Americans have fallen in love with the idea of their entrepreneurial spirit. Silicon Valley seems to have replaced New York City as the country’s metropolitan mascot of dynamism. Innovation is the unofficial buzzword of corporate America, and news organizations heap praise on the zillionaire startup heroes of the Millennial generation.
But this is a mirage, according to the economist and popular writer Tyler Cowen, whose new book is The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In fact, the nation's dynamism is in the dumps. Americans move less than they used to. They start fewer companies. Caught in the hypnotic undertow of TV and video games, they are less likely to go outside. Even the federal government itself has transformed from an investment vehicle, which once spent a large share of its money on infrastructure and research, to an insurance conglomerate, which spends more than half its money on health care and Social Security. A nation of risk-takers has become a nation of risk-mitigation experts.
The sign of a good book is that it helps readers see the world through a useful lens. Cowen’s book is a full of “huh, I hadn’t thought about it like that” moments, even on topics that I’ve spent years thinking about. For example, in the last few years, many people, like myself, have argued that the American Dream is dying in America, while it seems to be flourishing more in Canada and northern Europe. But Cowen argues persuasively that many international comparisons fail to account for the fact that lots of people are achieving the American Dream—they just weren’t born in America. “When there is mobility in the American labor market, it comes disproportionately from Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” he writes. “Denmark hasn’t elevated nearly as many immigrants, in either absolute or percentage terms, as America.” In other words, America didn’t completely lose the dream. Rather, the only dreamers left are immigrants.
Well, more recently I came across an article about a reason young people tend to drop out of the hard sciences (pun intended there), failure. The piece is by Sara Whitlock.
The article is fascinating because it reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend about a decade ago. Back then I was living in the basement of a house owned by a couple, the husband was working toward seminary studies and his wife was working on a doctorate in the hard sciences, I think it might have been physics or chemistry but the precise field eludes my memory. What I remember clearly, however, is that she said "Ninety percent of science is failure. The other ten percent is figuring out why you failed and that ten percent is where scientific breakthroughs can happen, so that's why we keep doing scientific research." I shared this story with another friend years later (another brilliant woman in the natural sciences, and ... perhaps against stereotype in both cases, another blonde). My friend heard this and she said with a slight sigh, "That sounds like a real scientist. She's right, ninety percent of what we do ends in failure." Fortunately neither of my blonde scientist friends are quitters! The better part of discretion precludes me from sharing what scientific work they've been working on.
But these are both women from what will soon be my ... kinda middle-aged generation. To quote Whitlock's article:
Talking about personal failures isn’t enjoyable. No one wants to relive the ego-crushing bruises of a poor test score or a rejection from a coveted job or graduate program or summer internship. But we need to keep talking to younger science students, when appropriate, about our failures so that they’ll know their own similar failures aren’t career-crushers. That’s something my mentors have done for me, and it’s something I’m working on right now.
By normalizing the experience of failure in the pursuit of science, my hope is that we can keep American students in the field, so that we can remain competitive with other countries in uncertain times and in uncertain budgets. Resiliency in science and innovation is how we got to the top, and I believe that our ability to bounce back is key to staying there.