America is Not Hungry Enough
Let me tell you a story. When I was 12 years old, my parents desperately wanted to get me out of the house. My father was the vice president of a concrete company, so he put me to work running wheelbarrows of concrete from one side of a construction site to the other. I was of slight build, with buck teeth and had yet to hit my growth spurt—not exactly the picture of athletic endurance. I could barely handle the weight of the materials and became more and more depressed with every load. I remember the Sunday night blues setting in and dreading my job on Monday morning. I also remember being deliriously happy by Friday, with a few more dollars in my pocket.
By the time I got to high school, I valued the hard-earned dollar. This was common among my friends. We all had summer jobs and worked very hard. This is not another “I walked 10 miles to school every day in the snow” lecture; this is a lesson in work ethic, because I worry about America today. Physical labor is not a part of the child-rearing ethos. Who is cutting your lawn, shoveling your driveway and delivering your newspaper? It is the great immigrants who are helping us, and I am truly grateful to see them employed. But I see the consequences of this as I meet with young American entrepreneurs.
First, as parents we have a desire for our kids to do better and have more than we did, in a big way. As the dynamic author and speaker Simon Sinek points out, we pamper our kids through the best schools, make sure they receive “Good for trying!” awards, prevent them from falling down or scraping their knees and chaperone them inside of a glass bubble. Then, we toss them out into the workforce with no real sense of how to survive and thrive. However, Sinek reminds us that this is no fault of their own. As leaders who have inherited a hopeful but lost generation of young adults, we need to do more to mentor them. I often ask young entrepreneurs about their upbringing because you can almost always bank on success with those who came from strong backgrounds with tougher parenting, or quite the opposite, from a rough childhood. They have a hunger.
I’ve noticed in the middle of important conversations with rising entrepreneurs that I’ve been met with a distant gaze. I don’t have a reputation for running boring meetings, so I’ve learned to interpret that glazed-over look. It reflects an endless, internal conversation that keeps young entrepreneurs perpetually out of the present moment. They’re thinking about getting to the next income level, the desire to take time off and explore, the next challenge or the next milestone. In my experience, these restless entrepreneurs are constantly considering how their life will look tomorrow instead of embracing what they are (or could be) doing right now.
When I started my own company with my brother in our 20s, there wasn’t the flow of venture capital there is today. You had to find your way on your own and build your own idea, because to not have a longstanding corporate job was unacceptable. At that time, an entrepreneur had no backup plan, plenty of fear and less time to reflect.
So when I encounter that far-off stare, I don’t ask them how they are feeling or what they are thinking. I try to engage with them in the moment and push them as hard as I can to address the situation at hand. I try to get them focused on where they are going as a business. It just becomes that much harder to be a leader when you are guiding someone who is distracted. I know because I was the distracted one—the child in the classroom wondering what I might find under the Christmas tree when I needed to be studying.
Traveling as often as I do, I meet international innovators who hustle and think outside the box. Their ability to build infrastructure and attack problems is awe-inspiring, and they are doing so at a fast pace. There is a hunger like I’ve never seen. Back home, I sense the entrepreneurial spirit only going so far. Everyone wants to own the next big idea, but they do not have the patience to get their hands dirty and their feet wet doing it.
I suppose I need to start handing out wheelbarrows to promising startups.