Are Americans 'can-do' entrepreneurial risk-takers?

“Strive and Succeed.”

Horatio Alger

In 1851, at the zenith of its Empire, Britain staged The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London. It was a kind of Consumer Electronics Show of the day. Tucked among mighty Victorian machinery, the London papers made brief and patronizing mention of examples of “Yankee ingenuity.” The Brits didn’t see it coming, but American entrepreneurship was already powering towards global domination.

Where did this money-making urge originate? Freedom from government bred individualism, which bred optimism, which bred a ‘can-do’ spirit, which bred entrepreneurs. Helped by a giant and growing home market, the success of robber-barons like J.P. Morgan and Carnegie bred more entrepreneurs. Horatio Alger explained how it all worked in dozens of books about rural boys who ventured to town and made good thanks to hard work. It was all wonderfully American.

The Evidence

Source: Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 2002
  • Americans still buy in. Asked if they have a good chance of improving their standard of living, Americans reckon so, two to one. Western Europeans are barely neutral. Russians laugh hysterically.
  • But how do you get ahead? Money, connections and natural ability are not so important, Americans say. Instead they are most likely to point to hard work and ambition. These are two traits everyone can have.
  • These beliefs underpin the finding that in 2002, 11% of American working adults were entrepreneurs, meaning involved in starting a business or running one less than 42 months old.
  • This rate of entrepreneurial activity is significantly higher than in Europe and dwarfs Japan. Latin America, China, Korea and India jump out as the most entrepreneurial places on the globe, but this is a little misleading. Many ‘entrepreneurs’ in these countries are doing so as a pure survival tactic, including subsistence farmers and garbage scavengers. When just voluntary or ‘opportunity-driven’ entrepreneurs are counted, the U.S. lags only New Zealand, Australia and Mexico.

Horatio’s Lament
The good news is that entrepreneurialism creates economic growth and material prosperity. And America’s ‘can-do’ culture is remarkably invigorating, as generations of immigrants from ‘can’t do’ countries will testify. The bad news is greedy materialism, the complaint of people escaping from America back to tranquil villages in Italy. American business leaders, with their long hours and high stress, pay a high price for making the cover of Fortune magazine. Horatio Alger’s heroes never enjoyed any romantic life. They were too busy succeeding. Behind the steely gaze of a Captain of Industry lies many a frozen heart.

Want to dig deeper?
Global Entrepreneurship Monitor


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