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Evolutionary Reason Why We Want to be Entrepreneurs

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Being an employee is unnatural

Bow and arrows from the Korowai Tribe | © Sergey Uryadnikov / Shutterstock

Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur

Our society heroes are people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Entrepreneurs are the heroes of the 21st Century. Teenagers want to become entrepreneurs. Parents want their children to be entrepreneurs. It’s like being an employee is unnatural.

A lot of publications treat this desire as a recent trend. They attribute it to the low barriers to entry and cultural shift. 

This is not a good explanation. It only account for why people did not become entrepreneurs more in the past. It does not explain the widespread drive towards having your own business instead of a job.

This drive is not as logical as you might assume. Starting your own business is incredibly hard. An entrepreneur has to do many more things than an employee and he or she has to deal with exponentially more pressure. There is also a big element of risk. Most businesses fail. Often for reasons outside of the owner’s control.

Becoming an entrepreneur is neither easy, nor convenient. Why then do people desire it? Especially in this time of hyper-convenience where are too lazy to even take the stairs to the gym.


Entrepreneurship is closer to human needs

I am writing a book about how the dissonances between our Paleolithic unconscious and the modern world lead us to make bad choices. It was supposed to be about how people can change their behaviour. 

After writing and editing over 700 pages, I realized it should be slightly different. I should first identify the lifestyle and conditions for which humans evolved. These then are the basis of the lifestyle and conditions which we should create now to have great lives. Of course it’s not about recreating Paleolithic times, we should not live naked in the woods with stone tools.

Homo Sapiens evolved to survive and reproduce in certain conditions. We thrived at it and conquered the globe. But in the meantime we changed it so much that current conditions make us unhappy.

Modern work is one of the unnatural changes. Being an employee is unnatural.


Homo Sapiens are entrepreneurs

How did our hunter-gatherer ancestors handle work? Did they have a boss who gave tasks to other ‘employees’? ‘You prepare ten arrow-head daily’. ‘You stalk the valley to the north for red deer.’

No.

Research on remaining hunter-gatherer societies makes it very clear that they do not have bosses. They are egalitarian.

The concept of the ‘big man’ leading the tribe is not false. However such tribes only took form after the adoption of Agriculture, which happened only about 10,000 years ago. It is recent in evolutionary time.

How did hunter-gatherers organize to hunt and forage and build shelter and do all the other activities needed for survival? How did they manage work?

Each was autonomous and independent. Each could and needed to make their own decisions on how to proceed and what to do. However those decisions had consequences. Our ancestors did not tolerate freeloaders. everyone had to bring their contribution or face dire consequences. This was because they shared everything.

Sharing resources was not an ideological decision on their part. Rather it was simply a necessity to survive. Humans only thrived in groups. Lone humans were easy prey and could not survive.

The collaboration was not a hierarchical one. Rather the group decided how to proceed. They organized by common accord. Some members had more authority in some areas. But this was because they had proven to be especially skilled in those areas, not because of any formal rank.

Like an entrepreneur, each person functioned autonomously. They had to make their own decisions. And they had to perform at a high level. The natural environment is competitive. The deer wants to not be eaten as much as the predator who wants to eat it. A mediocre hunt is an unsuccessful hunt. For most employees, it is more important to do the tasks than do them well. It’s about volume.

Innovation was similar then as it is now for companies. A human who innovated could reap big rewards, but they faced a bigger risk of failure as well. Like innovation in business now. For employees it is usually not like this. In many companies innovation is not only not rewarded appropriately, it is actively discouraged.

Although they were collaborative, hunter-gatherers did not waste time with unnecessary communication. They had to either get things done, or face dangerous consequences. This is similar to entrepreneurs who have to deliver, or else. For employees again it is different because in many companies work has become the hive-mind communication as Cal Newport puts it. Many employees spend more time discussing work than actually producing anything.

Hunter gatherers were like entrepreneurs because they functioned autonomously, they had the power to make decisions and faced the consequences of those decisions, they needed to perform at a high level to survive, innovation was high-risk, high-reward, results were all that mattered.

There are differences compared to modern entrepreneurs. In our times, many entrepreneurs succeed by becoming ‘big-men’ over others. Steve Jobs was notoriously dictatorial. I believe this happens mostly when the startup becomes too big for group decisions. And I believe it happens because we glorify the individual. In reality, all achievements are the work of groups. Steve Jobs did not build Apple alone. Jeff Bezos did not build Amazon alone. 


What can you learn from this?

  1. There is a problem with modern jobs. They harm us because they are so far removed from how human evolved to work.
  2. Entrepreneurship is closer to that ideal.
  3. The model of the lone entrepreneur working miracles is wrong. A better model would of a group of people creating a great startup. This would both reduce the excessive pressure on one person, and bring it closer to how humans evolved to work. 

The third point does not apply to one-person companies. These are a new thing, possible only in our modern era, which does not have an equivalent in our past. 


If you found this interesting, I write about such learnings from our evolutionary past here and you can subscribe to get it in your inbox every week.