In 1929, when my mother and father returned from their honeymoon, my dad discovered that the school board had closed the school where my mother was teaching and she was unemployed. Four months later, the stock market crashed beginning the Great Depression. I can only imagine how difficult of a time it was; but despite their struggles, with one child at home and another on the way, my father opened his business in 1934.
My father’s generation lived with insecurity. During the depression, they were constantly beset by worries and then, as the economy improved, they were faced with the uncertainty of a world at war.
It’s easy to understand the calmness of the 50’s decade. People had fought their way through a depression and a world war and they were worn out. They wanted a home, family and few worries. Their hope for their children to never experience the insecurity that had defined their lives, led them to shape and live in communities that were secure and risk-free.
Like many baby boomers, I was raised without worry. Typical of many who started families in the 1930’s, my father’s way to demonstrate his love was to make sure that his family was well cared for; that there was never a worry about food on the table or a house foreclosed. The only insecurity my father manifested— demonstrated by our basement being converted to a makeshift bomb shelter—was due to communism and the bomb.
Having been raised secure and risk free, Vietnam shook my generation to its roots. With the draft lurking, no longer could we look to the future without worry: if you didn’t have a student deferment, you were subject to the draft; if you had a student deferment and you didn’t graduate in four years, you could be drafted; and, if you were married, you still faced the possibility of being drafted. We hated the war for what it did to our friends and classmates and the threat it posed to ourselves.
Now that we have grown up, part of our legacy has been to create programs, institutions and products that eliminate risk. Some nut puts poison in a jar of food, all jars now have tamper-resistant seals; a child gets sick from eating a parent’s medicine, all prescriptions have child-proof caps and planes purposefully crash into buildings, we take off our shoes and go through metal detectors before boarding a plane.
The children of my generation have been raised with a belief the world should be risk-free. They fear their food—fats and chemicals—homes—gas emitted by paints and furniture—and job places—asbestos and mold. Although self reliant, they look to the government to insure their safety. Whenever there is a report about someone being hurt, even an arcane injury, they clamor for government regulations.
The desire for security by eliminating risks permeates our personal lives: our homes and offices have burglar and fire alarms; our cars are equipped with multiple safety devices and for gosh sakes, don’t touch raw chicken. We agonize over global warming and worry about swine flu. With a media that broadcasts news 24 hour a day, every problem is a crisis.
During the years of the Great Depression, Richard Drew invented Scotch tape; Clarence Birdseye, frozen food; Edwin Land, Polaroid photography and Wallace Carothers, nylon. And, with an unemployed wife and a child on the way, my dad opened a business. Despite the risks, they and others innovated, persevered and succeeded.
There’s a perilousness attached to innovation. Just as there is a risk of rejection connected to sales calls; safety in taking the less risky road of offering the same products and the comfort and familiarity of only calling on existing customers. In prosperous times, you can avoid risk and still make a good living. However, success in challenging times requires the courage to forego security and to take the unpredictable path.
“People would rather be wrong than be different.” – Henry Jacobsen
“INNOVATION is the specific tool of entrepreneurs, the means by which they exploit change as an opportunity for a different business or a different service. It is capable of being presented as a discipline, capable of being learned, capable of being practiced. Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities for successful innovation. And they need to know and to apply the principles of successful innovation.” – Peter Drucker