Should society call entrepreneurs heroes? Are they like heroes from mythology? Those may seem like strange questions for an economist to ask. But they matter for several reasons. Dwight Lee and Candace Allen argued that if we don't honor entrepreneurial accomplishments, we won't get enough startups. Deirdre McCloskey says that economic growth only took off around the year 1800 because the West began according dignity to entrepreneurs. The work of entrepreneurs parallels the hero's adventure in mythology. The idea has been gaining attention recently, being discussed in The Wall Street Journal while Jeffery McMullen has called for scholars to once again take it seriously. Even Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, one of the inspirations for Star Wars, called the entrepreneur the real hero in American capitalistic society in a radio interview (see appendix).
Cyril Morong was the first to examine the similarities between entrepreneurs and mythological heroes.[i],[ii] He compared entrepreneurship research to The Hero With a Thousand Faces to see if the activities of entrepreneurs corresponded to the hero's adventure. What is the hero's adventure? According to Campbell
"The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return, which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
How is this similar to the entrepreneur's adventure?
The hero's journey begins with a call to adventure. He or she is awakened by some herald which touches his or her unconscious world and creative destiny. The entrepreneur, too, is "called" to the adventure. By chance, he or she discovers a previously unknown product or way to make a profit. The lucky discovery cannot be planned and is itself the herald of the adventure. Israel Kirzner sees successful entrepreneurship as result of a lucky discovery of a new opportunity for economic profit, but it is luck that was due to alertness while leading a life of purposeful action.[iii]
The entrepreneur must step out of the ordinary way of producing and into his or her imagination about the way things could be to discover the previously undreamt of technique or product. The "fabulous forces" might be applying the assembly line technique or interchangeable parts to producing automobiles or building microcomputers in a garage. The mysterious adventure is the time spent tinkering in research and development. But once those techniques are discovered or developed, the entrepreneur now has the power to bestow this boon on the rest of humankind.
Heroes and entrepreneurs both bring change. Campbell refers to the constant change in the universe as "The Cosmogonic Cycle" which "unrolls the great vision of the creation and destruction of the world which is vouchsafed as revelation to the successful hero." This is similar to Joseph Schumpeter's theory of entrepreneurship called “creative destruction.” A successful entrepreneur simultaneously destroys and creates a new world, or at least a new way of life. Henry Ford, for example, destroyed the horse and buggy age while creating the age of the automobile. The hero also finds that the world "suffers from a symbolical deficiency" and "appears on the scene in various forms according to the changing needs of the race." The changing needs and the deficiency correspond to the changing market conditions or the changing desires for products. The entrepreneur is the first person to perceive the changing needs.
Candace Allen and Dwight Lee say that "society needs heroes" and that "entrepreneurs are heroes in every sense." Yet they are not often see as heroes-in fact the opposite seems to be true even though they are indispensable to economic progress. One problem is that economists have not generally promoted entrepreneurs as being important. They acknowledge that creative destruction was "the hallmark of entrepreneurship" without mentioning the parallel to Campbell. Entrepreneurs are motivated not just by money but also by "service to something transcendental." Their views can be summed up with:
“Just as the society that doesn't venerate winners of races will produce fewer champion runners than the society that does, the society that does not honor entrepreneurial accomplishment will find fewer people of ability engaged in wealth creation than the society that does.”[iv]
Dwight Lee and Candace Allen Smith covered similar ground in a later article but also used Campbell, notably the "separation-initiation-return" core of the monomyth (although they still missed the creation destruction connection between Campbell and Schumpeter). They suggest that entrepreneurs are seen negatively due to political biases and the fact that their role in capitalism is poorly understood.[v] Calling them heroes might offset this.
Jeffery McMullen argues that seeing entrepreneurs as heroes doesn't mean that they are hyper-individualistic lone rangers, cutoff from the rest of society. They may receive some community support, but a new venture still requires someone to act, to take the first step. This requires courage due to uncertainty. They are heroic because they bear personal costs. McMullen also bases his observations on the work of Campbell and Schumpeter. He calls on scholars to end their hostility to calling entrepreneurs heroes. Otherwise, we are all "vulnerable to the tyranny of cautious conformity while subjecting our social systems to the constant threat of stagnation."[vi]
Charles Murnieks, Jeffery McMullen, and Melissa Cardon also mention entrepreneurs being heroes (citing Campbell and Schumpeter). Using surveys, they found that entrepreneurs experienced positive emotions (PE) when they perceived that their self-identity as entrepreneurs matched that of society or their environment. That is, if the entrepreneurs saw themselves as risk-takers who enhance social welfare, and if the entrepreneurs thought that society saw them that way as well, positive emotions were experienced.
Their empirical findings may support Allen and Lee's contention that society should honor entrepreneurial accomplishments:
"challenging environments are part of what makes a hero’s actions valiant. In a similar manner, we contend that dynamic environments may play a key role in framing an entrepreneur’s actions as courageous or innovative, because the individual is seen to act in the face of uncertainty and turbulence. Stakeholders (such as mentors, family members, or investors) who advise entrepreneurs should know and accentuate this point. By providing reaffirming feedback in dynamic and challenging environments, these stakeholders can elevate the PE experienced by the entrepreneur and motivate them to continue on their journey. In essence, this strategy can help separate the generation of PE from the success of the venture in some cases."[vii]
The "reaffirming feedback" is a way to honor the entrepreneur which motivates them to "continue on their journey."
The idea that entrepreneurs might be heroes is now starting to reach the popular media. Barbara Haislip reported on how storytelling, especially about the founders, can be a marketing tool for businesses. She interviewed Angela Randolph of Babson College who said “Stories about founders and new innovations are often in the form of a myth and follow the hero’s journey.” Randolph then described the hero's journey as outlined in Campbell. Telling the founding story about "the hero’s call to action...pulls the audience in" if they can trigger "strong emotions."[viii]
This question may be relevant now since entrepreneurship may be in decline. Jeffrey Sparshott reported that “the share of private firms less than a year old has dropped from more than 12 percent during much of the 1980s to only about 8 percent since 2010. In 2014, the most recent year of data, the startup rate was the second-lowest on record, after 2010.”[ix] Honoring and respecting the work of entrepreneurs might be a way to reverse this trend.[x]
Also, historically, it may have only been when entrepreneurs became respected that economic growth took off. Deirdre McCloskey argues that what made the world so wealthy today, when average world income in 1800 was just $1 to $5 per day (adjusted for inflation) was a change in ideas:
"...in Holland and then in England. The revolutions and reformations of Europe, 1517 to 1789, gave voice to ordinary people outside the bishops and aristocrats. Europeans and then others came to admire entrepreneurs..."
It was a "Middle-Class Deal" that gave entrepreneurs dignity and liberty to seek profit and generate social welfare. This led to a flurry of inventions, innovations and new institutions that made our modern world and therefore "the ordinary people, and especially the very poor, were made much, much better off." She even says "People had to start liking "creative destruction...""[xi]
In fact, one of her books is titled Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. McCloskey writes
"that the modern world was made not by the usual material causes, such as coal or thrift or capital or exports or imperialism or good property rights or even good science, all of which have been widespread in other cultures and at other times."[xii]
McCloskey even credits "the Kirznerian entrepreneur [for allowing her] to make progress on the puzzle of economic growth." What is entrepreneurship? It is an "unhirable factor" or "alertness" and "can't be something that can be provided routinely, such as the services of banking or management. It must be creative."[xiii] Creativity comes from stepping outside the normal way of doing things, "jumping over the edge and moving into the adventure" (see the Campbell interview in the appendix). So the entrepreneur is just like the hero in mythology.[xiv]
Tape #1901: "Call of the Hero" with Joseph Campbell interviewed by Michael Toms. New Dimensions Foundation audio tape from a live interview on San Francisco's radio station KQED. The following exchange was part of a discussion of the question of: What is creativity?
Toms: In a sense it's the going for, the jumping over the edge and moving into the adventure that really catalyzes the creativity, isn't it?
Campbell: I would say so, you don't have creativity otherwise.
Toms: Otherwise there's no fire, you're just following somebody else's rules.
Campbell: Well, my wife is a dancer. She has had dance companies for many, many years. I don't know whether I should talk about this. But when the young people are really adventuring, it's amazing what guts they have and what meager lives they can be living, and yet the richness of the action in the studio. Then, you are going to have a concert season. They all have to join a union. And as soon as they join a union, their character changes. (emphasis added, but Campbell changed the tone of his voice) There are rules of how many hours a day you can rehearse. There are certain rules of how many weeks of rehearsal you can have. They bring this down like a sledgehammer on the whole thing. There are two mentalities. There's the mentality of security, of money. And there's the mentality of open risk.
Toms: In other societies we can look and see that there are those that honor elders. In our society it seems much like the elders are part of the main stream and there is a continual kind of wanting to turn away from what the elders have to say, the way it is, the way to do it. The union example is a typical one, where the authority, institution, namely the union comes in and says this is the way it's done. And then one has to fall into line or one has to find something else to do.
Campbell: That's right.
Toms: And it's like treating this dichotomy between elders and the sons and daughters of the elders. How do you see that in relationship to other cultures?
Campbell: This comes to the conflict of the art, the creative art and economic security. I don't think I have seen it in other cultures. The artist doesn't have to buck against quite the odds that he has to buck against today.
Toms: The artist is honored in other cultures.
Campbell: He is honored and quickly honored. But you might hit it off, something that really strikes the need and requirements of the day. Then you've given your gift early. But basically it is a real risk. I think that is so in any adventure, even in business, the man who has the idea of a new kind of gift (emphasis added) to society and he is willing to risk it (this is exactly what George Gilder says in chapter three, "The Returns of Giving" in his book Wealth and Poverty). Then the workers come in and claim they are the ones that did it. Then he (the entrepreneur) can't afford to perform his performance. It's a grotesque conflict, I think between the security and the creativity ideas. The entrepreneur is a creator; he's running a risk.
Toms: Maybe in American capitalistic society the entrepreneur is the creative hero in some sense.
Campbell: Oh, I think he is, I mean the real one. Most people go into economic activities not for risk but for security. You see what I mean. And the elder psychology tends to take over.This discussion ended and after a short break a new topic was discussed.
[i] Cyril Morong, "The Creative-Destroyers: Are Entrepreneurs Mythological Heroes?" (Presented at the annual meetings of the Western Economic Association, July), 1992, available at: http://cyrilmorong.com/CreativeDestroyers.pdf
Cyril Morong, "The Calling of the Entrepreneur," The New Leaders: The Business Bulletin for Transformative Leadership, November/December 1992, p. 4, available at: http://cyrilmorong.com/ENTREPRENEURshort.pdf
Cyril Morong, "Mythology, Joseph Campbell, and the Socioeconomic Conflict,” The Journal of Socio-Economics, Volume 23, No.4, Winter 1994, pp. 363-382, available at: http://cyrilmorong.com/MythCampbellSocioEconomic2.pdf
[ii] Wyn Wachhorst in Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), pp.74-86, uses Joseph Campbell's book The Hero With a Thousand Faces to analyze part of Edison's early life, although Wachhorst suggests that Edison might have been more trickster than hero. Wachhorst quotes David McClelland from The Achieving Society with: "Interestingly, David McClelland found that Hermes, the trickster of the Greek pantheon, is the mythological type which best reflects the "achievement personality [of entrepreneurs]."" Morong (1992a) also mentions tricksters. The word entrepreneur does not appear in the index of the Edison book. So Wachhorst probably did not look at any research on entrepreneurs in general. He did not mention Schumpeter and creative destruction, either. Wachhorst often compares Edison to Prometheus, suggesting that using electricity is like stealing fire.
[iii] Israel Kirzner, Perception, Opportunity, and Profit (The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 163, 181.
From personal correspondence with Israel Kirzner he writes "I should point out in my own treatment of the entrepreneur, he is not seen as a "hero." Moreover, in my own treatment pure luck is not seen as entrepreneurial. (but as the act of deliberately putting oneself into a situation which one hopes will prove lucky is entrepreneurial)." It is my contention that the best way for a person to put themselves into a situation in which they will be lucky is for them to follow Campbell's advice that is based on his analysis of the hero's adventure. This is to follow your bliss, to listen to the wisdom of your heart and do what you love, not what the social system would have you do. If you follow your bliss, you are a hero. I believe that the most successful entrepreneurs follow their bliss and are therefore heroes. Jeffery McMullen (cited below) also mentions that entrepreneurs follow their bliss.
Joseph Schumpeter, The Theory of Economic Development (New Brunswick, NJ:Transaction Books, 1983), p. 923 lists three classes of motives for entrepreneurship: the will to found private kingdom, the will to conquer, and the joy of creating. The first, although seemingly only greedy, ranges, however, from "spiritual ambition down to mere snobbery." The second was like a sporting event, with money used to keep score, and not an end in itself. The entrepreneur of the third class of motives is in it for the sake of "exercising one's energy and ingenuity" and for the delight in venturing. All three classes of motives are anti-hedonistic, with the third being the most so. This certainly makes it plausible to see the entrepreneur as someone who follows his or her bliss.
[iv] Candace Allen and Dwight Lee, "The entrepreneur as hero," Journal of Private Enterprise, Volume 12, No. 1, Fall 1996, pp. 1–15.
[v] Dwight Lee and Candace Allen Smith, “The Entrepreneur on the Heroic Journey,” The Freeman, Vol. 47 No. 4, April 1997, available at: https://fee.org/articles/the-entrepreneur-on-the-heroic-journey/
[vi] Jeffery McMullen, "Are we confounding heroism and individualism? Entrepreneurs may not be lone rangers, but they are heroic nonetheless," Business Horizons, Volume 60, Issue 3, May–June 2017, pp. 257–259.
[vii] Charles Y. Murnieks, Jeffery S. McMullen, and Melissa S. Cardon, "Does Congruence with an Entrepreneur Social Identity Encourage Positive Emotion Under Environmental Dynamism?" Journal of Small Business Management, 27 February 2017, doi:10.1111/jsbm.12335, abstract available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsbm.12335/abstract
[viii] Barbara Haislip, "Tell Me a Story," The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2017, page R8, available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-entrepreneurs-story-can-be-the-perfect-marketing-tool-1493604360
[ix] Jeffery Sparshott, "Sputtering Startups Weigh on U.S. Economic Growth," The Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2016, available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/sputtering-startups-weigh-on-u-s-economic-growth-1477235874
[x] Allen and Lee (1996) mention that "during the 1980s almost 90 percent of all business characters on television were portrayed as corrupt." It does not seem like there are many movies or TV programs even now that show entrepreneurs in a positive light.
[xi] Deirdre McCloskey, "Liberty and Dignity Explain the Modern World": An Essay Based on Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World, November 2011, available at: http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/articles/bd/briefBD.php.
[xii] Deirdre McCloskey, "Ideas, Not "Capital," Enriched the World," March 19, 2016, available at: https://fee.org/articles/ideas-not-capital-enriched-the-world/
[xiii] Deirdre McCloskey, "A Kirznerian Economic History of the Modern World," June 17, 2011, available at: http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/editorials/kirzner.php
[xiv] McCloskey also writes that the growing freedom and increasing respect for entrepreneurs "created more and more opportunities for Kirznerian alertness." Furthermore "Austrian discovery and creativity depends also on the other virtues, in particular on Courage and Hope" and "A new rhetorical environment in the eighteenth century encouraged (literally: "gave courage" to the hope of) entrepreneurs." She does, however, see a weakness in that Kirzner does not consider the audience of the entrepreneur, the customers and the rhetoric they use.