Saturday, March 10, 2012

What Makes Entrepreneurs Nervous? (Redux 2015)

One day years ago I came home from work and told my wife I’d had an experience in the office like I “was in an MTV video.”  (For those too young to remember, MTV used to actually play music videos.)  It was an odd sensation, something I first thought might be a silent migraine.  The episode came with floating spots, flashing and muted lights, a little vertigo, and a real problem focusing on my computer screen or on any kind of reading material.  Fortunately, it lasted only a few minutes. 

Needless to say, I told my wife but I did not tell my board of directors.

I have now come to believe that episode was my body acclimating itself to too much technological input--too many phones, emails, screens, texts, beeps, chimes, skims and scans.  It was an event somewhat akin to lying in bed when I was very young and feeling my legs ache through a growth spurt.  In other words, I was having a physical reaction to technological stimulus, a kind of re-calibration to change.

So, I was struck the other day when I picked up a copy of American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, written in 1881--about a century into the Industrial Revolution-- by Dr. George Miller Beard (1839-1883).  Beard was a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and most famous for defining “neurasthenia” as a medical condition which included symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, headache, impotence and depression--what he called a depletion of the body’s central nervous system's energy reserves. Beard attributed neurasthenia to nothing less than civilization.

Urbanization, Competition and Technology

Physicians who agreed tended to pin the root cause of these symptoms on the startling growth of American cities and the increasingly competitive business environment. In other words, people's coping skills were not evolving as quickly as their technologies, and their bodies were paying in the process.

Beard used one of the 19th century's most famous inventions as an example of anxiety-inducing technology.

"The telegraph is a cause of nervousness the potency of which is little understood,” Beard wrote.  “Before the days of Morse and his rivals, merchants were far less worried than now, and less business was transacted in a given time; prices fluctuated far less rapidly, and the fluctuations which now are transmitted instantaneously over the world were only known then by the slow communication of sailing vessels or steamships. . .The continual fluctuation of values, and the constant knowledge of those fluctuations in every part of the world, are the scourges of business men, the tyrants of the trade—every cut in prices in wholesale lines in the smallest of any of the Western cities, becomes known in less than an hour all over the Union; thus competition is both diffused and intensified.  Within but thirty years the telegraphs of the world have grown to half a million miles of line. . .In the United States there were, in 1880, 170,103 miles of line, and in that year 33,255,991 messages sent over them." 
Dr. Beard found that a “deficiency of nerve-force” had developed during the 19th century, especially in the Northern and Eastern portions of the U.S., the heart of industrialization and urbanization.  And Beard distinguished the stresses of modern civilization from ancient civilization--“the Greeks were certainly civilized, but they were not nervous”--by five key attributes:
  • The telegraph
  • Steam-power
  • The periodical press
  • The sciences
  • The mental activity of women 
America is particularly prone to nervousness, Beard wrote, because of the “dryness of the air, extremes of heat and cold, civil and religious liberty, and the great mental activity made necessary and possible in a new and productive country under such climatic conditions.”  (A focus on climate as determining the destinies of men and civilizations was an emerging "science" in the 19th and early 20th centuries.)
There were many signs of American nervousness, he said, including susceptibility to narcotics and drugs, an increase in diseases like nervous exhaustion, rapid decay of the teeth, premature baldness, the strain of puberty and change of life, American oratory, speech and language, the greater intensity of animal life on this continent, and (strange as it may seem) the unprecedented beauty of American women.  To emphasize the profound changes that besieged his generation at every turn, Beard even related the story of meeting “in society a young man just entering the silver decade [or 25 years old], but whose hair was white enough for one of sixty, and he said that the color changed in a single day, as a sign and result of a mental conflict in giving up his religion for science.”
Fortunately, the good doctor remained optimistic, saying “increasing wealth will bring increasing calm and repose; the friction of nervousness shall be diminished by various inventions. . .and as a consequence strength and vigor shall be developed."

Of course, Beard was writing at the start of a new working generation--from 1880 to World War I--that would experience a profound disruption to their lives:  From horses to a booming auto industry.  From flying as a dream to the emergence of commercial travel.  From no phone or radio and little electricity to national communications networks and grids.  From farm to city.  From cities where the tallest building was a church to those filled with skyscrapers.  From minstrel shows to Hollywood, robber barons to National Parks, the closing of the frontier and rising immigration, the end of Reconstruction and rise of Jim Crow, the beginning of Women's suffrage (which must be what Beard was referring to). . .  If you were an entrepreneur born at the time of the American Centennial, your coping skills would had to have been robust and resilient.

Has increasing wealth brought us calm and repose, as Dr. Beard forecast?  Has new strength and vigor been developed?

I will let you know just as soon as this MTV video in my head stops playing.


The MTV analogy seems incredibly dated.  I also removed a number of (what were meant to be) humorous examples (like Lady Gaga jumping out of an egg) that even I have a difficult time conjuring up, or events that today seem run-of-the-mill (such as Google ad placements based on the personal email I just wrote, which once seemed so incredibly invasive).  And just since the time I wrote this post, the volume of material on the web has exploded, as has our need to skim, dip, and negotiate back and forth between real and virtual worlds.  It's rare that we don't ask a question today that someone doesn't Google the answer; rare to travel without GPS; impossible to travel without a smartphone.  I've had no other MTV events, but I have found my ability to read deeply and concentrate compromised by the new technologies, just as Nicholas Carr and others have suggested it might.  I'm afraid we've had our first, major watershed moment with digital technology; the anxiety is gone, just as Dr. Beard promised, but in return we're pointed down the long, slippery slope.