There are two species of animals that dominate the Serengeti plains of Tanzania — the elephant and the lion. Both form part of their own complex societies, yet they are totally different from each other in how they lead their lives. Lions have been dubbed the so-called risk-taking “Kings of the Jungle,” whereas elephants are noted for their long memory and their laziness. They are spiritedly unadventurous.
Their different personalities and skillsets help paint a picture of entrepreneurship’s current state across the Western world. Too many of us have become elephants. On the other hand, much like their real-life counterparts, the population of lions within society is in terminal decline.
And, this terminal decline is leading to a national emergency.
The American Dream is Sleepwalking into a National Emergency
“National emergency” may sound pretty stark, especially considering what is happening in the world around us at this moment in time, but it’s an accurate description all the same. If we are to mount an economic recovery as a nation from the worst recession since World War Two, we will need new, innovative businesses on the front line.
The problem is, the American Dream is suffering an identity crisis. Fewer and fewer people are taking the leap of faith to start their own business. According to recent data, rates of entrepreneurship within the United States are in terminal decline. The worst part is that the writing has been on the wall for quite some time, and no one is speaking up. In 1980, 15% of all US firms had been created the year before. In the last census in 2011, that number had halved.
The problem is not merely limited to the US either. Entrepreneurship rates are down across all high-income countries. So what’s causing this malaise in the Western world and beyond? While it is undoubtedly true that several crushing economic recessions and declining population numbers haven’t helped, it appears a growing number of us are losing the ability to discover and pursue our passion.
Our passion and purpose are closely linked to our self-identity. I’ve long argued most of us don’t dedicate enough time to self-reflection. We become so consumed with our day-to-day lives that we don’t even pause to look in the mirror. But from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, your self-identity is switched on and telling you the parameters within which you need to live.
For most of us, those parameters maintain the status quo. Our self-imposed boundaries prevent us from taking risks and chasing dreams. Much like the elephant, our self-identity is closely tied to keeping things the way they are rather than pushing the envelope. But what if we could escape this box we’ve built around us and redefine who we are as a person and a professional? What if we can discover our real purpose and pursue it with conviction?
Currently, the truth of the matter is that most of us choose the path of least resistance — the path toward comfort. But comfort never leads to breakthrough ideas. Unfortunately, by choosing an entrepreneur and future leader’s life, you have to leave your safety blanket at the door. To use this article’s analogy, you have to set out into the jungle and hope and pray that your fortitude and acquired skills will see you through, much like a lion.
Elephants Thrive on Maintaining the Status Quo
Elephants spend most of their day on the move. They have to. Otherwise, they would struggle to meet the quota of 375 pounds of vegetation they eat every day. Grasses, small bushes, small plants, fruit, twigs, bark, and even earth are all on the menu. Elephants spend as much as eighteen hours a day eating.
Don’t forget how much they drink either. Their famous marches in between watering holes are necessary to ensure they take on board the 26 gallons of water they need to survive each day. Not an easy task when it hasn’t rained for months.
Like us, elephants form complex societies. They are highly intelligent and are even capable of self-awareness. They live in herds, made up of the matriarch (the oldest female in the group), her female calves, and the youngsters (aged 15 or under). The herd can comprise between six and 30 animals, and new herds are formed once they become too big. Like many of us, they maintain the status quo by hanging out with each other at water holes and feeding spots, not too dissimilar from those catch-ups we have by the water cooler in the office.
So far, so good. So what’s wrong with being an elephant?
Well, as intelligent and social as these animals are, they are also slow, methodical, and spend over 80% of their day lumbering in between waterholes. In other words, they are content with their lives. They have no great ambition to change anything or make an impact on those around them. Instead, their energies are focused on merely maintaining the status quo.
Once they reach adulthood, no other animal poses much a threat to their existence (barring human poachers), so they wake up each morning to start the process of eating and drinking without so much a care for what happens on that particular day. They’re happy with their status quo, and they spend their entire lives maintaining it.
This, it seems, is where Western, if not global, society is heading toward concerning entrepreneurship and new business creation.
Why Lions Don’t Understand the Concept of Comfort
What’s interesting when comparing elephants and lions is that they have the same complex societal structure. The females overwhelming outnumber the males who spend most of their time in solitude between prides (or herds in the case of elephants).
And yet, their lives couldn’t be more different. Lions are the biggest risk-takers in the animal kingdom. Every morning they wake up, lions know that if they don’t hunt, they will starve. An almost permanent state of discomfort defines their lives.
Just think back to the last time you watched a lioness hunt a gazelle on National Geographic. What may seem mundane viewing to you is all or nothing to the lioness you’re casually watching on TV. While you see the hungry, patient lioness waiting in the bushes, what you don’t see is beneath that calm exterior, she is raging. She’s been on the hunt all day without any success. She knows this is the last chance before sundown to find a meal for her and her cubs. She can’t afford to blow it.
She uses her critical thinking skills to survey the herd in front of her. Patience is crucial as she waits to discover which of the animals is the slowest and weakest, before eventually giving chase in a burst of speed and ferocity.
At that moment, the gazelle, much like the elephant, has no “why,” no purpose. It’s happy and comfortable merely grazing the plains as they do for most of each day. By contrast, the lioness is both figuratively and literally hungry. If she doesn’t do her job, her kids don’t eat, her partner (the male of the pride) doesn’t eat, and they all eventually die. It’s a game of risk where losing isn’t an option. But she does it all the same because that is what she was put on this earth to do. She has a “why” from the moment she wakes up. It shapes her whole self-identity, and she is defined by what she does.
How Lions Can Inspire a New Generation of Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders
Lions, in general, are just like entrepreneurs. From the moment they embark on their journey, they know the odds are stacked against them. Only one in every eight lions born survives into adulthood. These are odds that are very similar to those of American businesses.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first ten years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. These figures are what lead so many potential entrepreneurs to shun their passions and purposes. They like their cushy job. Why give that up when the chances of long-term success are so slim?
Individuals from the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts, who should be leading the charge into a new era of entrepreneurship, are increasingly shunning the idea. Experts have pointed to the spiraling $1.5 trillion student debt (in the US alone) as the reason. The argument is the higher the level of student debt, the lower an individual’s propensity to start a business.
However, I believe that it is a pervasive adversity to risk that’s causing the problem. When things get tough, or there’s an offer on the table that requires a step up in responsibility and leadership, many jump ship and start a new, more comfortable position. This prevailing attitude has given rise to the portfolio career, which in many ways resembles the splintering of an elephant herd when it becomes too large. In essence, they find themselves unable to align their self-identity with that of a risking-taking entrepreneur. Millennials have even been labeled the “cautious generation.”
It’s a huge reason why the average age of a startup founder is now 45. Yes, you read that correctly. This surprisingly high average age is a direct consequence of companies forcing better-renumerated, older generations (such as Baby Boomers) out of the door. The cast-offs have no choice but to try something different and break out of their status quo. This scenario is reflected in the animal kingdom when juvenile male lions are cast out by their pride and forced to forge their own path.
But going it alone is just one of the many risks lions and lionesses face as part of their daily existence. They don’t kill every gazelle they lay their eyes upon. In fact, many die after a succession of unsuccessful attempts. But it’s the risks they take that renders them kings and queens of their domain. In other words, without staring at the chance of catastrophic failure in the face, you can never truly succeed.
Be Less Elephant, Be More Lion
For most of us, it is much easier to maintain the the status quo. Our self-imposed boundaries prevent us from taking risks and chasing dreams. Much like the elephant, our self-identity is closely tied to keeping things the way they are rather than pushing the envelope. But what if we could escape this box we’ve built around us and redefine who we are as a person and a professional? What if we can discover our real purpose and pursue it with conviction?
Currently, the truth of the matter is that most of us choose the path of least resistance — the path toward comfort. But comfort never leads to breakthrough ideas.
By choosing an entrepreneur and future leader’s life, you have to leave your safety blanket at the door. To use this article’s analogy, you have to set out into the jungle and hope and pray that your fortitude and acquired skills will see you through, much like a lion.
As I’ve already argued, risk and the fear of failure are critical components for extracting optimal performance out of yourself. If you find yourself in a constant state of comfort, never looking to disrupt the status quo, you’ll never even begin to scratch beneath the surface of what you’re capable of. It’s time for you to make risk-taking part of who you are as an individual. Become passion struck in your endeavor.
Our country and Western civilization once again finds itself facing the challenge of overcoming economic hardship. If we are to succeed this time, we will be relying heavily on the resurgence of new business creation guided by a new generation of purposeful entrepreneurs and future leaders who have the risk appetite required for such an adventure.
If the decline continues, however, much like the lions in the Serengeti, entrepreneurs could eventually become extinct.
In a society of elephants, the world is in desperate need of more lions.