Everyone’s Trying To Be An Entrepreneur

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 18, 2016

The fierce, clear-eyed, young startup entrepreneur who has set out on his own course to shape a new reality and create innovative technology and bend it to his will. This is the myth of the new John Wayne shaping the West (side of Silicon Valley).

Not exactly.

I have been puzzling of late over the “everybody is or wants to be an entrepreneur” syndrome. Fortune magazine had a headline last year, “At Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, MBA start-up fever takes hold.” At Kenan Flagler at the University of North Carolina, “40% of the class of 2015 are studying entrepreneurship.”

And when it comes to fever, our own little river city does not have to take a back seat to anyone. Recently, I attended a CONNECT biotech event and it was jammed. The most recent Start-Up Week event had more than 750 people. There is a new collaboration between UCSD and the Downtown Partnership focused on startups. Everyone is working one room or another.

I think back to the movie “The Graduate,” wherein the magic word for the future was “plastics.” Today it is “startup.” If everyone is starting, are there any people finishing? It feels like there is a sense of frantic in the air. Remember the Gold Rush – the only guys who got rich made the shovels and the jeans – they did not dig for the gold.

To this end, I offer some thoughts from the book “Invisible Influence” by Jonah Berger, a Wharton professor of marketing. He writes about “how others shape our behavior – often without us knowing it.” He tells the story about his lawyer dad buying a BMW and then lamenting that every other lawyer in Washington, D.C., had a BMW. The son says, “Well, Dad, you bought a BMW also.” The dad responds “Oh, but mine’s a blue one. Everyone else drives a gray one.”

Social influences are much stronger than you think. This is true of clothing, cars, homes, careers, etc. And it is the whole idea behind “things going viral.” Viral is the equivalent of a monster wave trying to shove you into the shore of tweeting and buying and thinking and, according to Berger, you are mostly powerless to resist.

An example of positive power of the social influence is when you ride your bike in a group versus alone. In the group (the peloton) you go faster. This is “social facilitation” – it matters who your friends are and what they do. (Tons of research on this about gangs and violence).

Back to the BMW. It is a good car, so why shouldn’t I buy a good car – just because Bob Jones has a BMW doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have one. But trust me on this, when you buy the BMW, you will think of yourself as being different than just keeping up with Mr. Jones. This is called being “optimally distinct.” It is also a self-delusional con. You are not that different, you just think so.

Berger also looks at motivation. How does the mere presence of someone else affect your own performance? (He says it is more difficult to parallel park when it is a busy street and cars are backed up waiting; on a quiet street, you kiss the curb and get it right the first time.)

So is the entrepreneurial fever mostly fed by the Internet and the world around us, and if so, is it perhaps time to take an antibiotic? Personally, I am conflicted. I love the game, and I am still playing it. But I have no illusions about being unique.

Maybe my concern is that there are too many new members who have joined the club. That is the “I liked the band before everyone else knew about this cool band” – and now I have to go find another band.

Berger tells a line from “South Park,” “Oh, you can’t be a nonconformist if you don’t drink coffee.” In the end I support and applaud the entrepreneurial spirit – but be aware that your choices are heavily influenced by unseen forces – and resisting is pointless. The storm is going to carry you out to sea. Just be sure you take a PFD with you – personal flotation device.

The best line from the musical “The Fantasticks” is from Luisa – “Please, God, please, don’t let me be normal.”

Rule No. 775

Nonconformists conform just as much as everybody else.

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