Problem Solving, Privilege, and the Price of Entrepreneurship

My take on the Bay Area's infatuation with answering every problem with a startup.

Our attitude toward “problem solving”, at least in the Bay Area, is largely flawed. We grow up, taught to fall in love with solvability rather than complexity, fixated on the belief that the world is an imperfect sphere of existence, with cracks and craters, chasms and cavities that only we are destined to fill. Because somehow, despite the other 7.6 billion people that also inhabit the same planet, who come with the lost luggage of their own opinions and reservations, a single individual irrefutably knows what’s right for the rest of humanity on the issue of their selection.

We’ve created a great world as a result — thousands of successful companies that have eased the lives of him and her, in that order, and incredible breakthroughs in the sciences, arts, and education that have paved our posterity’s path. The very same world we’ve hand sculpted with our individualistic agendas is also one that has expropriated the rights of a few unlucky socioeconomic groups, induced suffering, violence, and ignorance at the edge of our automated sword, and created a redundancy of fruitless organizations of people selflessly dedicating their lives to solving problems that don’t even exist.

I have no interest in hyper analyzing every social, economic, political difficulty we’ve inflicted on lives that never asked for it. But what I do feel the need to say something about it is the attitude we are unconsciously encouraging in our youth that is undermining a meaningful advancement of society. Our push to morph every student into an entrepreneur has coincidentally paralleled the polarization of ideologies, the development of social and economic hierarchies, and the homogenization of experiences in our society. We’ve begun to introduce entrepreneurship as a discipline, rebranding it as a teachable subject matter, one that can be learned within the confines of a classroom by kids barely two decades old whose daily lives are rhythmic in their homogeneity as they oscillate between school and home, with the occasional park in between.

These entrepreneurship lessons more often than not begin with a rapid ideation, basically a ostentatious contest where students are provoked to output hundreds of perceived problems, in the world, most of which they can barely imagine, let alone understand. Electing one of these hypothetical problems presents the next challenge, but childish argumentation settles as the group gravitates toward the most socially conscious option, because why not save the world while you’re at it right? The rush of entrepreneurship doesn’t afford them the time to fully understand, fear, and appreciate the complexity of any social challenge, because any spare moments during the grind are spent in the growth of complacency with fulfilling their social responsibility in the world.

From there, they intelligently discover an extremely novel solution, nowadays with artificial intelligence, blockchain, or machine learning, conduct user research with individuals they’ve previously collated opinions with and come from similar backgrounds, think about a hypothetical business plan to execute assuming access to financial capital, and done! Within the blink of a few privileged eyes, a new startup is created! After the class is over, the students bid adieu to their innovative product because their bright minds are eager to repeat this cycle. Because in today’s world where time is the sole inhibitor to those at the highest echelons of society, innovation must be accelerated to be disruptive, and entrepreneurship must be a quest for quantity, where the only thing that’s iterative is the repeated mistake of fabricating problems to satisfy the desire to solve, and oversimplifying ones that already exist.

I’m not against the introduction of the entrepreneurial idea that anyone can make a change, and that change can be formalized as a startup, I just firmly believe that to truly discern the meaning of entrepreneurship, one must refrain from looking inwardly and rather experience as much as they can in nontraditional learning environments. No teacher is qualified enough to instruct how to “be an entrepreneur” — what qualifies as their credential? Startup financial success? Number of users? Arguably the cadence of failure does more than any strain of laudable success in shaping how entrepreneurs fathom intricacies of issues that they or others experience.

The 21st century version of entrepreneurship lacks empathy, which is derived from shared experience: getting proximate to the happenings (not problems) in areas you don’t routinely visit, in the lives of people you infrequently interact with, in thoughts that may differ from those of your own. How do we encourage entrepreneurship in youth lives without succumbing to the dangers of meaningless endeavors? Curiosity. Encourage curiosity, encourage complexity, encourage courage. Curiosity to explore the unknown, complexity as a motivating reason to pursue not avoid, and courage to empathize and internalize the multifaceted realities of those that differ, that disagree. And then, after personally or proximately experiencing a pain point with others and gaining clarity about the landscape in its entirety, if a startup is a practical approach, then by all means, go for it. But never forget the responsibility you have to represent more than just yourself — the lives of others are delicate and not open to your self-centered, privileged experimentation.