In an Atlantic article ten years ago, David Brooks coined the term that defined that generation of Ivy League students: The Organization Kid. The Organization Kid worked hard and didn’t rebel: A typical day included class, sports, extra curricular activities, forty-five minute coffee dates, parties—and virtually zero down time. Everything was meticulously scheduled and outwardly “productive”. Intellectual curiosity, wandering, and character development were out. Stellar grades, high-paying jobs, and remarkable parties were in—this, after all, was what society expected from them.
Today, although its presence has sharply diminished, the Organizational Kid ethos is still prevalent. We see it praised in the TV show entourage, and attacked in the movie Fight Club. We see it, alive and well, in Ivy League schools, investment banks, and consulting firms.
However, for the most part, there’s a new kid in town. One who’s more sensual, free-spirited, and conscious-driven. She attends TED conferences and film festivals, updates her Tumblr and Twitter feed, directs videos, cooks meals, and loves all types of music—even country.
Meet the Entrepreneurial Kid.
He’s the son of accountants who is obsessed with doing something that aligns with his “passions”. She’s the daughter of lawyers who rejects the fact that she’d be a great lawyer so she can pursue something more “authentic”. He’s the business-school student with a conscience who realizes that, whereas his parents had pursued money, he is destined to strive for “something more”
(What’s something more? Meaning? Love? Art?)
All of those and none of those things: He wants to Change The World.
The Entrepreneurial Kid can be illustrated through the descriptions of a couple of my friends. My buddy Zack enjoys yoga, travel, food, reading, making music and, of course, ideating and brainstorming businesses. He spreads himself so thin that he never delves deep into one thing—he’s still scrambling for the ”passion” to which he can dedicate his life. Always upbeat, he ends every e-mail with Have a great day, even if he checks it right before he goes to sleep—which he does almost every night. He measures his happiness by the quality of his experiences, as opposed to, say, his salary or his accomplishments—two clear measurements of the Organizational Kid. Nevertheless, one in his company gets the feeling that Zack is just…restless: Something’s missing.
My friend Jeff, another Entrepreneurial Kid, fervently preaches that the way to change the world is to, well, start a business and change the world—and you’ve done so whether you’ve created the next Google or the next Angry Birds—by…creating jobs. Exactly how you’ve changed the world is unclear, but, for Jeff’s purposes, such analysis is irrelevant. And thus, at any rate, he’s preparing to create the next big thing: His shelf overflows with the business book canon; his google reader contains over 100 blogs. He invokes Steve Jobs like religious people quote Jesus. He attends conferences frequently, tweeting from the sidelines. He spends hours on his inbox, sending hundreds of e-mails a day. He’s just 18 years old.
I’m with both Zack and Jeff at Start Up Weekend, an Entrepreneurial convention and a virtual Mecca for like-minded enthusiasts. A scrawny twenty-year old Indian kid gives the keynote speech. Apparently, he’s somehow made it easier for companies to advertise their products to gamers. His company just raised a couple million dollars, and now he’s telling us, in curse-ridden half-sentences, his life story (his first crush, his rebellious phase, his broken finger), and suggesting that we, too, can become like him in the future.
He ends with the following: “We’re all here because we care about things bigger than ourselves” The room erupts in applause. “We want to change the world. If we didn’t, we’d all take jobs at Goldman Sachs.” Some people applause, others stop to ponder the statement—but only for a few seconds.
Entrepreneurship and the “entrepreneurial mindset” -- the concept of thinking like an entrepreneur, whether you’re a student, employee, or employer – has been spreading like wildfire. Entrepreneurial incubators, educational programs, and related-events have been sprouting across the country. Entrepreneurship has been hailed the answer to the country’s economic woes. A cultural ethos of “forge your own path” and “create your own job” has pervaded college campuses across the country. This ethos didn’t come from nowhere: It’s a logical backlash to the financial crisis, modern corporate culture, and the lack of meaning and fulfillment of the jobs therein. It’s also, to be sure, a cultural response to the deification of Steve Jobs, the philosophies of conscious companies such as Tom’s Shoes and Kickstarter, and the romantic notions of entrepreneurship depicted in The Social Network.
Unsurprisingly, the entrepreneurial mindset is not without its critics. A New Yorker profile of Peter Thiel—a successful entrepreneur and investor—disparaged the approach, referring to it as childish, naive, and privileged. Other critics claim that, in encouraging everyone to think like an entrepreneur, we’re diluting the term. Our parents were entrepreneurial and they didn’t run around bragging about it—they simply did what they needed to do to survive.
I’m not sympathetic to this critique. The Organizational Kid was happily submissive and morally complacent. The transition into the Entrepreneurial Kid, while it has its faults, is an overall positive. Trying to simulate environments to revitalize the behaviors and habit that helped us in the past to not only survive but also flourish is a difficult but worthwhile endeavor. So I feel that, as long as it comes from a good place, overcompensating can be expected.
Other detractors have criticized the movement for an entirely different reason: They say that we have a surplus of people making useless stuff. A Newsweek article claimed that we might in fact have “a startup bubble in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg.” Some entrepreneurs have echoed these sentiments: For example, Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals, challenged other entrepreneurs to think about how their products affect people in Mississippi. Peter Thiel himself concurred with Friedman, lamenting that “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
But “at least they’re trying to improve the world”, the New Yorker Profile concluded, as though such an effort is merely a consolation. While the entrepreneurial mindset has good intentions, the piece implies, it’s misguided and outlandish. Such a shift, though, is nothing short of seismic: The Organization Kid didn’t even pretend to have convictions or beliefs, outside of satisfying others. The Entrepreneurial Kid, by contrast, is drenched with a desire for freedom, flexibility, and genuine change. We know we have problems and we want to fix them; we want a better world than our parents gave us—something’s missing and we’ll work very, very hard -- on our own terms -- to enact the change we seek.
Motive, though, is probably never enough. As the quote goes: “The road to hell was paved with good intentions.”
We’ve shifted our mindsets from material success to personal success. But in some ways, we’re still not thinking critically or independently. We still succumb to an early professionalism and a careerist approach at the expense of intellectual rigor and emotional development. Kids like Zack and Jeff are still so busy that they don’t read enough – especially the classics – or spend extended time with their friends, or wander, or, once in a while, relax.
It’s disorienting to see so many Entrepreneurial Kids focus solely on building things without evaluating the actual—direct and indirect—effects of their product.
Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, changed the world—but did he do so for the better? I believe that he did, but the point here is that the Entrepreneurial Kid rarely raises such questions. Every entrepreneur believes that what’s good for his or her company is good for the world, and it doesn’t seem that anyone questions such arithmetic.
Which is ridiculous, because entrepreneurs such as Thiel and Hoffman first met as intellectuals at Stanford—and their later business ideas evolved from their ideological ones. College is not the place to send 200 e-mails a day—you have the rest of your life to do that. Acquire a holistic education: read the classics, invest in relationships, and explore, experiment. Think like a kid and imagine all the cool products but also think like an adult and know that life is very, very tough for many other people. Don’t be so impatient and self-absorbed, obsessed with finding your “passion” and “meaning” that you miss it staring you right in the face.
Holden Caulfield, after all, may have been an entrepreneur in today’s world, but he would have never been an entrepreneurial kid.
Undoubtedly, this shift in mindset is transformative, but we need another evolution—we need a new Kid. One who reads Plato and Steve Blank. One who puts as much attention to his friends as he does his career plans. One who writes blog posts and hand-written letters; One who’s wired but also takes internet breaks,; One who spends time with nature, with herself, with a loved one, sometimes just letting the time go by, and seeing where it takes them. And a new kid who understands the difference between changing the world and changing your world, and has the ability to recognize the ethical and intellectual jostling involved.
Think about it.