I’m not sure how it happened, or even exactly when it happened, other than it was sometime around my 20th birthday. But around that time, I came to the revelation that I was free. Not free in the “Give me liberty or give me death!” definition of the word, but free in the sense that I was largely liberated from the worry of going hungry. I know that sounds somewhat strange, so allow me to explain why, and how, this revelation gave me the freedom to choose my life and set me on the path of entrepreneurship.
Growing up in an immigrant Vietnamese family, I realized that being poor in Vietnam was different than being poor in America. Being poor in Vietnam probably meant starvation and death, while being poor in America, assuming you were employable, meant having a really crappy job but you probably weren’t going to starve. This realization set me free to pursue my ambitions. I figured if I completely screwed up, worst case scenario I would spend 12 months flipping burgers somewhere while I figured out how to get back on my feet.
Unlike my parents, whose choices were shaped by living in a country where failure likely meant a lifetime of unimaginable poverty, I was given this gift of living in a country where the social safety net, combined with my resourcefulness, allowed me to swing for the fences without worrying too much about ending up starving in the streets.
Lately, this idea got me thinking. Maybe we’re looking at the social safety net in the wrong light. As the United States has become more conservative, social programs have increasingly been characterized as some kind of welfare money pit. But in many ways, the social safety net and a national economy that offered decent employment opportunities are what allowed me to become an entrepreneur. Even more directly, some years later, a short period of collecting unemployment insurance enabled me to start writing. You wouldn’t be reading this today, if I hadn’t had the breathing room to try a new direction.
Consider how many more people might have the opportunity to become an entrepreneur if they, like me, felt they didn’t have to worry about going hungry. If entrepreneurship is the driver of the economy, is it possible that a strong social safety net would be an overall benefit? Of course there’s no way of knowing for sure who would use the opportunity as a chance to do something bigger versus who would simply use it as an excuse to do nothing.
We could look at the rates of entrepreneurship in countries that have strong social programs, but obviously there are other factors to consider such as cultural norms and how such programs are designed and administered. I suspect my conservative readers will accuse me of advocating for a welfare state, but I’m really just explaining how America’s employment prospects and social safety net gave me the courage and opportunity to become an entrepreneur.
I think it’s at least worth considering the possibility that this form of freedom from the concerns of hunger might give other people the same opportunity to pursue their ambitions that it offered me. And if it did, it would likely result in a larger overall economic pie for everyone.
Perhaps I was simply overconfident about my prospects, but the recognition that I lived in a country, and had a support system, that allowed me to stop worrying about starving was the revelation that made the rest of my life possible. To squander that gift by following the safe route would have seemed like the biggest wasted opportunity. At least for me, the realization that I wasn’t going to go hungry was the ultimate game-changer.