Episode 88 – Alienation Breeds Resilience That Bends the Odds In Your Favor


FEBRUARY 15, 2023


One of the bizarre things that appeared in the 2010s was a veritable explosion of ‘student entrepreneurs’ in business schools, colleges and even high schools. Studying entrepreneurship is now a permanent fixture of modern education. I have nothing against teaching entrepreneurial skills per se, but looking at entrepreneurship as a field of study, I don’t quite get at all. 


Entrepreneurship is simply a mode of new business operations, one that is under-resourced on all fronts: finance, knowledge, and staff. The more innovative the venture, the more the founder’s lack of knowledge regarding the customer can get in the way. 


Viewing entrepreneurship as a discipline to master reminds me a lot of the problem with how people view the marketing field. Marketing is just a grab bag of tactical moves changing with technology and shifting social norms. Marketing is not a field of inquiry. It borrows all its assumptions from classical humanities and sciences disciplines. A great marketer is someone who unlocks how to communicate your brand’s competitive advantage in a highly relevant way to a specific audience. This is mostly category knowledge and communications theory. 


Entrepreneurship is also not a field of inquiry. Entrepreneurship is just a grab bag of scrappy, underfunded, understaffed moves. It’s NOT a reality anyone would choose in ideal circumstances unless they truly are unemployable! The entrepreneur’s super power is not entrepreneurship. It’s their insight into the innovation needed in the category based on their own expertise. 


Entrepreneurship is a forced reality. You put up with it to pursue your weird innovation. 


The primary tool of entrepreneurship is your mind itself. And how you train it and tame it. Hence pulling from psychology, therapy and, yes, the sociology of small group interactions is very wise. 


What does not go discussed enough on LinkedIn or anywhere I can see in the VC-stroking entrepreneurship media is that most founders quit on themselves before the cash runs out. They either didn’t have enough self-motivation or the scrappy lifestyle nearly broke them and their initial motivation. 


This is most likely to happen to anyone who has lived their life without having to face the dark demon of alienation and survive it. Upper-middle-class white B-school students may have interesting concepts or ideas, but they often don’t have the resilience to persist as entrepreneurs. Yes, they’re too young. But it’s not their age literally that hurts them. It’s their lack of experience with some kind of massive alienating event from which they learned to come back. 


I’d bet more on minority youth than anyone, honestly. They’ve had to deal with racism all their lives, and, in some cases, violence due to birth in racially contained, low income neighborhoods. They have resilience. I did not as a college student. 


When I was in graduate school, I had lunch with some B-school students a few times. And one of them from was Sweden. He listened respectfully as I explained that I would be departing for South India in six months and probably not come back for three years.  And that I’d be going myself. 


“You’re brave, man,” he said without a hint of irony. I think he really meant it. Comfortable Swedish business guy couldn’t imagine anyone going alone into an under-developed nation for that long. 


Alienation comes in many forms. Sometimes,it is self-imposed. Sometimes, society pushes individuals to the margins.


In south Indian culture, a man who lives alone is one of two things – a pimp or a powerful yogi whose celibacy transforms his sexual energy into spiritual/magical power. Any way you look at it, south Indians consider alienated young men volatile and dangerous. 


I still find this very amusing, because, in America, alienated young men are just plain sad. No one admires them here. Get a job! Get a girlfriend! Get a life! 


What I learned living in India was that you can survive both racial and cultural alienation even if it grates at you almost daily based on someone’s remark. Alienation teaches you what is at stake when you do something very different than your peers. You get used to standing out.


At some point, yes, I simply enjoyed being ‘the goofy white man at the coffee stall.’ It was my role – the weirdo. It also allowed me  special advantages – it disarmed people. I spoke bad Tamil which caused people to think I was dumb. This permitted me much greater access than a clever-sounding, well-spoken local intellectual could ever have obtained. 


Entrepreneurs are alienated by definition. Alienated from a typical desk job, from a stable path, from steady pay. Often doing something family and friends don’t understand or declare to be ‘weird.’ 


If you haven’t experienced alienation before, severe alienation, then you have no idea yet if you can hack it. 


Leaping from a life of comfort into an alienating sea when neither you nor your partner have experienced alienation before and made it through is really, really a bad idea. 


How weird is being a consumer brand founder? Very weird, folks. Very alienating. As of Q4 2022, only 103,000 individuals were self-employed non-durable goods manufacturers, according to the BLS. That’s you, in the language of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. If we throw in the durable goods self-employed folks since chotzkys on QVC, it’s another 169,000. Look, 100,000K people is a tiny tribe folks. That’s why my podcast won’t be in the Top 200 ever.


And it’s a tiny tribe in the context of 207 million working age adults as of Nov. 2022. 


This means that you folks,  listening to this podcast, are 4/100ths of 1%. 4 basis points of the population. You are invisibly special, folks. Weirdly rare. 


If you wondered why you felt so alienated before listening to this, you now have a brutal demographic rationale.