innovation, risk and national culture

“Canadians are more risk averse than Americans”  I explained.

“Everyone is more risk averse than the Americans” my friend replied. “if you think Canadians are afraid of failure, you should see the Germans!” he explained. “They even have a word for the enjoyment of seeing others fail – schadenfreude.”

I laughed. He was right.

We were talking about entrepreneurial culture and how to create and support it. There’s a lot of this kind of talk, and thinking and work going on in Alberta right now given the challenges of the traditional energy economy.


And in my work and conversations with government Ministers, University Deans, corporate executives, economic development professionals, HR professionals  . . .

there’s a fundamental knowledge gap; I think it’s experiential. Here’s what smart, successful, capable, dedicated professionals fail to understand about entrepreneurs and innovation – and don’t confuse the use of “innovation” here with incremental changes in process, or worse; research and development. I mean “innovation!”; the kind that changes the world and the way we all live; think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Thomas Edison and yes, even young entrepreneurs from Calgary like Uber founder Garrett Camp. (Uber’s current valuation is 80 billion $CAN) The kind of innovation that’s “just another crazy idea, until it works.”

What do the people who pursue these “crazy” ideas know and understand in common that most people don’t?

In a word – risk.

A quote from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn was popular last week with the $26 billion sale of LinkedIn to Microsoft:


With over a 90% failure rate for startups, entrepreneurs have to wake up every morning determined to defy gravity. People may joke about the term “Unicorns” for highly successful, valuable startups but it’s a surprisingly apt description for the incredibly difficult, rare feat Unicorn founders achieve by embracing risk.

It’s a struggle, and I’ve never seen it described as accurately and poignantly as Ben Horowitz does in his fantastic book, The Hard Thing about Hard Things .

(Ben Horowitz is an American businessman, investor, blogger, and author. He is a technology entrepreneur and co-founder, General Partner with Marc Andreessen of arguably the world’s most successful venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz)

This may seem hyperbole to many; currently working in my fifth startup, I can accurately tell you, it’s not.

About The Struggle

Life is struggle.
—Karl Marx

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

The Struggle is when food loses its taste.

The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.

The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness.

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.

The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy.

The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.

The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak.

Most people are not strong enough.

Every great entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg went through The Struggle and struggle they did, so you are not alone. But that does not mean that you will make it. You may not make it. That is why it is The Struggle.

The Struggle is where greatness comes from.

And after that, what can you say? “Drops the mike”, “And that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown” ?

This is what Canadians who want to encourage and grow innovation will need to understand. Innovation requires risk.

Americans focus and fixate on success – not failure. There is little to no stigma around failure – rather a focus on getting up, dusting yourself off, trying again. No real joy in schadenfreude.

Even the American constitution commits to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” while our Canadian constitution speaks to “Peace, Order, and good Government.”

‘Innovation Distinguishes Between A Leader And A Follower’       Steve Jobs

Canadian’s ability to innovate and succeed in the new economy is constrained by our fear of failure; our aversion to risk, and our conservative tendencies to play it safe. It’s time to recognize this, focus more on success and work to move past our fears into the future.



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