Has entrepreneurship become the new religion of our generation? And if so, why are people in startups devoting their souls to work? In this week’s “From the Sociologist’s notebook”, Alexander Hirschfeld applies Max Weber’s classical study “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” to the startup world to find out more about “the gods we serve.”
We have heard many startup people claim, that in their jobs they simply do what they have always wanted to do and that the time spent working is just great. But wait – is it still work they are talking about? Hasn’t history told us that work means no fun? After all, from the old Greeks to medieval kings, everybody considered work as nothing but a necessary evil. So, let us find out: What is it that people in startups actually want from life and their jobs? What makes them feel so fantastic about devoting their soul to work? For this, let’s turn to German sociologist Max Weber’s classical study “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. It can help us make sense of the meaning and motives behind startup enthusiasm.
Capitalism: A religious movement
Karl Marx understood society as a reflection of its technical and economic development. Max Weber saw this differently: To him, it was not simply market competition that turned the wealthy class into a bunch of canny, ascetic, and profit-oriented Scrooge McDucks. Also, people did not just work because they were forced to by these mean capitalists. No, many actually wanted it out of their own free will. But why should they enjoy working so hard? To Weber, this was obvious: They wanted to go to heaven.
Work? Heaven? Isn’t this getting a little bit too far-fetched? Well, Weber thought it all had started with the Protestants, particularly the Calvinists. In Catholicism, one is meant to remain a passive subject to God and the church, accept the sacraments and submit oneself to a higher religious authority in order to become a candidate for salvation. With Protestantism, eternal life and redemption became related to worldly success – continuous hard work turned out to be your ticket to paradise. While religious devotion traditionally rejected worldly affairs, Protestantism actively encouraged the pursuit of wealth.
Benjamin Franklin’s Advice to a young tradesman, published in 1748, nicely illustrates the newly established bond between work, money, and morality. His advice is plain and simple: “Waste neither Time nor Money, but make the best Use of both.” This line is not only a pragmatic business formula but a moral statement. You owe it to your creditors and to God – on whose good will and mercy you have to rely – to be hard-working and ascetic.
God is dead: Why work?
We understand that Protestants were happy workers due to their religious beliefs. However, the fusion of business and religion did not remain limited to Protestants but had a huge impact on the Western world. “What the heck is the connection to the startup people?” you may ask. Because generally speaking, you might not think of the scene as a group of devout churchgoers.
Attention! For Weber, religion is not limited to a god or the church. To him, it is the expression of the general human search for meaning in a meaningless world. Man is small and life is finite. That is why one wants to be part of something bigger. Institutional religion might be dead but religious mythology and “Man’s Search for Meaning” – quoting the title of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankel’s prominent book – is not.
People cannot do without meaning and they are surrounded by it. Just take a look at pop culture and you can see the continuous importance of religious symbols: In George Lucas’ space opera Star Wars, the Jedi Order appears as a group of intergalactic priests, following a strict and ascetic code of conduct. Their only purpose is to defend the light side against the dark side of the force, which constantly seduces the Jedi with their promises of power and worldly pleasure. George Lucas admitted the influence of American mythologist Joseph Campbell in his work and even called him his Yoda.
Startup Religion: Entrepreneurship
Now it’s time to ask: Whom or what does the startup scene worship? They pray to a similar idol as Weber’s protestant capitalists did: Their goddess is entrepreneurship! This is what makes their lives meaningful. Startup folks frequently talk about the spiritual excitement they feel when having a new idea and talking about their project. The product launch is often referred to as a birth ceremony; the baby they carried around so many months, completely dictating their lives, finally comes to see the light of day.
Opposed to a traditional family or a conventional business, however, a startup does not necessarily stick with their baby. You might help the baby to stand on its own feet. After that, though, it’s all about having another one! Borrowing a phrase from the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, we could say that startups worship the process of “creative destruction”. Though in this case, destruction is understood as a positive energy towards the innovation of useful ideas and products. Sometimes this is connected to the moral claim of “building a better world through entrepreneurship” – as Ryan Allis and Ellen Daly put it in the subtitle of their soon-to-be-released book The Startup Guide.
The successful entrepreneur stands on top of the symbolic hierarchy within the startup scene. Other actors and institutions need to show their respect to this goddess in order to be legitimate players. This helps us understand why some capital investors have been raised to the symbolic status of a ‘Business Angel’, a heavenly creature. Most of them have a history of being successful entrepreneurs themselves. They thus belong to the light side of capital investment. When Mark Suster – former entrepreneur and angel investor – changed to the largest VC firm in Southern California in 2007, he ironically took on the role of a sinner in his blog entry: He confessed that he had moved to the “dark side”.
So whatever path you choose to take: May the force be with you!
About the author
Alexander Hirschfeld is a 29-year-old sociology Ph.D. candidate who has studied, worked and lived in Bamberg, South Carolina, Vienna and New York. His doctoral thesis is on the changing perception of the human psyche, which he investigates by analysing the emergence of the so-called Burnout Syndrome. His main interest lies with sociological theory, which means lots of reading and knowing the nicest libraries in every city by heart. Apart from that, he enjoys cooking, soccer and watching the same old movies over and over again. Alex lives in Berlin.
Read more about the origins of the “From the sociologist’s notebook” series by our co-founder: Introducing: From the sociologist’s notebook