What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Regular People

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This week I want to discuss a topic on which many of you may believe there is nothing to be said: what entrepreneurs can learn from regular people. Yes, you may be special, chosen people putting big dents in the universe, but believe it or not, the rest of us actually have some interesting lessons to share from our less ambitious lives!

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The 4 autoresponses of non-curious entrepreneurs. Apologies

1/ I am not an entrepreneur, but I meet a LOT of entrepreneurs through my writing and work, at various stages of their careers, and in various states of success and failure.

2/ In the process, I've learned something that utterly astonished me when I first recognized it: with rare exceptions, entrepreneurs in general are not curious people.

3/ This makes most entrepreneurs, regardless of their experience or success level, very boring people. They are either pitching you or trying to use you in some way, or ignoring you entirely.

4/ One dead giveaway is that though they are often heavy readers and strong learners, their choices are remarkably banal and predictable. Even when they are brilliant and vastly knowledgeable.

5/ Comparing the rare curious entrepreneurs with the median not-curious entrepreneurs, I've learned one thing: the curious ones are happy, the not-curious ones are miserable (though they mightily strive to mask the misery with false cheer).

6/ That's not the startling thing. The startling thing is that this is true whether they are spectacular successes, spectacular failures, or somewhere in between.

7/ And perhaps a related not-so-startling thing: regardless of success level, the rare curious entrepreneurs come up with more imaginative and original ideas, and (if that matters to you) are admired more (here's a clue why).

8/ This is true for regular people too: the curious ones are generally happier and live more original lives. The difference is that a larger fraction (though still a minority) of regular people are genuinely curious.

9/ To understand why, and how entrepreneurs can learn curiosity from regular people, you have to understand what curiosity is.

10/ Curiosity is a primal drive (yes there's neuroscience research on this) to proactively explore the world without an agenda, and without pre-conceived formulas for assessing the significance or value of what one might find.

11/ What makes a person not-curious is the tendency to classify all experiences as sources of either pleasure or pain, and either risk or opportunity.

12/ Non-curious people tend to develop a systematic, subconscious blindness to anything that does not immediately fall into one of the four categories in the 2x2 above.

13/ In other words, the non-curious view everything in instrumental terms as a call to action through a categorical lens, or filter it out entirely.

14/ Non-curious entrepreneurs differ from non-curious regulars mainly in how they react to things that make it to conscious, categorized awareness.

15/ Specifically, they are primed to respond with one of four behaviors to everything: exploit it (pleasurable opportunity), fetishize the pain of it (painful opportunity), fight it (painful risk) or stoically resist temptation (pleasurable risk).

16/ You could say that this is a civilized version of a very basic Darwinian-competition way of processing the world: Will it eat me? Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? If none of the above, then meh!

17/ Non-curious regulars are simpler: they generally simply pursue pleasure and avoid pain in path-of-least-resistance ways regardless of consequences. Stable societies are designed for such people.

17/ Curiosity means not being blind to stimuli that don't fit your instrumental categories and instantly trigger one of the four kinds of autoresponses. It means, as Viktor Frankl noted, having a liminal space of meaning-making and true choice between stimulus and response.

18/  It means having enough surplus freedom and attention left over from the raw demands of surviving and winning for creative engagement of things whose significance and value are indeterminate.

19/ This creative deployment of surplus freedom and attention is the child-like behavior we know as idle, purposeless play. Everything novel and human-experience-expanding comes from it.

20/ It shocked me when I first figured it out, but one of the key differences between median (non-curious) entrepreneurs and regular people is that they literally don't know how to play in this way.

21/ Often the only way they know to "play" is in an intense, hyper-competitive way that is "training" or "skills acquisition" for "real" life in some way. High-energy purposeful play with "win" conditions.

22/ I've concluded that a lower or altogether absent capacity for idle, purposeless play is among the top 4-5 traits that defines the median entrepreneur (I'll talk about the other top traits some other time).

23/ This inability to play (which most human babies and other mammalian young, like kittens, possess), which follows from a lack of genuine curiosity, has three grave consequences.

24/ First, it means the reaction to both success and failure is often depression. Without purpose, the non-curious have no idea what to do with themselves. They don't know how to manufacture meaning and significance out of random exploration.

25/ Second, it means a tendency to pursue the first opportunity that presents the right mix of risk and reward and match to skills and experience, rather than something that captures their imagination and originality.

26/ Third, and most important, it means they rarely or never change how they value the world, because it takes the perspective distortions of idle, purposeless play to upend your notions of significance and meaning in interesting ways.

27/ That last item has a famous positive spin: Shaw's line "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

28/ As with all seductive counterintuitive dogmas, this one has a dark side: it means you don't change your sense of meaning and significance even when it would vastly enrich your life to do so.

29/ Shaw's line is a good guide to all on those occasions when they must rise to a challenge and take a big risk courageously. But taken too far as a central dogma of life, it kills the capacity for play and meaning-making.

30/ I'll call this phenomenon "Shaw blindness": the Shaw-blind cannot see any part of the universe that you cannot immediately see a way to make a "dent" in or bend to your purpose.

31/ So the reason why the rare curious entrepreneur does more original, imaginative things is obvious: they are able to discover surprising options to pursue through idle, purposeless play.

32/ The curious regular -- and I count myself as one -- also discovers such options, but acts on them in less demanding ways. For instance, I write about any curiosities I find. Others might make art, invent games, or do science.

33/ There is another obvious 2x2 here: not-curious vs. curious, regular vs entrepreneur. Q1=imaginative world-changer, Q2=boring Shaw-blind, Q3=regular-schmoe to be eaten by robots, Q4=creative class.

34/ I'd estimate the population fractions of the 4 quadrants as 1%, 9%, 60%, 30%. I'm part of the 30%.

35/ Breaking smart does not necessarily mean being an entrepreneur. The world would be an immensely boring place if everybody were an entrepreneur.

36/ Breaking smart means being engaged with intelligent curiosity in being alive, taking courageous risks on occasion, accepting responsibility for your own life, and most importantly: staying playful.

37/ It means exploring the possibilities of your own existence in the most imaginative way you can. For me that way has been writing. For others it may mean art, politics, science, sales or social work.

38/ The common feature is imaginatively making up your own script. That's the curious half of the 2x2 described above. It contains perhaps 31% of humanity, the vast majority of whom are not entrepreneurs.

39/ Ironically, those afraid or incapable of meeting the challenge of open, idle playfulness and curiosity often choose an existing canned script: being a Shaw-blind "entrepreneur." Silicon Valley is full of this type, waiting in dark alleys to jump out at you with pitch decks.

40/ So if you're an entrepreneur getting sucked into Shaw blindness, and want to save yourself from outcome-independent misery and depression, here's my prescription: learn to truly play.

41/ Go seek out a part of the universe that you do not want to put a dent in, and learn to be idle there. If you don't know how, ask a regular curious person. We do know some things you don't.

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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr

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