On Being an Entrepreneur: A Maker’s Manifesto

By March 29, 2011

As the (very) unofficial higher-education reporter for Flyover Geeks, I’ve said a lot about college, what’s wrong with it, some of its good bits, and how it needs to change. The first piece I published here was about the dangers of corporatism, and the soul-sucking nature of “good jobs” in large companies. As a general rule, a minuscule proportion of complainers ever do something about what bothers them; whether their action is to a stand and fight to change a broken system, or leave such systems entirely, most just don’t. And that, more than anything else, depresses me.

FG Reader, whoever you are, this is not another sardonic article from Jason Rowley. Consider it a mini manifesto. I want you to reclaim yourself.

Doesn’t it seem a little irrational, this subsumption of personal happiness beneath… what, exactly? I challenge you, especially if you work a corporate job (which I’m not denigrating, I just think you could do better), to answer this question: why would you ever, ever do something for any extended period of time if, in the morning, you couldn’t upon waking leap from your bed and say, as Gary Vaynerchuk might suggest and say of each new day that you are going to CRUSH IT!!!! with four exclamation points?

Assuming that you had some freedom to choose your career path, chances are, you do what you do now because it makes you happy. (Though, personally, there are some things, like corporate litigation or accounting, that I can’t find the appeal in. But to each his own.) You might be lucky enough to, on a daily basis, do what you love. But I have another question aimed at readers who work for or “under” somebody: even if you are doing what you love, if you are doing it for somebody else, how satisfied can you really be? And this is an uncomfortable question; I know, because I’ve asked it of my friends, of my professors, and of myself. To illustrate what I mean by this, I’m going to give two examples.

How much pride can a college student take in doing the whole student thing? How fulfilling is studying and learning a subject about which one it passionate when all of the measures of success, each one of the goals, the classes, the assignments are predetermined, are, well, assigned? How creative or innovative can a student be when their work is so bounded? How gratifying can a “good paper” be when it might have taken hours, days even, to write and edit, but just ten or twenty minutes to read and be graded? When it was written for an audience of one?

If you are a coder, or a graphic designer, or a writer, a “maker” of any kind, why do you feel good about your work on a job assigned to you? Is it because you put your whole heart and soul into the creation of your final product, whether it’s a killer app, a gorgeous layout, or a particularly poignant piece of written content? Or is it because whatever you produced pleased the person who told you to produce it? Be honest.

We makers have all had our hearts broken by those who said our best work, work we found deeply enjoyable, was “not what [they’re] looking for”. Conversely, we’ve all walked away from some projects feeling a little ashamed, dirty and somehow diminished. We’ve all felt like we’ve done what was asked of us, but did not benefit from the experience. The truth is, when somebody—anybody—assigns you a task, even if it’s something you love, you cannot give yourself entirely to it. The assigner occupies a little bit of your consciousness; he or she owns a little piece of you.

“But, woah there, hold up,” you’re probably thinking to yourself, “this sounds like you’re about to deliver a huge serving of Marxist flimflam about ‘the worker’ ‘self-actualizing her/himself’ and ‘reifying’ some inner, kernel-level human vitality by throwing off the shackles of capitalism and communing again with his/her ‘species-beings’. Don’t be smart with me, Jason. I see what you’re up to.”

I’m not being smart with you. I’m not advocating communism or Marxist socialism. I don’t drink that kool aid. I know you saw the next paragraph coming a long time ago, or at least since you read the title and clicked on it. Here’s where I tell you about being an entrepreneur. But I’m not going to tell you to “be your own boss.” The whole idea of “bosses” is kind of icky.

If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, or take an entrepreneurial approach to your life, it’s not because you’re an innovator, or because you’re exploring some groundbreaking new technology, or even because you’ve been frustrated because you have this amazing idea and your boss won’t hear it. Entrepreneurs who bill themselves as “socially conscious” don’t go to humid, filthy, often depressing corners of the globe because they like helping people. They could help people in other ways, a good idea would be pursued by a different boss somewhere else, and there are a bunch of cushy research gigs where you could break ground to your heart’s content, and on someone else’s dime.

Entrepreneurs, because we are makers, build businesses—practice our art—because it’s what we love. But it’s more than this, and it’s even more than the creative freedom building something from the ground up affords. There is a reason why we call them “entrepreneurs”: it’s a borrowed French term describing one who undertakes risks. Yes, building stuff is self-actualizing, but its the presence of risk and uncertainty and, it must be said, fear and real-possibility of failure that makes any creative business undertaking such an extraordinarily vital experience.

If you get past a certain pay-grade in a company, or make it into college, it doesn’t matter how seriously you drop the ball on a project. Provided that you haven’t made a habit of it, you won’t be fired; and even if you fail a class, well, you’ve only failed a class. New businesses are very delicate. Usually, it’s a one strike and you’re out situation.

Entrepreneurship is romantic. William Hazlitt, a 19th century writer, painter, and poet defined much of the rhetoric behind the Romantic movement. In his essay, On the Fear of Death, said that the heros and heroines from “the old histories” and romances “raised their fondness for some favourite pursuit to its height, to a pitch of madness, and think no price too dear to pay for its full gratification. Everything else is dross. They go to death as to a bridal bed, and sacrifice themselves or others without remorse at the shrine of love, of honour, of religion, or any other prevailing feeling” …like that constant modern refrains: “Job Security”. Hazlitt contrasted those heros with the then-modern 19th century man. Whereas in his romanticized past “One strong idea takes possession of the mind and overrules every other; and even life itself, joyless without that, becomes an object of indifference or loathing. There is at least more of imagination in such a state of things, more vigour of feeling and promptitude to act, than in our lingering, languid, protracted attachment to life for its own poor sake.” Be heroic, and get ahold of yourself. I implore you: gain the self-possession to relinquish your grip on your current job. It’d be an epic experience.

(Note: Hazlitt also said, in another essay, On Intellectual Superiority, that “A college education, or intense study of abstract truth, will not enable a man to drive a bargain, to overreach another, or even to guard himself from being overreached.” Amen.)

The entrepreneur is not a professional, instead remains forever the skilled amateur—another borrowed French word. Entrepreneurs are not innovators, are not technologists or cold and calculating profit-maximizers. Given that so many new ventures fail to take off, the profit-maximizing career choice is to reduce risk by going into corporate. But entrepreneurs are kind of like children; either they’ve remained kids, or they found their inner one. They’re a little irrational. They are artists, they are hackers—in all of that term’s meanings. But most importantly, as amateurs, they are ready to move on to the next project when they need to, but are fiercely loyal to their current one. In short, entrepreneurs are the best of lovers.