The Dangers of the New Entrepreneurial Mindset

In 1940, author George Orwell published a brief piece in The New English Weekly. It was a review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He admits that he understands Hitler’s appeal — not just as a charismatic speaker, but as the orator of something deep and true about our needs as humans:

…human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,’’ Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

What Used to Pass for ‘Success’

What we used to see as “the good life” — an income, a home, security, and a place in society — just doesn’t do it for us anymore. We also need struggle, danger, and the threat of falling in valiant battle. This need can certainly manifest in positive ways — and in smaller doses. The problem is when it becomes a mode of living, when to wake in the morning is to suit up for the battle, and sleep is not welcomed, but resigned to as something one must do — but would rather not.

Having a struggle can and does fill us with life-affirming purpose — but only to a point. It can go too far, and it has in every generation, but it manifests in different ways throughout history.

In previous eras, young men have been swept up by the rhetoric of warriors and generals to join the effort to conquer this or that people, to exchange blood for glory, to put all of the other parts of the good life on the line for the elusive promise of greatness. Entire populations of men, women, and children have been swept up by the orations of dictatorial leaders, promising them the battle of a lifetime — one in which they will triumph — so long as they place their unquestioning faith and sacrifices at the feet of their fearless leader.

I do not mean to parody this feeling that people get in those situations. When tapped, that need for transcendence and glory is powerful. We’ve all felt it, most of us only briefly. But it is among the most powerful feelings we feel.

However, its power is also what makes it dangerous, because it can blind us to the terrible costs that we can incur by chasing it. We can forget that our lives are built at home, not on the battlefield — with friends and family. We can forget that while the struggle for greatness can give us a sense of purpose, that purpose is limited, and easily falls if the wind doesn’t blow a certain way. We can forget that a warm conversation, a simple meal with loved ones, or a walk outside on a particularly beautiful day provides us purpose as well.

Now We Need MORE!

The problem is this: our human need for struggle and glory is easy for others to tap into. Once they do, it becomes easy for them to coax us into one of many different quixotic journeys. I see this happening with motivational speakers, authors, and life-coaches who talk about hustle, the grind, and putting in long hours to push a business into hyper-growth.

I see it when they build a narrative of human existence that emphasizes the greatness of triumph and sacrifice, while pushing practical wisdom, restraint, and everyday experience to the side. I see it when they encourage us to see anything short of wild success as demoralizing failure. I see it happening as entrepreneurship becomes the new warrior quest for valor.

The dangers of this new mindset are only materially different, but the mindset is the same. The call to sacrifice, the promise of a transcendental greatness, the invocation of spiritual experience — it feels the same, and pushes us just as hard.

The dangers are still severe. Going on this journey, we tend put our other needs on the line, risking real losses in our personal lives. We are moved to quit jobs, withdraw from relationships, and throw away any semblance of balance. Time spent relaxing or thinking (unless you already have the coveted “passive income”) is usually registered as a loss in the ledger of the entrepreneurial mindset. That’s a harmful accounting practice to be sure.

We cannot afford to forget that life is lived in the leisurely moments, just as much — if not more so — than it is in the hustle, the grind. What is more tragic is that as more people build, sell, and close down businesses — looking back at the businesses you’ve built will actually register as less of an accomplishment than it used to be. Yeah, you built a company or two — so did your neighbor, and her neighbor. You all read the same free e-book.

The Side-Hustle of Living

We all do very similar things every day. We all wake up, we all go to sleep. In between, we make a lot of choices — some consciously, but many unconsciously. It is easy to become so wrapped up in the narrative of hustling, creating, and disrupting, that we forget how much joy we can (and do) get from the small things in our lives.

There is glory and a higher purpose in being an entrepreneur, in becoming a great brand, a thought leader, or whatever your hustle is. But don’t let your hustle, your struggle turn into what Orwell warned us about — an altar at which you’ll sacrifice all of the things that make for a really joyful life.

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