It’s last Wednesday night. We’re having dinner, and I’m telling my father about “Shark Tank,” that show where newbie entrepreneurs go in front of uber-wealthy VCs, and do their best to work an investment miracle. The entrepreneurs ask the sharks for a certain amount of money in exchange for equity in their company. The pitch always involves a little song and dance about how earth shattering their new inflatable necktie, or glow-in-the-dark shoelace, or edible hand sanitizer is. And in turn, the sharks ask pointed questions, like: What are your actual margins? How many customers do you really have? Do people really need an inflatable necktie? The entrepreneurs wring their hands: “Yes! Everybody needs one!” Invariably, the sharks ask for more equity. The entrepreneurs bite their lips. And in the end, they usually bend because the prospect of scaling their businesses is just too sweet to pass up.
So, I’m excitedly explaining this to my father, assuming he would bolt up from the table right then and there, and immediately start reviewing missed episodes. Instead, he just looks at me, proud as proud can be, and says: “My daughter! When did you become such a little capitalist?!” And in the unparalleled way that my father can provoke in me such an outburst of emotion, utterly devoid of logic and sense, I cried out: “I am not a capitalist! I want to do good. I mean, well. I mean, good things for the world.” (Um, what?!) And, then, followed up only by, “I’ve always been a capitalist!!”
Now, let me back up a minute and puzzle this out. Perhaps it’s just an unfortunate consequence of being wired in a certain way, such that I maintain a fairly temperate relationship to any divisive issue. In my experience, giving genuine credence to each side of a situation often leaves me feeling somewhat ambivalent, which is not to say uninformed, just utterly nonpartisan. I grew up in a house of very strong opinions….which on my father’s side, tended toward the fiscal right. Yet, I went to school in an extremely progressive environment, which swayed forcefully to the left. And by the time I was in graduate school, I would say that, conservatively, 70% of my colleagues would identify themselves as Marxists, or some derivation thereof. Perhaps my aversion was just to the onslaught of radical opinions, most of which had very little tolerance for any kind of authentic hearing, and this has kept me somewhat outside of the political fray.
No doubt, I would be an awful politician. And, regrettably, I would most likely not be the one to lead a revolution for economic or social reform (as mind-boggling as it is to me that basic human rights are still up for debate at all). And I don’t mean to sound wishy-washy. There are plenty of issues that garner my complete support or absolute dissention…although they are usually grounded in the messiness of intuition and emotion, rather than the clean-lines and smooth-edges of facts. But, no matter, I digress. What I actually wanted to relay here was this article I read, or more of a newsletter really, called “The Daily Dirtnap” by Jared Dillian, another raging capitalist, who I also think happens to be a pretty compelling writer (stylistically above all). Anyway, he’s going on about the time when he worked for the Coast Guard, enforcing legal compliance in international waters, particularly aboard driftnet fishing boats. The piece was an interesting and provocative means of weighing in on a much larger debate about the impetus of big government to keep itself big, and all of the associated problems that this entails.
As intriguing as his philosophical position was, what really caught my attention was a small moment buried in the middle of the piece. In the passage, Dillian describes his first day at Pacarea Intel, in his own words, “the job where careers went to die.” Apparently, no one in the Coast Guard cares one whit about this job (or didn’t at the time anyway), and so, on this first day, Dillian shows up and is immediately appointed to the position of fisheries analyst. When he asks what exactly it is that he’s supposed to do, they have no answer because they just don’t care one way or another what he does. So they kinda brush him off by simply saying, “figure it out.” By the end of the piece, which is supposed to be about the ills of big government, I am more interested in his process of “figuring it out,” which actually turns out to be pretty amazing, as he largely reforms the way that Coast Guard ships police illegal fishing boats, leaving a huge impact on law enforcement in international waters, curtailing the inadvertent deaths of untold marine mammals, earning him a Commendation metal, etc. etc. Dillian’s conclusion: “’Figure it out’ are my three favorite words in the English language.’”
And this got me thinking about my father’s comment regarding my newfound capitalism, and also about my emotional reaction to being called a capitalist. So, let me clarify. It’s not that I’m opposed to capitalism. Not at all actually. It’s more that I have never contextualized my fascination with business in terms of any economic system whatsoever. Perhaps this is just ignoring the obvious, and that a free market economy is what makes these kinds of small business ventures possible in the first place. Maybe so. But I’m much more interested in the underlying invitation, the tacit challenge to “figure it out” that is involved any time one makes a foray into the business world. And, somewhat to my own surprise, it is exactly the same challenge that I recognize from academia, from my graduate work in philosophy and literature and learning languages and even working out a complicated piece of writing. The “figure it out” aspect is just pronounced in a much more concrete way when it comes to business practices, in part because the returns are more straightforward—you either make them or you don’t—and because, often, money is on the line, and that just always ratchets up the stakes. But in the end, it is my own addiction to the euphoria of “figuring it out,” of coming up with an idea and carrying as far as down the pike as it can go, that constitutes my recent fascination with all things business related. And so I make my investments in the things that seem worth funding, whether they are in the world of ideas, the realm of the written, or the ventures of creative entrepreneurs. And, in the end, I can only hope that these investments will help me to do well, and also to do good.