Right now, 100 million Americans want to quit their jobs and start their own businesses. But while 70% of the American workforce wants to be self-employed, less than 7% is. Despite all the current talk about the gig economy, the widening gap between entrepreneurship and employment in America is the largest in history. Each year, more and more Americans want to start their own business. Yet each year, fewer and fewer do.

With very few exceptions, self-employment rates in America have decreased every year since the baby boom. Just twenty-five years ago, entrepreneurs made up more than 12% of the workforce. Today, it is little more than half that. And self-employment rates aren’t just low by American standards. They now rank among the lowest of any country in the world. But the most striking aspect of the entrepreneurship gap is that it crosses all races, genders, education levels, and socio-economic barriers.

For most, the American Dream will always be just a dream.

Fortunately, even though business creation continues to trend downward, Americans haven’t lost their infamous entrepreneurial spirit. Millennial and Gen Z workers have strong self-employment inclinations.

As they entered the workforce, the percentage of would-be entrepreneurs in America has trended upward and now ranks third in the world behind Poland and Portugal. Russia, Denmark, and Norway are at the bottom of the entrepreneurial spirit list—only about 30% of their citizens want to be self-employed. Despite their apparent lack of entrepreneurial spirit, all three currently boast higher levels of actual entrepreneurship than the United States.

Many would-be entrepreneurs blame their inaction on a lack of resources. But America has the most extensive system for small business funding and support in the world. The U.S.A. has more small business loan programs, grants, scholarships, educational courses, and business development organizations than the rest of the world combined. In fact, many countries with much higher levels of self-employment offer just a fraction of the support provided in America.

The problem is not a lack of desire or opportunity.

Economists and politicians love to point at one statistic or another and blame some aspect of society for the reduction in startups. But the only thing that could stop 100 million Americans from doing what they want is 100 million Americans. Our entrepreneurial instincts are losing a battle against a tenacious and invisible enemy: ourselves. More and more, we are not choosing to explore the limits of our potential. Instead, we are choosing predictable misery over the misery of uncertainty.

Optimism and Entrepreneurship

Humans instinctively avoid taking steps that we expect will yield a negative result. When you do something, you do it because you think good outcomes will follow. Whether it’s buying a house, selling a home, or changing jobs, you do it because you believe that action will produce a positive effect. Today we call it optimism—the belief that events in the future will be better than the present and the past. Every action, no matter how small, was born of optimism. Even small, seemingly inconsequential decisions are optimistic. You eat healthy because you believe that doing so will make you feel and look better.

You choose your route to work because you believe it is better or faster than the others. You look at the weather before getting dressed because dressing appropriately will make your day better. Better and better and better. We are wired to seek opportunities to improve our circumstances and our lives.

Imagine the first humans ever to build a raft and sail beyond the horizon. They had no idea if other lands even existed. But they weren’t just optimistic, they also genuinely believed in their ability to figure out how to handle whatever challenges arose. With limited food and water, death was the consequence of being wrong. That is the power of having an optimistic vision of the future and trust in your own abilities. That is the power of your Boss Brain.

When early humans emerged on the savannas of Africa, they were just another animal attempting to find their place in the food chain. Their cunning took them across continents and oceans. However, it was not math or the power of deduction that motivated them to explore. It was the capacity to envision a better life somewhere other than where they were. And in that life, they would flourish, thrive, and reproduce without worry or concern.

Psychologists initially rejected the idea that humans are instinctively optimistic. But Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, has proven that humans are inherently optimistic. Psychologists have now embraced the critical role optimism played in human development. The ability to envision a better future in a different place or time was crucial. Sharot noted that the bias “protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving . . . without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes, and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.” And without optimism, we would all be employees.

Studies have even isolated a gene within your DNA that appears to be responsible for your lofty expectations. It was passed to you by your ancestors, who were very likely to be optimistic. How do we know? A study from the Boston University of Medicine recently proved it. They found that optimistic women have a whopping 50% better chance of reaching the age of 85, and men have a 70% better chance of living longer than their pessimistic brothers. These aren’t incremental advantages. The effect optimism has on longevity is monumental. Many studies have verified this, showing a direct relationship between optimism and significantly increased longevity even after adjusting for behavioral factors.

Longer lives provide more opportunities to have kids and build support networks through multi-generational communities. The pessimists who lived shorter lives were not afforded those opportunities and, therefore, were less likely to pass on their pessimistic genes. As its effect compounded over time, optimism served as a fundamental element in the rise of humanity.

A vast amount of research also shows that within the context of entrepreneurship, optimists actually enjoy experiencing various forms of adversity. They are motivated by challenges and find difficult situations as an opportunity to explore their potential.5 Optimists typically rise to face the problems that life presents to them, persisting and remaining engaged in pursuing their goals. Conversely, pessimists lack tenacity and persistence and quickly give up when faced with adversity.

Without the unique ability to envision a better future, humans would have quickly given up and settled for a compromised existence. Our optimism inspired action 100,000 years ago, just as it inspires entrepreneurs today. Without optimism, there is no inner calling, no deep-seated desire to build the best life possible. Despite our past negative experiences, we dream of the future as a better place, and we are genetically hardwired to seek it out.

Certainty and Employment

One of the most well-established tenets of psychology is the brain’s bias toward consistency and predictability. The mind wants its expectations met. It needs consistent outcomes above all else and to maintain a continuum of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Predictable results may require more work and offer fewer rewards, but they also require less thought. When predictable options are available, certainty overcomes quality—predictability overcomes optimism.

The Boss Brain of ancient man enjoyed predictability but on a massive scale. The cycles of the seasons and migrations of animals were predictable. Each day brought new challenges and lacked the monotony of the modern world because early man did not attempt to tame his environment.

For employees, modern life doesn’t flow with[1]in a natural order. Society revolves around the workday, and the workday doesn’t change with the seasons. Without an overarching seasonal strategy, annual migrations are now compressed into daily routines. Predictability is maintained by the minute at a micro-level. Our lives are governed by the clock, not the calendar.

The simplest and quickest way to achieve minute-by-minute consistency is to accept a role from within the options that society has made readily available. The most natural path to certainty is to get a job. That is also how we initially ceded control to our need for certainty some 12,000 years ago. We became an agrarian society and inserted ourselves into what would eventually become the monotony of the modern workday.

You might say that is just how the world works, but it didn’t work that way when your Boss Brain evolved, nor did it work that way for 99.94% of our existence. Technology advanced and societies became more complicated, but human instinct and the desire for independence have not changed. All of this began on the very first farm, and it continues today.

The Cage of Comfort

Modern entrepreneurs face the same decision that the citizens of Jericho faced. They could live on the relative certainty of limited provisions, or they could explore the limits of their potential outside the walls of society. Each year, the costs of survival grew. Yet their productivity was bound by the barriers they built around themselves.

Here is the most telling example of how the desire for certainty limits long-term potential: Jericho was founded 5,000 years before Rome. Jericho had a comfortable head start, yet it could not withstand pressures from the ever-advancing outside world. The citizens of Jericho found comfort in predictable adequacy, which made them complacent and halted their advancement.

Yale researchers have revealed how predictability creates complacency and limits the brain’s natural ability to learn and grow. In their initial experiment, monkeys chose between pressing a red button that provided rewards 80% of the time and a green button that paid off 20% of the time. The monkeys quickly learned that the red button paid rewards more frequently and stopped hitting the green button.

Then the scientists switched things up a bit. In the second experiment, the red button paid out 80 percent of the time. But the green but[1]tons were unpredictable—the frequency and size of the yielded rewards always varied. When the monkeys decided that the green button held no predictability, they abandoned it for the red.

The researchers measured the monkeys’ brain activity while they played with all the buttons. A clear pattern emerged. If the monkeys could predict how often a button paid rewards, brain regions associated with learning shut down. When the monkeys couldn’t anticipate the frequency or size of the treat, their learning centers lit up. However, when the monkeys figured out which buttons were predictable, they stopped pressing the other buttons.

The researchers measured the monkeys’ brain activity while they played with all the buttons. A clear pattern emerged. If the monkeys could predict how often a button paid rewards, brain regions associated with learning shut down. When the monkeys couldn’t anticipate the frequency or size of the treat, their learning centers lit up. However, when the monkeys figured out which buttons were predictable, they stopped pressing the other buttons.

As one of the Yale neuroscientists put it, “Perhaps the most important insight from our study is that the function of the brain as well as the nature of learning is not fixed, but adapts according to the stability of the environment . . . When you enter a more novel and volatile environment, this might enhance the tendency for the brain to absorb more in[1]formation.” Uncertainty signals that you’re unsure of your environment or skills, and your brain’s learning centers kick into overdrive.

Entrepreneurs still live and work within the confines of the metaphorical walls of society. There is no escaping that fact. But entrepreneurs cannot stop learning; they cannot stop pressing other buttons. Consistent rewards may tempt you to build physical and mental walls around your growth. However, once you abandon learning and experimentation, you give control over to whoever or whatever offers the most predictability.

A predictable paycheck represents the limited provisions produced within the walls of employment. It is Jericho’s red button.

The Source of the Entrepreneurship Gap

The ability to envision a future of bountiful harvests and times of plenty is a powerful motivator. Why risk being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger when you can sit by a fire in your hut with a full belly? And why risk starting a company and being your own boss when you can accept a predict[1]able role and collect a paycheck? The idea itself is simple and linear: stay in one safe, comfortable place and create abundance instead of searching for it. Then and now, that idea produces unintended consequences.

As Yuval Harari noted in his book Sapiens, the Agricultural Revolution did not herald in an era of “easy living.” Instead, it caused a population explosion and created class divisions. Farmers worked harder than foragers and had worse diets. Permanent settlements became hotbeds for infectious diseases. Huge amounts of stored food tempted thieves, so walls were built and guarded. According to Harari, “the Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

The unintended consequences of farming prevented the better future it attempted to create. With a poor diet, wretched living conditions, disease, and class divisions, it was predictably bad. But predictable, nonetheless.

The bias to hate uncertainty even more than predictably negative consequences is ingrained into the modern brain. The tendency to choose the predictable option, however fraught with misery it may be, battles our optimistic instinct to search for a better future.

It is the modern human enigma: comply with the collective and face a predictable monotonous future that is sometimes ripe with pain and suffering. Or defy societal expectations and face an uncertain future potentially filled with happiness and meaning. The hardwired instincts of the Boss Brain battle the opposing software of the modern brain. The subsequent conflicting emotions yield the turmoil that we all feel as a witness to and participant in today’s society.

Without frontiers to explore and uncharted territories to discover, we have fashioned a cell for ourselves. It might not have visible bars, but it does create mental and physical barriers. This self-made prison is like a merry-go-round that moves only in one direction and always begins and ends in the same place. As nearly all quality of life metrics rise around the globe, jumping off that comfortable merry-go-round is getting harder with each generation.

The inner war between optimism and uncertainty is the source of the entrepreneurship gap. Battle lines are drawn between what we want and what we have, between predictability and possibility. Each year, more and more American workers become metaphorical casualties in this war, choosing certainty over optimism. They choose consistent adequacy. Then their brain shuts off, and they spend the rest of their lives pressing one button.

Why Does This Matter?

The modern world is just an extension of that very first farm. Most employees actually enjoy what their ancestors envisioned—a relatively safe work environment, consistent schedules, and predictable rewards. Modern employment also yields a cache of unintended consequences, but that is not why aspiring entrepreneurs quit their jobs. An optimistic vision of the future and a belief in their ability to make that vision a reality inspires their actions.

This is why early humans quickly scattered themselves around the globe over difficult terrain and in extreme weather conditions. Nothing was certain. So, they constantly searched for ways to improve their existence. And not just in incremental ways, like warmer clothes or more comfortable beds; they fearlessly embraced massive change and enormous cultural shifts. Always challenging themselves. Never settling for the status quo.

Without optimism, our rise would have been concentric and methodical, slowly spiraling outward in safe and predictable ways. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, small bands of our ancestors shot out into the world on aggressive trajectories. Nothing but optimism could have propelled them over mountain ranges and frozen tundra.

Optimism was the spark that lit fire to our entrepreneurial instincts. It was the catalyst that Mother Nature needed to mold us. Optimism empowers us to choose which walls to work within and where to set boundaries. The Boss Brain doesn’t recognize the conflict between optimism and uncertainty because it evolved when there was no certainty. There wasn’t a predictable, consistent option. Belief in a better future and in one’s own ability to make that vision a reality was the only sure thing.

The illusion of certainty has deceived the modern brain. It has been bribed to operate within the boundaries that someone else pays you to stay within, to hit one button all day long, every day. Just like the citizens of Jericho, your efforts serve the supply line in someone else’s conquest. In exchange for that sacrifice, you receive nothing more than predictable adequacy.

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