One consistent trait amongst entrepreneurs is that they’re aspirational. If they weren’t, they would have chosen a safer and more predictable path. We admire the aspirational mindset and view it as a wholly good thing, like courage or kindness. But aspiration has a downside that limits the scope of our thinking and subsequently our ability to solve important problems. In short, it makes us focus only on the wants and needs that we personally aspire to, which almost always means addressing matters of status and luxury.
The problem of “aspirational blindness” isn’t just limited to the technology industry. Automotive entrepreneurs are constantly trying to launch the next supercar but rarely make attempts to build something practical. When it comes to restaurants, how many restaurateurs dream of opening affordable, family oriented dining establishments? If they have access to the means, they open trendy upscale places that reflect the lifestyle and image they want to project. Even celebrities and professional athletes, who shouldn’t need any additional validation, often launch nightclubs and restaurants as a status symbol of their success. Our personal aspirations tend to blind us to the needs of others and push us toward fulfilling the needs of our own ego.
The unintended result of pursuing what we aspire to, especially in the tech industry, is nobody builds anything for the poor and needy. We either create services for the well-to-do or figure out how to make luxury more available to the upper middle class. This desire to build for the life we want and the people we want to be, is why so few startups focus on legitimate needs and why the Valley is criticized for being shallow and disconnected from reality.
The only way to remove the blinders of aspiration and open ourselves to solving more than just problems of convenience is to change our value system. On a societal level this is an impossibility since wealth and the services and conveniences it affords are ingrained as the universal measurement of success. But as individuals, we can make the choice to prioritize a different standard of achievement.
Consider entrepreneurs such as Premal Shah of Kiva, Leila Janah of Samasource, and Scott Harrison of Charity Water. Are they less ambitious than other entrepreneurs? I can assure you they are not, but their value system and what they aspire to is different than the rest of us. Their aspirations are measured less by luxury and more by how significantly they can affect the lives of those in need. Because their priorities are different, they have chosen to service the least fortunate instead of the most fortunate, and in the process have helped far more people than those of us focused on fulfilling our own first world desires.
There is a vast world of underserved people out there with real problems that most of us choose to ignore because they are below us on the socioeconomic ladder and therefore we don’t aspire to their status or possessions. Instead, we focus our entrepreneurial efforts on creating things we want instead of things the world needs. But if we can change our personal aspirations to value the impact we have on others over our desire for more status, convenience, and luxury we just might be able to gain the required perspective to address problems beyond our personal wants. Ultimately, taking off the blinders of our own aspirations will help us see the needs of others and become the world changers that so many in the Valley often claim to be.
NOTE: As I considered the problem of aspirational blindness, I realized I am completely guilty of building a business based on what I wanted and the wants of well-to-do people.
[Illustration by Dylan Mckeever for PandoDaily]