The continuing key to American success — you don’t have to be an expert
- Last Updated: 12:30 AM, May 20, 2012
- Posted: 10:34 PM, May 12, 2012
When you read about James Dorsey making millions by dropping out to start Twitter or Mark Zuckerberg doing the same with Facebook, is it just the big money that grips your attention? Well, of course it’s the money. But it’s something else, too.
There’s also the quitting — the shucking of college or the shoving of a lousy job — and then that walk into uncertainty. It’s a bracing sense of personal liberty — freedom in the most primal sense.
It’s somehow reminiscent of the kind of risk that goes all the back to our founding, the climbing into a wagon and lighting out for the territories. Americans recapture that very sense of risk whenever we start a new company. Each involves a similar kind of pioneering into the unknown.
America has always been a place of amateurs, in every sense of that complicated word. During the colonial period, Europeans believed Americans were amateur people. There was a common notion then that the hideous vapors of the New World made average human men smaller and the women infertile. There was a famous dinner in Paris in the early days of the revolution when this subject came up for discussion. Ben Franklin was there, and he asked the Americans at the table (all of whom were tall like Ben) to stand up, as if to say, what are you Gallic gnomes talking about?
Making it big in America has never been a matter of degrees.
Ever heard of Andrew Sutherland? He dropped out of college a few years ago when he was 19 to grow his learning-aid company Quizlet. He founded it when he was a sophomore . . . in high school.
Once Quizlet goes public and he becomes the next 22-year-old billionaire, maybe we’ll all say his name as easily as Steve Jobs’. The story of the successful amateur, who walks into a garage (or out of a dorm) to create some new thing is one so encoded in our cultural DNA that it is no coincidence that the highest rated show on TV, “American Idol,” is a spiffed-up version of an old-timey amateur hour.
For the last century or so, the amateur has gotten a bum rap, written off as part of a storied era that happened in some previous generation. That time has ended, we’re told, because our moment is so much more complicated, more professional, more technologically advanced — at least until some backyard crank gets his hands on a once forbidden technology or practice and reworks it into something cool and new.
It was also just a little more than a century ago that a writer named Frederick Turner wrote an essay called, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” — a piece where he wrestled with the idea that maybe once the West was settled and there was nothing left to explore, then the American dream would come to an end. Except that discovering new, even virtual frontiers turned out to be another cultural obsession for Americans — the North Pole, cinema, space, the Internet.
Amateurs are found everywhere in the world, of course, but here, they constitute a certain kind of character. Europeans have always feared those who ventured to the edge of what’s known (Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein), while Americans have always thought them intriguing, if not cuddly (Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown).
But amateurs aren’t just capturing our imagination; they’re saving the economy. In the latest jobs report for April, the country added 119,000 employees. How many of those came from the big firms — the kind found on stock exchanges and attracting the interest of institutional investors? The answer is a measly 4,000. That’s right: Almost 97% of the jobs being created right now were in small to medium businesses — and 58,000 of those new jobs came from small businesses and startups.
It’s the folks who walked away from what they were doing in 2008, when the bottom fell out of so many markets, and either by choice (or necessity) decided to start a new life.
It’s the quintessential American gamble — the one that dates back to the very founding. In 1723, Ben Franklin realized that he just hated being an apprentice to his brother James. That was the “going to college” of his day, so Franklin dropped out and ran away to Philadelphia. It was the classic amateur move. He wanted to invent a whole new idea of himself.
He also happened to invent a whole new idea for a country.
Jack Hitt is the author of “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character” (Crown), out this week.Follow @NYPostOpinion