Has the Culture of Entrepreneurship Gone Too Far?

The culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking has always been a central theme of the American history and character, but in the last few decades it morphed into a rather bizarre and unnatural form.

America today reminds me of a poker table where one player has sucked in all the other players’ chips and insists on keeping the game going, dismayed that the customers don’t have any money. “Come on, people, what’s the matter with you? Let’s play!” He laments. But he gets no action. It is at this moment that he has to decide whether it is all about the money or all about the game for him: what’s the point of having all those chips if you can’t use them? The chips only have value if you can use them to get even more chips. But what’s the point of being great at taking other people’s money when there are no customers around? What’s the point of having billions in cash if you have nowhere to invest it? You know you’re good at your game, but the more money you have the less opportunities you have to demonstrate it. It’s much easier to make 20% return on $10 million than on $10 billion. And the thought of shopping for yet another Lamborghini is depressing, because you already have several in your garage.

Game, action – is what you seek at that point. Perfecting your skills and promoting your gospel is the reason you wake up in the morning. That’s the main reason, perhaps, that many billionaires go into politics. With this mindset you invite, or rather, insist on others participating in your game. You view any human interaction as a business transaction, an opportunity for one-upmanship. To keep playing that game you have convince all the suckers out there that they too, if they work hard, can learn to play it. It is only when millions of others are striving to become like you, to play at your table, by your rules, you can have a lasting legacy. If they don’t then you’re just a lonely guy with mountains of chips at an empty table. And after you used all the leverage out there to improve your returns and received all the political favors, it all still comes down to having players at your table. At some point, when the flow of new customers slows over the normal course of business, you begin to devise plans to extract fees from the existing ones to keep with the original pace of growth. That’s how we got the new business models with various “financial innovations” schemes: private equity funds or activist investors extracting value from already existing caches, like pension funds or profitable companies; raiding others for value rather than building it.

With such a mindset one becomes blind to the idea that, perhaps, making a few hires, parting with a few chips, would jump start the game. But lack of introspection is the name of the game. The ideology of competition has penetrated our political quarters and our national discourse so deep that we glorify the gamblers and pity or tolerate the salaried workers. Such over-the-top encouragement of risk-taking produced many bad players. Extracting value from companies through M&A, rent seeking, and trading synthetic indices is not entrepreneurship in its distilled form, because there’s no risk involved or no product being made. These bad players have entered the game over the last few decades and in order to win they began to manipulate the odds for all other players. They situated themselves permanently on the button (the best position in poker) by making deals with dealers and the floor managers. But of course, they don’t attribute their success to such a privileged position – they attribute it to their skills. They look at 9-to-5 cubicle workers as cost centers, because those schmucks don’t engage in a game. And yet they would like for them to join the table. We rarely hear stories of a businessman turning into an office worker, because that is viewed as a failure. College students are encouraged to scrape around or borrow money and start their own businesses. We expect, nay, demand, that everyone becomes a small entrepreneur. Good luck with that, kid. Except you won’t be doing M&A, or charging others 2/20, or collecting insurance premiums from dumb customers with money, the businesses with essentially zero risk – the kind of businesses only “serious people in suits” and incidentally the biggest advocates of risk-taking are engaged in. You’ll be spending that last $50K to open a cup cake shop or a restaurant that has an 80% chance of closing in a few years. Giving such an advice to someone right out of college is bad faith. Strangely, the loudest advocates of risk-taking are the ones who deal with no risk at all. But then what’s wrong if one simply wants a quiet life, a stable paycheck, some financial security? He’s seen the statistics – the majority of small businesses fail, so perhaps he decided that such gamble would be imprudent given their circumstances. And why should such a decision be derided by the gambling worshipers on top of the hierarchy? Those workers simply assessed the situation and decided, correctly, that it would be a bad investment. If anything they should be commended for it, not ridiculed and called names, like “moochers” or “takers”. Since when simply working for a paycheck became a point of derision?

Poker players in the casino have a choice not to play, they can stand up and leave the table if they don’t like the game. Average citizens do not have that luxury. If the business community still insists on fleecing those unfortunates who scrape by paycheck to paycheck the least they can do is stop calling them names.

The Coolness of being Uncool.

How many of our actions are driven by fear of appearing uncool? What immeasurable damage has been wrought on the unsuspecting populace by the insecurities of the powerful few? Our collective quest for coolness, for the perfect at the expense of the good, for victory drives many into unmanageable situations. It’s hard to quantify, but we should at least attempt to examine the dynamic behind it.

What is cool according to current popular culture? It is the ability to win battles and arguments, to demonstrate your professional prowess with ease, to make money, to accumulate followers and admirers, to be full of potential. In our competition obsessed society the greatest sin one can commit is to be considered a loser.  And what is lame, what is loserville? It is to be average, to be comfortable with what one has, to be static, to not seek the levers of power.

It is a sad paradox that the most ambitious and driven among us reach the positions of power in politics, finance, academia – industries that require the best and the brightest – and then something happens to them once they are there: they turn into insecure narcissists. Those that spent a lot of energy getting to the top, once there, spend a lot of energy on maintaining the image of success. It’s a draining, tiresome task. Daily focus is shifted from concentrating on task at hand to watching others watch you. One begins to develop delusions of threat around every corner and assumes a defensive posture as a default attitude. Every human encounter is seen as a potential minefield, every incoming query is interpreted not as a bid for information but as a test of competency, a personal attack, a scheme to undermine. “Why are you adding on your position?” – an uninitiated intern might innocuously and not without a reason ask  a trader whose position is losing money. “He’s questioning my expertise!” – an insecure trader will think to himself. “It’s a dynamic hedge, kid, go get me some coffee” – the trader will say aloud with the hope of putting the matter to rest by way of using industry jargon. With such entrenched mindset any retreat in any argument or discussion is out of the question, because that would require an acknowledgement of a flaw in one’s skillset or premise, and thus be damaging to the image of success. Search for rationalizations, excuses, assigning blame consume even more time and resources that could be spent productively.

When one has achieved some level of expertise and power, the same amount of effort as before fails to bring about the same results; the career trajectory that has been steep in the early years begins to flatten. Daily routine becomes an exercise of pushing against the ceiling: your success will fail to impress, and if you fail – all hell will break lose. To use industry lingo, their situation is becoming negatively convex, a limited upside/unlimited downside kind of scenario. Just look at Rogoff/Reinhart fiasco: if they haven’t made a mistake no one would have heard of them outside their skull and bones society (academia and a few politicians); one mistake – and that’s what they will be remembered for by the entire world for the rest of their careers. But for a driven and ambitious personality it’s tough to switch gears: he keeps doing what he’s always been doing but with no result, and unable to sense a shift in balance. That’s when apathy and resignation kick in; and bad but manageable position/situation deteriorates into a disaster.

But let’s now examine pockets of society where there are secure enough personalities. Those would include people capable of projecting realistic expectations for themselves: Lower class, illegal immigrants, athletes, most of retirees, sport handicappers. Good poker players are another subgroup of those with secure egos, “good” being a key word. The paragons of security are the ones who are not a part of a professional or academic group, everyone who is not employed in a high-pressure, high-pay (or both) environment. Those who do not belong to any exclusive club, any skull and bones society, those uninitiated are not burdened with the constant struggle to maintain good standing of membership, to prove one’s worth, to impress. The only person they have to impress is themselves.

Sir Richard Branson recently gave us all a demonstration of a cool secure personality: dressing in drag and serving passengers of a rival airline after losing a bet. Such ability to acknowledge and accept defeat and to move on is the foundation of a correct play. To harness such skill requires complete negation of self-importance. A guy at the poker table mindful of his appearance and protective of his image, constantly excusing and justifying his strategy to his table neighbors is a bad player. But beware of a 400-pound guy with body odors, receding hairline and a pony tail – he has long given up caring about what you think about him. Guys like him have nothing to prove and no one to impress. Those guys are paragons of security, of mental fortitude. They are there for the game and for the game only. Their only display of vanity is the size of the stack in front of them. By virtue of not giving a damn they free themselves from having to worry about what others think of their game. That’s coolness.

Risk Taking and Finger Length (off topic)

This article explains everything!

“As strange as it may sound, the ratio of index to ring finger correlates with traits such as spatial ability, risk-taking, and assertiveness. It’s connected to success in competitive sports like soccer and skiing. Rustichini’s own work has connected it to real-life success, such as the profitability of London high-frequency financial traders.

Sure enough, their analysis of the photos found that the more successful the entrepreneur, the longer the ring finger compared to the index finger. The most successful entrepreneurs had ring fingers 10% to 20% longer than their index finger.”

Here’s my hand:


 Here’s my recent stack:


Turns out it’s all scientific!