I find myself talking about the entrepreneurial spirit, or entrepreneurship, or entrepreneurs, more than I’d really like these days. I was talking about it again this morning. And my students were reading about it. But in truth it is an ungainly word, and a still more ungainly category.
It used to be that people who started their own businesses called themselves businessmen. It was not an especially glamorous category, and did not seek to make the starting of a company the index of character. The starting was, in a sense, incidental.
But the entrepreneur is now the aspirational category of our time. Where once young and aspiring individuals might have wanted to be writers or artists or musicians, now they want to start their own companies. And not just so that they then have companies, or run companies, let us be clear: they want to be entrepreneurs.
To be an entrepreneur, we are to believe, is to unite qualities of creativity, imagination, and daring. The entrepreneur is part artist, part aviator, part explorer, part pioneer. To say you do not want to be an entrepreneur is to admit to a certain dullness of spirit, a lack of capitalist zeal.
It is all a bit of nonsense, in the end, a fanciful projection of the ultra-individualist creeds of the 1960s. And if it seems a far-fetched notion, that entrepreneurs are hippies grown cynical, consider that the great Mecca of start-up culture, Silicon Valley, is also a counter-culture spin-off.
In truth the urge to organise the world around your particular sense of self is an absurd and unnecessary outgrowth of the basic social function of the entrepreneur, which is to hustle. Entrepreneurs are hustlers, and society needs, or anyway relishes, a bit of a hustle. But it is no more romantic than that.