What the Immigrant Experience Teaches us About Strategic Thinking
Imagine stepping out of a train, disheveled and weary. Your right hand is holding a dusty canvas bag, full to bursting. In it is everything you own. Your left hand clutches a document, the most precious you’ve ever grasped: A thin sheet of paper, officially stamped, that says you belong here. A new beginning, a new home.
You step out into the fray. The cacophony is overwhelming. You haven’t slept. Locals rush by, mindlessly retracing paths they’ve traveled thousands of times before. Meanwhile, your decisions are slow and labored. Does that sign say what you think it does? Hawkers peddle intimidating dishes, filling the station with ripe scents. You are a foreigner, yet you are not. This strange place is now home.
If you are an immigrant, it won’t be hard to imagine this scene. But we all have immigrant roots, distant or proximate. Immigration is an essential part of being human. We are adaptable, and when circumstances become unbearable, we take advantage of that adaptability. So too are our ideas. When existing paradigms are failing, our creative minds can envision new ones.
Modern life has brought the possibility — and necessity — for immigration to unprecedented heights. People leave for opportunity, but also for safety. Some choose to make their home in a particular new place, but many have little choice at all: They go where they will be accepted. And when they do, they often exhibit an uncommon mindset, one of discovery, openness, and risk-taking.
Whatever your work, you can learn from this distinctive ethos. In business and life, adopting a first-generation attitude can lead to powerful innovation. But innovation is not always enough. For ideas to have longevity they need to mature, and to blend with the surrounding context. This kind of thinking parallels the experience of second-generation immigrants, who synthesize their heritage with the broader culture.
As strategic thinkers, how can we adopt a first-generation mindset to solve difficult problems? When is it right to shift into a more stable and less innovative second-generation mode? To answer these questions, we must explore the trends evident in immigrant life.
Immigrants work. For many, there is no other choice: failure is not an option. The Washington Post recently reported on working-hours data that shows that immigrant Americans are 15.7% more likely to work non-traditional hours, and are more than 25% more likely to work over weekends. They interviewed a restaurant owner named Mannan, who worked non-stop after immigrating to the US from Pakistan.
“They completely relied on me. All day and night, whatever they needed, I was there,” Mannan said. “I was desperate to make enough money. I came from extreme poverty. I wanted to change my situation, and there was no other way to change it but by working.”
Immigrants tend to be more willing to accept risk. A 2009 study from the National Institutes of Health showed that US immigrants are significantly more likely to be killed or hurt on the job, theoretically because they work in more dangerous and demanding jobs than their US-born counterparts. Immigrants are also demonstrably more likely to become entrepreneurs. The National Bureau of Academic Research has found that while immigrants account for 15% of the U.S. workforce, they make up around 25% of entrepreneurs. The study authors speculate that a lack of conventional options (due to poor English skills, lower recognition of academic credentials, or xenophobia) may be behind this trend. Immigrants must risk because they cannot count on conventional institutional structures the way native-born citizens can.
Immigrants also have creative new ideas, and the brash confidence to carry them out. Consider Rocky Aoki, founder of Benihana. Rocky was an Olympic-level wrestler and moved to the US to accept a college scholarship in the sport. He worked odd jobs to make ends meet while pursuing a business degree. After experiencing slow sales as an ice cream truck driver, he decided to try attracting customers with the foreign sounds of Japanese music. “What I discovered is that Americans enjoy eating in exotic surroundings but are deeply mistrustful of exotic foods,” he said. That insight, along with $10,000 saved from his ice cream sales, became Benihana, a restaurant with a Japanese veneer serving “japanesque” dishes filled with familiar western ingredients. The fusion was a hit. But Rocky’s risk-taking streak did not end in business. He regularly performed dangerous publicity stunts around the world, and nearly died in a powerboat accident in 1979.
Of course, there is another factor at play in both of these trends: a selection bias. Immigrants are the individuals who decided to leave. Whatever the circumstances, the kind of person who would choose to leave home in pursuit of greater opportunity is not one who eschews risk. Notably, immigrants are widely found to be physically and psychologically healthier than comparable individuals who choose to stay at home.
Those children, however, are handed an altogether different reality. In the US, the so-called “Second Generation” earn incomes 30% higher than their immigrant parents. They attain primary and secondary degrees at rates dramatically higher than the First Generation does. Their children, the Third Generation, earn those degrees at rates even higher than the average US citizen does.
Second Generation immigrants have unique advantages. They often have a mastery of the new nation’s language and culture that their parents cannot match. They are the beneficiaries of the backbreaking labor and entrepreneurial risks their parents took. The benefits are both psychological and tangible: The small businesses started by the first generation often provide work experience and a valuable early introduction to entrepreneurship for the second.
In The Godfather Trilogy, this classic dichotomy is played out in diabolical fashion by Vito and Michael Corleone. Vito arrives in America through Ellis Island. With cunning and ruthlessness, he creates a criminal empire. His son, Michael, rejects the “family business” and seeks a quieter, more Americanized life. Michael even joins the military. Even as he inevitably descends into his destiny as the new Don, his driving desire is to legitimize the family’s business interests through ties with established American enterprise. Vito is gruff and ruthless, while Michael, though no less evil, is sophisticated and socially graceful.
The Second Generation are poised on the borderlines of culture. Not only do they participate seamlessly within the broader society, but they are also comfortable within an immigrant diaspora. They are often bilingual, expanding their opportunities for social and professional connection. Their parents’ drive and hunger motivate them, but as accent-less, culturally suave models of native behavior and social norms, they can often do more with that hunger than their parents could. While he lacks the genius spark of his father, Michael’s more privileged upbringing and bicultural fluency allow him to take their “enterprise” in new directions.
Ideas also have generations. Like a first-generation immigrant, an insightful or novel idea can upend established paradigms and bring a fresh perspective to a stagnant field. But it is often second-generation ideas — those which improve on and refine the initial spark of genius — which have the most traction. First-generation ideas can be disruptive and bold, but also difficult to blend with the larger landscape of ideas. The second-generation version of an idea will often lack the revolutionary edge of its predecessor, but its rounded corners will allow it to be accepted into the zeitgeist.
Consider the light bulb. Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison did not originate the concept: Other inventors had worked on bulb designs for decades before Edison began. But the original first-generation bulbs, while dramatically innovative, were not practical enough for actual use. They burned too quickly, used too much electricity, or simply cost too much to produce. The genius of Edison was not just in perfecting a bulb design which solved those problems, but also in promoting the creation of a public electric grid: the infrastructure required so that his idea could reach widespread adoption. His second-generation approach married the raw first-generation insight of others with the practical requirements of the era.
In business, first-generation ideas are often the most powerful, but also the most difficult to tame. They face their own form of xenophobia and cultural incompatibility, as the established power structure may not take kindly to disruption, and the public may not be ready for them. The General Motors EV1, a viable electric car designed in the 1990s, was a disruptive first-generation technology which met an untimely end via ignorance, conspiracy, or both. The website Friendster, perhaps the first significant social network, burned brightly but too fast. The Apple Newton featured technology more than a decade ahead of its time.
Second-generation ideas, those which build off of prior innovation, are more stable, refined, and viable. Tesla has created an anchor brand in the electric car space, leaving traditional carmakers struggling to catch up. Facebook built off the ideas of earlier social networks and evolved into the most important communication platform on earth. Palm, and later, Apple itself, learned from the lessons of the Newton in creating practical and profitable products.
But the First Generation of ideas have unique advantages. A fresh business idea can ignite and quickly grow popular, even creating an entirely new market. The first entrant to a new market can monopolize resources required to serve the niche or can build a visible brand which consumers then trust uniquely. This edge is known as “first mover advantage.” First mover advantage is more than an abstract concept — being first can mean winning patents on key technologies required to work effectively within the niche.
But first mover advantage is often not enough to create a sustainable enterprise. The first-generation ideas that persist are the ones which successfully evolved into viable, stable second-generation firms. Netflix upended the media market twice: First through the absurd idea that you could send people DVDs and trust them to send them back, and second by evolving into a streaming media distribution empire. Now they are evolving further, transforming into a disruptive content creator rivaling traditional Hollywood studios. Without the powerful initial spark of their DVD business and the unconventional brand it created, their streaming and content empire could never have existed. But if they had never chosen to pivot from their initial model, they would have been another Friendster — a great idea that never became a great company.
The Second Generation benefits from the canaries that have passed through their particular coal mine. The musician Steve Aoki is a second-generation American: the son of Rocky, the entrepreneurial firebrand we met earlier. Having witnessed Rocky’s bright but tumultuous path, Steve grew into a no less successful, but very different, innovator. Steve grew up in comfortable circumstances which gave him the freedom to explore his artistry and was both inspired and tempered by being close to Rocky’s incandescent lifestyle. He reached notoriety at a young age as the founder of DIM MAK, a successful record label, then transitioned into a beyond-successful music career. But while his father was driven by vice, Steve eats a clean diet and does not drink alcohol. While his father was brazen and hungry for wealth, Steve meditates and is renown for his charity work. It is hard to say whether Steve’s success would have been possible without Rocky’s spark of innovation visible in his life. But there is no doubt that without Steve’s second-generation cultural nouse, artistic taste, and intelligent lifestyle choices, he would be nowhere near as successful as he has been.
If you invent new solutions to complex problems and come up with ideas that surprise those around you, you may be a first-generation thinker. In your life, consider the way that second-generation qualities like research, planning, and cultural consciousness can bring longevity to your creativity. If you are a second-generation thinker, one who consistently improves the ideas of others to create sustainable long-term models of growth, consider how you can open your mind to first-generation ideas you otherwise might dismiss as impractical.
In 2003, the famous Concorde airliner was retired. The Concorde was a first-generation innovation, winning design awards and setting speed records, but ultimately failed to achieve commercial viability, and tragically, safety standards. Recently, NASA began testing a new jet design, the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator, which promises supersonic flight once again. Powerful ideas never die — They’re just waiting for the next generation.
Edited by Rebecca Testrake
Studio Manager & Magical Instigator at Cantilever