I wish.

I wish I had enough money to take the time.
I wish I had enough time to devote the energy.
I wish I had the right skills to make it real.

If I did I could, if I did I could, if only I did I could…

This has become the klaxon call of an entire class of modern entrepreneurials. They have the drive, they have the hunger but at least within the confines of their own minds they lack the resources, the skills, and the confidence that would give them the right to be great.

These barriers pile up and time ticks on and responsibilities replace desire with need until many of these people, people who might have otherwise made a real go at building out their dreams, are left with nothing more productive than dozens of pages of notes and dozens more aborted projects.

At best what we see here is an inefficient use of talent, at worst it’s a dangerous and tragic loss of potential innovation.

What we don’t see are simple excuses,hand-wringing justifying stasis. Instead, these pleas are symptoms, symptoms of a system that has existed at least since the second World War that has increasingly shifted the ideal of the innovator away from the free wheeling, broad-minded “universal man” of the Renaissance towards the focused and disciplined bench scientist of the 1950s. It’s a system that has regimented creativity and society alongside it. In doing so, it has brought us the entire edifice on which modern technological progress is built, but it has also stolen from us a template.

The Template of the Polymath

From Leibniz and Newton to Pascal and Franklin, polymaths were innovators who used their time and talents to pursue a broad range of social and scientific pursuits. Newton, for example, was a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, theologian, natural philosopher and alchemist. Benjamin Franklin was an author, political theorist, politician, printer, scientist, inventor, and diplomat. All of these people devoted their efforts to the exploration of knowledge itself, and through these varied pursuits were able to develop some of the most important discoveries of our time.

The modern system of forty hour work weeks, hyper-specialized degrees, Big Science, Big Industry and rising financial dependence has left our society with little room for these “shiftless generalists,” men and women without the discipline to pursue a single subject to its finest detail, or the desire to define in business plan or SWOT analysis where they hope their pursuits will lead. Even in the realm of entrepreneurship, a realm where you’d imagine this lost class would thrive, we have made a virtue of focus and specificity to the exclusion of discovery and adaptation, which has left us hard pressed to find anyone with the will and the ability to integrate differing disciplines of knowledge into new invention, as the Wright Brothers used their knowledge of bicycle design to build airplanes and Leonardo Di Vinci transformed his powers of observation and attention to detail into a range of artistic and technological innovations.  

How does this system work? How has society undermined this class of creators? Let’s take a look at each aspect of the complaint to see.

The Money Trap

Historically innovation has been the domain of those who, whether by patronage or independent wealth, were provided with the comfortable certainty that they would be able to feed themselves and their family. The money itself was not the key though, instead our focus should be how it was used and how those uses differ from our relationship with money today.

The Medici of the Renaissance are probably our most famous example of patrons. A group of powerful, wealthy and politically connected bankers, the Medici used their wealth to fund grand artistic projects, from the reconstruction of the church of San Lorenzo and the monastery of San Marco under Cosimo di Medici, to funding great artists like Donatello and architects like Michelozzo di Bartolommeo. For them wealth was not an end in itself, but a means to a greater goal, be it influence, political authority or simple public relations. For those who found themselves supported by Medici patronage, money was fuel, fuel that allowed them the time, freedom and credibility to build great works that would have otherwise been too elaborate, too expensive or too time intensive to create on their own. The Medici maintained these artist’s lifestyles, providing them with places to stay, food to eat and a means to create. In exchange, these artists provided the Medici with great works that they could take credit for and use to further their social agenda.

Compare this to our modern concept of wealth, where money is a tool used for two major purposes, the first is to support a lifestyle — to pay a mortgage, purchase food, buy health insurance and pay for a car. The second is as a means to increase comfort through the purchase of commodities. Under this regime, any money beyond what we need to support ourselves and maintain the health and safety of our families is to be used towards the purchase of more “things,” things we believe will ultimately make us content. The dream of wealth then is the dream of unlimited access to stuff, and the pursuit of wealth is couched in the language of commodity. We want to be able to afford that fancy car, the new boat, the bigger house, the elegant clothes, and the expensive dinners, not because these will make us happier in any lasting way (years of research has proven that they won’t) but because they will prove to the world and to ourselves that we have succeeded at living.

We can see this by looking at the national savings rate, which hovers at around 4%. To put this in perspective, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median American made $51,260 in 2010. Given this rate of savings, this person only managed to put away $2,048 a year. Assume about 75% of that ($1,536) went into a tax advantaged retirement account which made our friend a generous 6% annually. In that case, after 30 years of savings he would be left with $128,719.

Unfortunately, by most estimates, at retirement he will have about 19 more years to live, and at an average of $26,567 of expenses per year (excluding taxes), only about 5 years of savings to live on. Behavioral economists call this “buy now, pay later” mentality hyperbolic discounting and it’s something we are becoming increasingly good at, selling our future comfort away to the present for pennies on the dollar.

Add to this the debt that we use to support our “stuff” habits and the image becomes even more clear, the average American carries around about $7,200 worth of revolving credit debt. This average, however, is a bit misleading because there is a significant portion of the population with limited to nonexistent revolving debt. For those with debt then, the amount of debt they hold can be many times this number, and this doesn’t begin to include the mortgages and student loans which make up a huge portion of the debt load for many families. The end result is that many households can’t even afford the rather modest savings rate we described earlier, partially because so much more money is going towards consumption rather than towards savings and investing.

The ultimate result is that we are a nation made up almost entirely of consumers rather than investors, we don’t produce a great number of Medici’s because even among our high income earners, a large portion of their wealth and debt go towards the consumption of goods rather than the direct production of great works (there are notable exceptions among the Billionaire and especially tech Billionaire set). We don’t produce a lot of people with lifestyles like those under Medici patronage because so few of us have the monetary cushion to support “idle speculation” and time intensive work. We aren’t even living paycheck to paycheck, we are often living three or four paychecks behind, which binds us to our jobs and to normal, systematized work in a way more reminiscent of the Company Towns of the early 20th century than the free and mobile society that we purport to live in.

In this context the complaint that lack of money, specifically the lack of deep monetary cushions produced by high rates of savings, coherent investing and reduced consumption of commodity goods becomes quite obvious. This class of entrepreneurials, like many of us, is caught up in a culture that no longer holds thrift and accumulation as a virtue and as a result often has no idea what a life looks like without a brand new car every three years or the newest cell phone every 12 months. Insofar as this prevents them from having the time, space, and ability to create, this aspect of the modern system of innovation is criminal.