–then they seek to diminish the degree of this suffering. “Oh, at least we’re not in Syria.” Next, after having diminished the extent of their suffering, they go immediately for solutions usually in the form of practical actions that they or others can take. Everything, they believe, must be actionable.

This is a recipe for what I call “kickback”: so long as people try to end suffering by adopting the approach above, they’ll continue to suffer more, albeit in indirect ways. See how resentment, frustration, anger, bitterness, and other negative emotions slowly emerge as a consequence of thinking that you can just spirit away suffering by means of problem solving and other, related maneuvers.

Conclusion: The Lack of Depth

The Achille’s Heel of the entrepreneur, then, is what I’ll call “lack of depth.” For becoming a deeper person is the result of taking up conflicts and of taking on suffering. Period. In this way does the soul, as it were, grow deeper, wider, and vaster as one’s view of human beings and the world becomes more sophisticated, nuanced, subtle, and capacious. So too does one become not just a more compassionate human being but also a wiser one.