As discussed in Nature Or Nurture, I believe that entrepreneurs are born rather than created by their environment. However, one’s environment clearly has an impact on a person’s ultimate career path. In looking back on my childhood, three unlikely environmental influences nudged me in the direction of entrepreneurship.
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The Kindling Is Set
The first influencer was the classic fairy tale, The Three Little Pigs. It was one of my favorite books as a child, although the moral, which impacted me, was not the obvious one (i.e., build your house of substantial materials and try to not piss off any wolves). What intrigued me was the fact that the pigs left the comfort of their home and entered the “wide world” to “seek their fortunes.”
A 1909 version of the story describes the mother pig as calling, “her sons to her, and, with tears in her eyes, told them that she must send them out into the wide world to seek their fortune.”
Being sent away from home by your own mother was a scary concept to a toddler. However, my fear was balanced by my desire to understand the nature of the “fortune” the pigs were seeking. My mother recalls that I routinely asked her the same question, “Will I have to go and seek my fortune someday?” followed by, “What’s a fortune?” In my naivety, I assumed that seeking your fortune was essentially a treasure hunt, rather than a methodical process of taking calculated risks and ultimately creating value for yourself and your Stakeholders.
Unfortunately, too many adults retain this immature concept of seeking their fortunes. They purchase lottery tickets, frequent casinos, and buy magazines from Publishers Clearing House in the hopes of “instantly becoming a multi-millionaire!”
Lighting The Match
In elementary school, my concept of “seeking a fortune” was shaped by the California gold rush of 1849. Like the modern-day fortune seekers, the 49ers largely slammed their picks into the ground at random, hoping to “strike it rich” by unearthing a treasure. These young miners are often characterized in the same terms as the three little pigs. In fact, the San Francisco Wells Fargo Museum has been described as featuring, “a wonderful collection of letters from and to 49ers seeking their fortunes.”
A gold rush is essentially an adult treasure hunt. Rushing to a goldfield and casting about with picks and shovels, hoping one might “strike it rich” is not entrepreneurial. However, as I learned as child, entrepreneurs were attracted to the goldfields. They sought a different type of treasure.
Even as a child I realized that the fortunes were made by people who mined the miners, such as Levi Strauss and Sam Brannan (California’s first self-made millionaire). This lesson reinforced my natural inclination to ignore Conventional Wisdom and pursue contrarian opportunities. The conventional thought was that the fortune was in the ground, while in actuality, it was in the miners’ collective pockets.
Stoking The Flames
In Junior High, I scrawled the first three verses of Pink Floyd’s song “Time” on poster board and hung it in on my bedroom wall. No doubt, my parents were suitably frightened.
The lyrics spoke to my adolescent desire to begin seeking my fortune. The last thing I wanted to do was, “miss the starting gun.” I was also determined to not, “kick around on a piece of ground in my hometown.” To this end, neither my wife nor I knew anyone when we moved to Santa Barbara in 1993. Despite our humble beginnings, we braved the wolf and eventually built our financial house out of bricks.
Decades later, the overwhelming majority of my high school, undergraduate and graduate school classmates live within a comfortable driving distance of their childhood homes. Although there are numerous admirable reasons to establish a career near your childhood friends and family, the fact that less than five percent of my former East Coast classmates moved to California, which has the eighth largest global economy and has been the primary engine of technological growth in the US for the past thirty years, reflects the reality that most people are ATM Operators who are unwilling to throw a stick and handkerchief over their shoulder and journey into the unknown.
In my humble opinion, The Three Little Pigs should be revised to characterize the pigs’ departure from home as a quest to create their fortunes rather than to seek them. Such a change might clarify for future would-be entrepreneurs that those who simply seek their fortune are doomed to “fritter and waste their hours in an offhand way,” while those who attempt to proactively create it stand a better chance of enjoying a fulfilling life, irrespective of their financial success.
Epilogue: If you are a Bank Robber, you may find that this essay is irrelevant – you have no fear regarding creating your fortune. However, I hope that readers with children will be reminded that seemingly random factors can influence their offspring in surprising ways.
Even though my parents were life-long government workers who shared a low tolerance for risk, they never stifled my dreams, nor did they attempt to discourage me from creating my fortune. Even if you are an ATM Operator, who lives within walking distance of your parent’s home, allow your little piggies to wrap a handkerchief on a stick and head out into the wide world guilt free – or better yet, with your blessings.
John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.
John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.
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