Celebrating the Entrepreneurial Self: Autonomy, Adventure, Imagination

Among my great goals is to assist my students, and my colleagues,  in becoming better “entrepreneurs” in the best and broadest of senses: creative, innovative, risk-taking, initiators who bring new and great things to life, solve problems, and enrich our world.   I want for my students, and for my colleagues and myself, to become more “entrepreneurial,” and think that social entrepreneurship is among the most exciting developments in the world of work and service in the world today.

Even should we find ourselves in the midst of large organizations, it would seem to me that we can have a greater impact and find more fulfillment if we practice habits of entrepreneurship.   In a world of seven billion people, I think we all can find great rewards and can make a greater impact if we seize and grab the tools available to us, including digital and online technologies, to become better communicators, advocates, collaborators and creators.

Three days ago, though, to my surprise, I read a lengthy essay making, poorly I think, the opposite argument: today’s entrepreneurialism, aided by today’s social media, is resulting in nothing but a disappointing “Generation Sell.”

William Deresiewicz has become one among favorite sparring partners; in last Sunday’s New York Times he tackles the Millenials (our students), and, because they are “polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly,” he decides to deride them as “Generation SellThe millennial affect is the affect of the salesman.”

Bands are still bands, but now they’re little businesses, as well: self-produced, self-published, self-managed. When I hear from young people who want to get off the careerist treadmill and do something meaningful, they talk, most often, about opening a restaurant.

Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship — companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.

The argument expands from here: we learn in a tone of lament that it is not just the millenials but it is “essentially everyone now” who are living the “entrepreneurial ideal.”

At this juncture in my reading, I became baffled about where the piece would go from here. Is this a good or a bad thing?  I was disappointed to read him dismiss millennials, (and “everyone now”) as being nothing but “salesmen,” but I became inspired to read him write ”Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us.”  That sounds great to me: I want to advance a world of entrepreneurship if these are its characteristics.

Then the piece sadly tacks back to the critique.  Never mind imagination and autonomy: we are today all “commercial personalities, [with nothing but a] salesman’s smile and hearty handshake, because the customer is always right and you should always keep the customer happy.”

Curiously, in these same paragraphs the two role models offered as the “commercial personalities we are all becoming” are Steve Jobs, “our new deity,” and Benjamin Franklin, “the original guru.”

I demur.  Steve Jobs practiced a philosophy of innovation and leadership that exemplified anything but “the customer is always right” or a “salesman’s smile,” and Ben Franklin was an entirely independent and critical thinker who, while offering advice to salesman, was anything but limited to a salesman’s persona, and certainly exemplified “autonomy, adventure, and imagination.”  These are the role models for what Deresciewz is denigrating as the “commercial identity?”

Deresciewz  isn’t done with his critique: it gets worse.  Our fine young people today, (and, once again, “everybody“), he finds to be nothing other than “bland, inoffensive, smile-and-a-shoeshine personalities, stay-positive, other-directed, I’ll-be-whoever-you-want-me-to-be personalities.”

This is where the argument builds to its climax.  The real problem is not just that we are all always selling something, but that we are all, on the internet and social media, “selling ourselves.”

We use social media to create a product — to create a brand — and the product is us.We treat ourselves like little businesses, something to be managed and promoted. The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold.

From here, the piece strays into nothing but dull nonsense about hippies, hipsters, bohemians, Bobos, and slackers.  I’ve read Brooks on the Bobos, and found the subject amusing and sociologically perceptive, but reading Deresciewz’s wanderings through this territory leads me nowhere.  What are any of us supposed to gain in understanding about today’s sensibilities from a sentence like “Try to picture Allen Ginsberg having a chat with Don Draper, across the counter at the local coffeehouse, about the latest Lady Gaga video, and you’ll realize how far we’ve come.”

At the heart of this piece is Deresciwz’s question of whether we have become entrepreneurs of autonomy, adventure, and imagination, or nothing but salesmen, “selling ourselves as a package.” He chooses the latter; I choose the former.

Don’t overlook the social media tangent discussed three paragraphs above.  It may seem at first like a throwaway, but it where this essay connects to his much-hyped but entirely disappointing 2010 American Scholar essay on Solitude, in which he lambasts social media for what he perceives is its detrimental effect on creative thinking and leadership.   Here in the Times, his argument is that by the use of social media communications, we are reducing ourselves to nothing but salesmen of ourself.

Deresciwz is, of course, entitled to his negative opinions about social media, and there are certainly advantages and disadvantages in the use of Twitter, Facebook, and the rest.  But there is no need for him to slander a generation, (much less “everyone”) as nothing but other-directed sell-outs in order to further his anti-social media crusade.

Never before have humans had such incredibly empowering opportunities to become their own spokespersons and advocates, to create and share and connect their visions, views, ideas, and solutions; never before have we had such incredible resources to develop our autonomy, to pursue adventure through a massive array of information and creativity, and to imagine what new things we might become and what are the ways of worlds previously unavailable to us.

I have hopes for my students (my colleagues, and myself) that they (and we) do things other than start their own businesses, but I think that the spirit of self-making and entrepreneurial-ship is anything but selling out and becoming other directed.

Let’s be each in our own unique ways Steve Jobs and Ben Franklins: let’s create and communicate, argue and articulate, initiate and innovate, in whatever professional, academic, or organizational realms we find ourselves, and let’s not hesitate to use the power of social media to create a “brand of ourselves,” recognized, respected, appreciated and valued.  

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