Leading a dynamic life

At the end of my last post, I wondered why people tend to believe that institutions are just there. Beemer’s answer was that “Maybe because for the first 18 years of our lives, they are? Childhood is dominated by relationships that are dictated and maintained by external systems, mostly “family” and “school”.”

This makes a lot of sense to me. As children, we have to go to school, we have to do our chores, we have to spend time with our family. We have no choices, and therefore no sense of how institutions such as homes or families are created. We are taught to accept the world as it is.

As we transition into adulthood, we have to make choices, and learn to take responsibility for those choices. We learn that things are not black and white, that sometimes these solid eternal institutions that we believe in sometimes conflict with each other (e.g. company vs. family responsibilities). We have multiple identities which each create their own demands. It is no longer a simple world of Platonic ideals, but an ever-changing world of shifting allegiances.

Beemer’s answer also reminded me of a generational shift. In my parents’ generation, institutions were forever. IBM, GM, AT&T – these were companies that would last til the end of time. You got a job, and you stuck with it, eventually retiring with that company. People got married, and stayed married. There were the good guys (America), and the bad guys (the Commies), and that was that. People knew where they stood.

In contrast, my generation has witnessed a lot of upheaval. The Soviet Union broke apart. New countries spring into existence on a yearly basis. Many of my friends have divorced parents, and family structures so complicated they need three sheets of paper to illustrate them. Once-eternal companies have disappeared or are dying. The world is in flux. Institutions are unreliable.

Computers, and especially games, may also play into this generational shift in attitude. My generation was among the first to really have games around our entire lives. What does that have to do with anything? Unlike children of previous generations, who were presented with unyielding eternal institutions like school and family and even Little League, games gave my generation a chance to create our own worlds, our own institutions. Life was just another realm in which we could play with the rules.

I wonder whether this sort of game playing and this sort of experimentation with institutions from an early age is what contributed to the massive rise of entrepreneurship we have seen over the past decade or so. Instead of being locked into a world where institutions were king and where the goal was to be a company man, my generation realized that institutions could be brought into being, that starting a new company was like starting a new game. (Okay, the massive drop in capital costs to start a company also contributed, but I’m trying to make a point here).

I was trying to think of ways in which to justify this hypothesis. One thing I came up with was to correlate the types of activities that people participated in as kids with their level of entrepreneurship. Those of us who led more structured childhoods (organized team sports, school activities, etc.) tend to be more rule-followers, more likely to seek out an institution to join rather than creating our own path (I obviously include myself in this group). Those who had less structure in childhood, who were skateboarding in the park with their friends, who played role-playing games and constructed universes that way, they’re the ones who are starting their own companies, creating their own fields of study, etc. These are broad categorizations, and I’m overgeneralizing wildly, but I think there might be an interesting viewpoint hidden somewhere in here.

As an aside, I just typed “there might be a kernel of truth” a second ago, but that just made me uncomfortable because I’m not sure I believe in truth any more, only more and less useful, so I changed it. I’m becoming such a relativist it’s not even funny.

So what can we learn from this? Is this a useful viewpoint? I think the idea of understanding the precariousness of all social institutions as talked about in Reassembling the Social contributes directly to a sense of entrepreneurship. If social institutions are continually re-created by people tracing their existence, then they can be created in the same way. I wonder how we could instill such values in children – our industrial age system of education is clearly not the right answer. Heck, I’d like to learn how to instill such values in myself; I still tend to be way too deferential to authority, and to latch on to social institutions, rather than finding my own path. I think I’m moving in that direction, though. More walk, less talk, is needed.

3 thoughts on “Leading a dynamic life

  1. Excellent post! I stumbled on your blog after reading your notes on a talk give by James Carse (“Finite and Infinite Games”). Did you ever read the book, yourself? It’s brilliant.

    One thing I think is odd is just how disconnected our generation (I’m guessing you and I are approximately the same age; I’m 28) is from that of our parents. Though our parents were raised on the cusp of the movement into a wildly unstable social/work era, their lives were still FAR more stable then ours. Which wouldn’t bother me if I were an master Infinite Player (though “master” is almost a contradiction with “infinite player;” perhaps “adept” would be a better word choice) as our world seems to be rapidly becoming one of many surprises and constant uncertainty–which is hyperstressful to me.

    I don’t know about you, but I feel caught between the maeltrom of the past era–which was oriented toward finite games and gamesmanship–and the maestrom of the future–which is disposed to infinite playing. It’s not a happy sensation.

    I appreciate the thoughtful nature of your blog–keep it up!

  2. I did read the book a couple months later. It is excellent, as you say. But I hadn’t made the connection between the thoughts in that book and the stuff I’m talking about now. That’s a really interesting idea, and it makes a lot of sense. Finite games happen within a given structure, infinite games are about creating new structures. It’s another perspective on the same set of ideas.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. My experience with Corporate America has been restricted to 6 years of working with startup biotechnology companies (2) in the Bay Area. I can speak to some of your assertions on entrepreneurship from my vantage point in this limited arena. In doing so I will keep in mind-with bemused awareness-my personal bias. My observations may be speaking equally to entrepreneurialism and my personal preferences in working environment!

    The idea that childhood liberty and tolerance of curiosity into young adulthood correlates with a skillset found in entrepreneurs fits with the history of the founders of both companies I’ve worked with.

    In considering the similarities between the founding groups I know, I can also list several other variables that correlate with my-admittedly small-sample size. I’ll include seemingly obvious traits and characteristics in the list, for completeness:

    1. Pre-existing friendship: including the capacity to play, argue and get drunk together. They clearly know and understand who they are working with.

    2. At least one “interminable bond”: childhood friendships lasting > 20 years in one case, marraige in the other.

    3. Previous collaborations in the field relevant to the startup. This greatly facilitates item 4…

    4. Unsurpassable communication between founders. This is The Most Important Variable. This communication is often only achieved through 1, 2, or 3. It is unspoken, secret language that allows founders to simultaneously understand one another’s motivations (both personal and professional), nature of inquiry, purpose, scope and key strengths during any discussion.

    I see this all boiling down to trust. There are infinite recipes for trust, and I find it hard to describe the end product separate from the formulation requirements.

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