Entrepreneurship is the beating heart of the premise of “American exceptionalism,” but author Joe Carlen would argue that it’s been one of the major drivers of both civilization and technology. He traces the role that entrepreneurship has played in the development of everything from overland and overseas trade to the personal computer. The success of entrepreneurs and their ability to bring about major changes was because of, and not despite, their ability to buck common conceptions, conventions, and laws.
While the term “entrepreneurship” may be a relatively new invention, it dates back to the very earliest days of civilization. Civilization managed to form in the first place by having members of that civilization engage in more specialized tasks. These increasing levels of specialized knowledge and specialized proficiency is what led to tailor and blacksmiths in the first place and leads a straight if long line directly to smartphones and Wi-Fi.
One thing that’s remained constant is that successful entrepreneurs recognize the demand and take a risk trying to supply the demand. Twenty thousand years ago, that meant leveraging geographic advantages to trade other tribes for resources that are scarce elsewhere. Today, it often means trading in less tangible resources like skill and technological innovations. The sort of aggressive headhunting that tech startups engage in is fundamentally little different from Guinean tribes trading rocks and tools with their neighbors.
Recognizing the exciting revelations that entrepreneurship provides also means recognizing the dark side. Entrepreneurship is all about seizing opportunities and doing that which others are too afraid or too conventional to do. And the same ambition and unconventional thinking that can lead to better standards of living can also lead to morally reprehensible actions. Both the modern advent of slavery and organized crime could only have existed if there were men and women willing to push the boundaries and exploit a gap in the current market.
No change comes without defying norms, but those norms are often in place for a reason. Carlen’s analysis of entrepreneurship highlights some brilliant personalities who have changed the world fundamentally, but it also recognizes that innovation is a two-way street, and the entrepreneurs who succeed are predicated not just on their ambition but on the public’s willingness to accept their new ideas.