Monday, January 20, 2014

Entrepreneurs Escape Their Generation (and an occasional French brig-o’-war)

Nathaniel Silsbee
In William Strauss and Neil Howe’s entertaining book, Generations, the authors characterize Americans born around the time of the Revolution as the “Compromise Generation."

“The lived an awkward lifecyle,” the authors wrote.  “Compromisers were coddled in childhood, suffered little in war, came of age with quiet obedience, enjoyed a lifetime of rising prosperity, and managed to defer national crisis until most of them had died.”  I chuckled when I read this summary; imagine, a lifetime of peace and prosperity, sandwiched between the Revolution and Civil War.  Such awkwardness for this coddled cohort!

In 1792, the trading ship Benjamin departed Salem, Massachusetts, loaded with hops, saddlery, window glass, mahogany boards, tobacco and Madeira wine.  The ship and crew would be gone for 19 months, traveling to the Cape of Good Hope and Il de France.   All the while they bargained hard from port to port, flipping their freight several times “amid embargoes and revolutions,” naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “slipping their cables at Capetown after dark in a gale of wind to escape a British frigate; drifting out of Bourbon with ebb tide to elude a French brig-o’-war.”  In 1794, the Benjamin returned to Salem with a cargo that brought 500% profit to its owners. 

The ship just happened to be captained by Nathaniel Silsbee, 19 years old when he took command.  His first mate was 20 and his clerk 18. 

Of course, these three daring (and soon-to-be wealthy) entrepreneurs were members of that awkward and coddled “Compromise Generation.”

Just in case you are wondering how to feel
Does it feel sometimes that we place too much emphasis on a generational view of Americans?  We seem extraordinarily concerned, for example, that we now have four generations coming together in the workplace—Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials.  There is a huge amount of ink and pixels expended on defining the expectations of each cohort, and recommendations for how we can all live together.  (See here, here, and here for typical examples.  A Millennial reflects here.  A group of Gen Ys reflect here.  Gen X traits defined here. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

I have worked for more than thirty years and cannot think of a single moment in a business setting when I wanted to define myself as a “Baby Boomer.”  Boomers always seemed, well, old to me, and busy messing up the planet and spending the surplus handed to them by the Greatest Generation.  At least that’s what I’d read about them.  They did not get along with younger folks very well, either.  

This never described my friends or peers.  Besides being perpetually young and easy-to-get-along-with (not to mention good-looking), we were all too busy trying to make stuff and build businesses to worry about fitting into a demographic mold. The Boomers were obviously someone else’s cohort. 

I suspect that Nathaniel Silsbee might feel the same way were he defined by historians or demographers as a member of the Compromise Generation.  He might also have pointed to some of his other coddled and awkward peers, men like DeWitt Clinton, Meriwether Lewis, Davy Crockett and Samuel Morse.  Think, in order: the most daring and transformative public works project in American history, the Erie Canal; the first to claim the Pacific Northwest and Oregon Country for America; King of the Wild Frontier; and “the greatest revolution of modern times,” decoupling information and goods.  That’s a courageous, inventive and entrepreneurial cohort Silsby might have been happy to join.

As I read about successful American entrepreneurs over the last 250 years, all of them buffeted by war, financial panic, politics, religion, technology and enormous demographic forces, one thing seems clear: They really don't pay much attention.  What occupies their time is the goal sitting directly in front of them, whether it's escaping a French warship or digging a canal 363 miles long.  It's a kind of heads-down, blinders-on, micro view of the world that leaves macro considerations for historians and social scientists.

So, what generation are you?  For historians and social scientists, ten points awarded for knowing.  But for entrepreneurs, five points bonus if you have to stop and think.  Fifty points more if you don't care.