Enterprise and Optimism

A few weeks back someone told me to watch George Lee’s business show, in which our intrepid economist ventured to Silicon Valley to find out what the magic sauce is, and bring some back.

For those outside the Emerald Isle, George Lee is a fairly liked celebrity journalist, economist and occasional politician. Having become the voice the populace trust on economics (thanks to an extended time as economics correspondent on the evening news of the national broadcaster, RTE), he got elected to parliament, and then resigned, and now has his very own TV show.

George Lee in search of silicon sauce sounded cheesy, but I actually quite enjoyed it.

I don’t really know what the average citizen thinks entrepreneurship is, or what they think of it. When people ask me what I do, and I tell them, it seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable, and earns me some weird looks. It’s as if people want to ask if I’m having difficulty getting a real job, or if there’s some other extraneous reason why I’m forced to do it. In The Social Network the girls asks Sean Parker what he does, and he says “I’m an entrepreneur”, she says “You mean you’re unemployed.” It’s a pretty typical exchange.

Despite being often regarded as a strange subspecies, the news and the new government is piping full of enthusiasm about how the entrepreneurs will turn Ireland into the European Silicon Valley any day now, and to rest assured that when this happens that €1 million doll house you bought as an investment will regain its value.

Episode 5 of George Lee’s show “The Business” set out to turn over the rock of Silicon Valley and introduce Ireland to the strange breed that their future presumably rests with. The serious question posed in the show was what does Ireland need to do to create the right kind of environment for entrepreneurs?. George interviewed various Irish entrepreneurs in the valley, ironically giving the impression that the successful Irish entrepreneur is to be found working in America.

The main answer the show came to rest on was that of attitude, specifically optimism. Now, I may have occasionally made light of stereotypical american super-optimism – the kind of superficial glee that makes you afraid that your waiter is actually going to steal your food, your choice was so astoundingly original and excellent. You know where I’m coming from – stereotypically pretentious European snobbishly sophisticated cynicism.

That overblown positivism may seem unpragmatic to those of us who think the world is full of stupid people, but it’s possibly a spillover from a more general American outlook that respects individuals that strike out on their own, whether to colonize the western frontier or to turn their passion into a lucrative career. It seems like there’s a basic respect built into american culture for those willing to take these risks, and correspondingly, having a default position of cynicism towards other people’s risk-taking behavior is unfashionable (in contrast to Europe).

In Ireland, people think entrepreneurs are weird. We command rubberneck fascination, not respect. It’s a cultural problem, and will be slow to overcome. However, we cannot seriously expect to create a generation of entrepreneurs while we at the same time continue to feel comfortable in failure, uncomfortable in short-lived success (self-fulfilling prophecy, there) and entertained by other people’s failures.

Posted in Enterprise, Life

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