Monday, October 8, 2018

Startups As Evolutionary Response Against Safety

This post was originally written on November 10, 2014.


Just recently, I read an article in the New York Times Opinion column by Dr. Richard A. Friedman, titled “A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.”


Dr. Friedman begins the article by touching on the extremely high prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in young Americans today, going further to explain how the brains of people with A.D.H.D. are wired to respond more positively to novelty and less so to structure and routine. A brain wired for novelty was an evolutionary advantage for our ancestral hunter-gatherers because being able to detect unfamiliar things faster meant you could find food quickly and effectively recognize things that shouldn't be in your environment to defend your family from it.

With the consequential disappearance of the need to hunt for our meals thanks to agriculture, having short but acute attention spans became an unnecessary psychological trait for survival. What was once considered an asset during the Palaeolithic era became a weakness against the constructed social demands of the 21st century, as most white-collar jobs and traditional education systems demand intense focus on one thing for a long period of time.


Although Dr. Friedman’s article goes much deeper into A.D.H.D. and recovery, what I got out of reading the first half of his article was a possible explanation for why so many people are starting to transition into such high-risk job titles like “entrepreneurs” and starting startups. The real upshot of his article is that A.D.H.D. can be fixed naturally (hence the title) by helping young people struggling with it to select situations in which the novelty-seeking behaviours would be good for performance, rather than an impedance. I’m going to mainly work with the first half for now.

Dr. Friedman mentioned a personal anecdote of one of his patients struggling with A.D.H.D.:
    … [who was] having a lot of trouble at his desk job in an advertising firm. Having to sit at a desk for long hours and focus his attention on one task was nearly impossible. He would multitask, listening to music and texting, while “working” to prevent activities from becoming routine.

Eventually he quit his job and threw himself into a start-up company, which has him on the road in constantly changing environments. He is much happier and — little surprise — has lost his symptoms of A.D.H.D.
It’s sort of cool how startups are becoming a place for people who are struggling with A.D.H.D. I’ve been searching for some reason as to why startups are becoming more and more popular now than ever, and I feel that there may be a strong evolutionary/anthropological explanation for why recently, more people are becoming entrepreneurs and risk-takers.

I don’t think the situation described in the above quote applies only to people with A.D.H.D. like Dr. Friedman’s patient. I think the patient’s situation is far more common in people who don’t have A.D.H.D. than we think, and coming from a university student’s perspective, the situation is rampant in the traditional education system. Replace "advertising firm" with "lecture halls”, and you’ve got yourself the typical undergraduate student wanting to leave school to dive into a startup.


Without the constant need for humans to be defending our families from dangerous animals and traveling in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes for food anymore, our current lifestyles of routine and focus-demanding work is not for everyone. And I’d like to propose that the rise of startup ecosystems is a product of humanity’s evolutionary response to safety. I think startups may be a way to recreate the intense lifestyles our early ancestors may have had, by rejecting safety of today’s society. Albeit completely irrational, it’s a mini proxy rebellion against the people who have made life so much safer and healthier throughout human history. Damn you, agriculture. Away with you, modern medicine.

In all seriousness, entrepreneurs are people who can’t help but walk into the darkness. They’re the people who find joy in the new, and lose all attention in anything that might be considered safe to do. In a startup, I guess you’re always so close to losing it all, and dying. Maybe that’s what’s so attractive about it — the thin line that people walk between life and death while building something from scratch. At the same time, I think we have to be careful with romanticizing the idea of starting something, because it’s a painful process of constant iteration and failure. And there’s lots of variation in how people absorb failure.


I’m suggesting that startups are a medium through which people experience what it’s like to be afraid of the unknown. It’s a medium through which people can live acceptably dangerously. Sure, the Internet doesn’t help for those who struggle with refraining from exposing themselves to novelty, or with maintaining focused attention. But that’s where everything is. And it's consumed us as much as we've consumed it.

Startups As Evolutionary Response Against Safety

This post was originally written on November 10, 2014. -- Just recently, I read an article in the New York Times Opinion column by Dr. ...