Unrealistic Expectations: Startups, Young Men, and Suicide

Telling only one side of the entrepreneur story does way more harm than good. 

Once upon a time, life was about “keeping up with the Joneses”. It was about status anxiety and ensuring that people saw that you had enough money to buy the important things in life like a big house, BMW and maybe a country club membership.

We’ve recently seen a shift though. If you’re a young man aged anywhere from 18-40, it’s likely that right now you aren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, you’re trying to do something far more difficult and more fraught with danger:

You’re trying to keep up with the Musks, the Thiels or the Ferriss’s.

An entrepreneur is like James Bond – he lives an exciting life in the fast lane, changing the world, wooing people; women want him and men want to be him.

For most young guys, the petty concerns of keeping up with the Joneses have gone out the window. Increasing social awareness and even movies like Fight Club have stamped their mark on a society of men that no longer care about their status or the fruits of a job that they don’t like. At least that’s the narrative.

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The reality is that there is a new form of status that has made its way into the hearts and minds of many young men.

The new status is achievement, and people like Elon Musk are the new gods. No one cares anymore if you’re making $200k a year working for a major corporation – that just means that you’re making someone else money. Even a career at Google is seen in certain circles as naff – “oh, you won’t be working on any cool problems there, you should join a startup instead”. Yep, there are even hipsters in tech that are too cool for Google.

“Why haven’t you started your own business? Don’t you have any ideas? Do you at least have a mailing list going or what? Have you found your passion yet? Because if you haven’t found your passion you need to get on it, otherwise what you do doesn’t matter.”

These are the questions and concerns that any tech savvie twenty or thirty something guy is asking himself and being asked on a daily basis. It’s no longer about working on Wall St, you want to be in Silicon Valley. Being a stockbroker might have been the big thing in the 80s, but in 2016 the sexy new buzzword is entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is like James Bond – he lives an exciting life in the fast lane, changing the world, wooing people; women want him and men want to be him. Self improvement websites are chock full of listicles offering you ways to have more energy, more productivity, more success.

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The ratio of males who commit suicide is already shockingly high and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

Check out the self improvement category for podcasts on iTunes and you’ll find it flooded with shows on how to get ideas, how to hack various things such as your productivity and body so you can work longer, be more creative and need less sleep. Even meditation has been hijacked from something that is supposed to bring one a measure of peace to a tool used simply to reduce stress so we can work more. Most of these podcasts will either implicitly or flat out tell you to stop chasing material possessions (not a bad thing in and of itself) because they don’t matter in comparison to the freedom of being your own boss and making it big.

This is a dangerous expectation to set up, because what is being valued in people is achievement (and at the top, it’s a rather extreme form of achievement) in a world we believe to be meritocratic, but actually isn’t.

The implication of this is that if you aren’t at the top, or if you don’t have your own successful business or product then it’s entirely your fault. You haven’t worked hard enough yet, you didn’t do enough product research before you launched, you didn’t build enough of a social media presence, you didn’t build enough relationships, your investment pitch wasn’t good enough, you didn’t do enough.

There seems to be the belief that sheer force of will and hard work can overcome any obstacle and is the only factor in success.

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In this hubris of youth and masculine energy it’s either unrealised or ignored that we live in an incredibly random universe where we are constantly at the mercy of fortune. As philosopher Alain de Botton points out, “things can get very miserable very quickly. It only takes a few cells to subdivide in the wrong way and a lot of what seems important now will no longer be. All of our grandest plans can become undone by a blood clot in the space of a minute… and some of the finest ambitions will fall prey to the meanest realities.”

Without the above perspective, which most young men don’t have because they usually haven’t been kicked in the teeth by life yet, this is a crushing amount of pressure for them to be placing on themselves and each other.

The ratio of males who commit suicide is already shockingly high and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Men who have lost their marriage and family, men who have gone broke and couldn’t handle the stress, men who have lost their jobs and not been able to cope without that identity.

The single biggest determinant of a startup succeeding or failing was timing.

I fear that the next wave of suicides will be for a far more brutal and heartbreaking reason: men feeling that they have failed merely because they haven’t achieved sufficiently to feel as though they are important. When people and publications gush over articles like “If You’re Poor at 30, It’s Your Fault” by Jack Ma of Alibaba, it isn’t just implying that you need to be successful, it’s telling people point blank that they are pieces of shit if they aren’t.

Then there are guys like Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal and Palantir) and James Altucher who I’ve heard say (and I paraphrase here) that we shouldn’t celebrate failure and people should try and succeed more quickly, because it’s really demoralising when you fail. Quite the revelation there huh?

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This discourse misses the fact, so well explored by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, that to make an Elon Musk, a Steve Jobs, a Peter Thiel, relies not only on their hard work but on so many other factors that are completely up to chance: parents, health, the economy, the state of technology at the time. Bill Gross, founder of multiple startups, did a TED talk where he explained that after looking at the data, the single biggest determinant of a startup succeeding or failing was timing. Not the people involved, not the amount invested and not how great the idea was. Both we and the people themselves often forget such facts or don’t even consider them.

Money, fortune and success won’t ultimately bring us what we want and will leave many that obtain it unhappy because they have sacrificed so much to get it.

Rather than being able to see success from both sides, being able to see that someone worked extremely hard and made many sacrifices, while also being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people, we instead go to the extreme. We say not only did they work hard, they were smart enough to time the market, that they had the miraculous foresight to see that this tech would be game changing 20 years before it happened and we wonder just how the hell they are so much smarter.

And there’s the rub. Perhaps it’s simply part of being a young man, not wanting to admit that there are greater things in the world than our own force of will and that we actually can’t overcome everything that might be put in our path.

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Once upon a time if someone was striving towards a goal and had a huge wall put in front of them, it was acceptable if they didn’t surmount it. If they had to stop pursuing their dream because a loved one was made disabled in a car accident and needed constant care, most people would see that with great pity and admiration for their selflessness.

Nowadays, you should be working after they’ve gone to bed to make your dreams come true. Caring for a disabled spouse? You should write an ebook about that! What, you don’t have time? Sleep less. You can get more sleep when you’re making big dollars and you can pay to have your loved one cared for instead.

You don’t need to be a startup founder, a CEO or be wearing a $5,000 bespoke suit to be valued and loved.

It’s interesting that despite The Great Gatsby being read and studied by high schoolers for decades, we still don’t heed its lessons. Money, fortune and success won’t ultimately bring us what we want and will leave many that obtain it unhappy because they have sacrificed so much to get it, while conversely leaving the many that don’t obtain it incredibly bitter and in the worst cases, suicidal.

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It doesn’t help that we have success porn splashed around everywhere – look at any magazine like Forbes or even watch the evening news and there will be a story about some startup founder in his 20s whose company was just purchased for a billion dollars, or about Elon Musk, or Richard Branson’s tips for happiness in life.

We worry about the affects of sexual pornorgraphy on young men, how it warps their sense of reality and what real relationships and intimacy are supposed to be like. Success porn is doing the same thing, warping young men’s reality as to what is actually possible and likely when it comes to careers and achievement. Just as real porn doesn’t show the hours and hours of uncomfortable positions, chafing and a whole lot of other disgusting stuff, success porn leaves out the details of how a billion dollars is made, leaving people to think that it can be had with a great idea and a pitch to investors.

I’d love to end on what I think is the answer to this, but unfortunately I don’t think an answer exists. Young men will always go out and try to conquer the world, heedless of the fact that they can’t take it with them when they die. They’ll sacrifice health, relationships and many of life’s pleasures for an elusive goal that for 99% of people will never be achieved.

I think one of the most important things is for parents to keep watch and stress to their sons that yes, you are enough, we love you and are proud of you already. You don’t need to be a startup founder, a CEO or be wearing a $5,000 bespoke suit to be valued and loved. You don’t need to spend every second working, and you probably shouldn’t sacrifice everything for a dream that’s been sold to you by the media and the Internet.

Peter Ross is an author & blogger who writes about psychology, skill development and philosophy. You can find more of his work at www.peterwross.com.

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About Peter Ross

Peter Ross is a former soldier and the author of School's Over...Now What? and Army Jerks. A family man with a full time job at a Fortune 500 medical tech company, he blogs and writes books in his spare time in addition to speaking at high schools on career, success and happiness.  You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive

Comments

  1. A great article Peter Ross!

  2. Daniel Kazani says:

    Hi Pete,

    I have read a few of your articles (also on medium) and I agree in priciple with the message you try to portray. In this case: ‘Entrepreneurship is harder than you think it is, don’t kill yourself over it’. I also agree that people should not be blinded but the accolades. If you are into entrepreneurship for the reward at the end of the tunnel, you are in for the wrong reasons.

    I am an aspiring entrepreneur, I was not sucessful in my first venture due to countless factors, but the experience it was the most valuable thing. I had the highest learning curve, I conquered fears I never imagined and I met some great people as a result of it.

    I disagree that failure sucks, I look at it as learning. If look at the most remarkable achievements, not just in buisiness, but in any concievable field happened after a series of faliures big or small.

    I don’t know that the thing to blame here is what you call ‘success porn’. I actually buy into motivation and the idea that everything you set your mind to is possible. Simply because I have experience it, not in the I own a billion dollar company sense, but I the I have more or less the life I want.

    Yes, there is this notion of sleep less and do more. I actually bought into that for a while, until I realized that for me it was counter productive. Yes Ellon gets by with 5 hours of sleep, but hey I ain’t Ellon Musk.

    I don’t think that entrepreneurship or the ‘entreprenruship craze’ is the real problem here. It’s the way inviduals react to it that might cause a problem. Just like ‘keeping up with the Jonases’ was a craze before, now its tech startups and 20 years from now it will be something else.

    The challange for me is to increase awareness on the true nature of starting and running a business but not to shy people away from it or invalidate it. I have read many books on the topic, the most reoccuring theme that comes up is that entrepreneurship is REAL hard work, and that you should really consider if that is what you truly what to do.

    Then the choice is up to people.

  3. Great article.
    Really spoke to me, here in my mid-30s.

    And Fight Club! I don’t see this mentioned as much as maybe it should be. That book and the major movie that followed really got under the skin of a lot of guys my age, I think.

  4. Superb article! –and so, so true.

    I’ve been a reasonably successful entrepreneur who gave up much for the drive of meaning and self-importance within all my “doing” and “succeeding”, only to realize at the age of 60 it just me chasing a rainbow. While still an entrepreneur (for fundamentally different reasons now) I have found my sense of purpose and worth simply by being the most authentic “me” I came into this world to be. That is, a state of “Being” rather than “Doing”.

    Thank you for writing this –you may have saved some lives from unnecessary misery…

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