On MLK day, I decided to take my kids to the Chabot Space Center to explore and take in one of their amazing planetarium shows. As we were getting seated, our baby, who is notoriously fussy, was doing what she does. Kind of whining, kind of talking, kind of screaming. As parents do, we were trying to get her to settle down, but she wasn’t having it.
As this was going on, the couple in front of us leaned into their little boy sitting between them and whispered “oh, she’s probably tired or hungry”. Fact of the matter was, she’d just woken from a long night’s sleep and was holding a bottle. So I gently leaned forward and jokingly said, “no, she’s just a brat”.
Shortly after the movie started, the baby officially lost it and I was up and out of the theatre. Not 10 mins later and the family who I’d whispered to passed by with their child holding hands between them. Their kid had acted up and they had to remove him from the theatre. The father and I exchanged knowing glances and smiles.
Fact of the matter was, our kids weren’t tired or hungry and probably could have held off a bathroom break until after the show finished. We were making excuses for them. Because, if they really were just brats that might hurt their self esteem, or worse, reflect poorly on us as parents.
The Atlantic has a fantastic piece every parent should read. In it the author, a psychiatrist, outlines a new phenomenon arising in her field: young adults from terrific homes with loving parents packed full of talent were showing up in her office feeling lost, adrift, unfulfilled.
She goes on to trace these feelings to a societal shift in parenting styles. Parents who once wanted respect from their kids, now desperately want to be their BFF. And in doing so, seem to be creating unintended second order effects. From the article:
When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance. (All failures are reframed as “good tries.”) According to Twenge, indicators of self-esteem have risen consistently since the 1980s among middle-school, high-school, and college students. But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself.
In early adulthood, this becomes a big problem. “People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them,” Twenge says. “They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities. They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise. They grew up in a culture where everyone gets a trophy just for participating.
The trophy metaphor continues:
At the end of the season, the league finds a way to “honor each child” with a trophy. “They’re kind of euphemistic,” the coach said of the awards, “but they’re effective.” The Spirit Award went to “the troublemaker who always talks and doesn’t pay attention, so we spun it into his being very ‘spirited,’” he said. The Most Improved Player Award went to “the kid who has not an ounce of athleticism in his body, but he tries hard.” The Coaches’ Award went to “the kids who were picking daisies, and the only thing we could think to say about them is that they showed up on time. What would that be, the Most Prompt Award? That seemed lame. So we called it the Coaches’ Award.” There’s also a Most Valuable Player Award, but the kid who deserved it three seasons in a row got it only after the first season, “because we wanted other kids to have a chance to get it.” The coach acknowledged that everyone knew who the real MVP was.
Pulling this behavior forward, I’m beginning to see this parenting style taking root in startup culture.
As investor FOMO and entrepreneurial access to capital have increased, so too has the level of entitlement to that capital. Swap the trophy for a seed round, and that’s directionally where things are headed in startupland. Everyone gets a seed round. Everyone gets to be CEO. Everyone starts a billion dollar company. Everyone can be the next Zuckerberg.
Just as with the kids lying on psychiatrist’s couches above, eventually the founders will come into contact with the real world. But the bullies on the playground they were protected from will now be unhappy customers. The encouraging teacher will be the mismatched cofounder. The coach who shielded them from wins and losses will be the investors looking for a return on their capital. For those who entered into entrepreneurship with that feeling of entitlement, they too will beginning to feel aimless, unfulfilled and adrift (although they’ll call it “pivoting”).
Tho I believe everyone ought to approach their careers as entrepreneurs, I don’t believe that means everyone has the skills or temperament for growing and running successful startups.
Not everyone gets a seed round, despite what you’re reading on Techcrunch.
PS- pretty sure the Atlantic piece inspires this SNL skit from over the weekend.