Much has been said about entrepreneurs and their oft-stated ambition to “change the world.” Making money is nice, they say, but they really want to “put a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs once said.
Some see this as high-minded conceit: Change the world? Through tweets and hashtags? Photo oversharing? A world where everyone is constantly staring at their phones? Is this change actually for the better? All valid questions, to be sure.
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and while “changing the world” might be a bit of an overreach, one thing is true: Entrepreneurs are the people who get to decide which universe everyone else lives in.
And this has some other deeper implications.
The degree to which quantum physics has any impact on our everyday world is hotly debated by philosophers and physicists. But there are some ways we can interpret quantum effects as entrepreneurs that are interesting.
One theory is that there is an infinite number of parallel universes, and the world we live in is just one of many possible worlds. So who decides which universe the rest of us will live in? To be sure, political and military leaders do, but so do writers, musicians, scientists, inventors — and entrepreneurs.
When you think about it, we all have the power to propose something new. These proposals may be modest, or they may be starkly different from what has come before. Our ability to nurture these new proposals and steer our world into the universe where these new ideas take root is really the fundamental act of entrepreneurship.
So in some sense, entrepreneurs are quantum time travelers — able to steer the world into a new dimension that might not otherwise have existed.
Can you imagine the world we’d be living in if Steve Jobs hadn’t willed the iPhone and iPad into our universe before he passed on? It would be substantially different (and Microsoft’s stock price would certainly be higher).
Entrepreneurs aren’t the only people who have this power to shift us into a new universe: anyone can do it. Whether you’re a nonprofit worker, a lab scientist, a musician or just a rank-and-file employee in a company, there is almost always a way to start with what you have, what you know and who you know, and transform it into something that’s fundamentally new.
It is the collective output of those who dare to make these proposals that defines the shape, rhythm, texture and nature of the world we live in. That puts each of us in a position of incredible responsibility and power; for if each of us is capable of steering the planet in a new direction, then why aren’t we doing it?
Entrepreneurship researcher Dr. Saras Sarasvathy coined the idea of “effectuation,” a theory that states that entrepreneurs use a particular kind of logic in advancing their proposals.
Essentially, they gather up everything they are, have and know, and then they place a bet on a next step. That bet will typically have a higher upside than downside, and they can afford to continue if they lose the bet.
Following this continuously almost always means you can advance an agenda and make it grow. And Sarasvathy discovered that this is exactly how expert entrepreneurs operate. They don’t typically have a big master plan. They just execute a series of modest bets, and they’re aided by the people and experience they gather along the way. That’s it.
I find all this incredibly empowering; we have a simple recipe that enables us to continuously and collectively select a better universe than the one we are currently living in. And anyone can do it, just by thinking the way entrepreneurs think.
The money that comes from creating a positive change is a nice side benefit, but it’s hardly the point. Money’s just a tool to enable us to keep selecting a better world.
So can we change the world? Perhaps not. But we can each help to choose a better one. And that’s true power.
This piece originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of SmartCEO Magazine (Baltimore).