The dangerous culture of comfort

By Francisco Dao , written on October 23, 2012

From The News Desk

I had originally planned on writing only about the effects of comfort on corporate culture, but as I read over the statistics from Vivek Wadhwa’s new book on immigrant entrepreneurs, I started to consider how comfort plays a role in American society as a whole.

Vivek tell us that America needs to be more welcoming to immigrants because they fuel entrepreneurship and he provides some sobering statistics. Recent data shows that 43.9 percent of Silicon Valley startups were founded by immigrants and nationwide the number stands at 24.3 percent. Digging deeper, a recent report on patents tells us that

54 percent (of patents) were awarded to the group of foreign inventors most likely to face visa hurdles: students, postdoctoral fellows, or staff researchers (and) foreign-born inventors played especially large roles in cutting-edge fields like semiconductor device manufacturing (87%), information technology (84%), pulse or digital communications (83%), pharmaceutical drugs or drug compounds (79%), and optics (77%).
The numbers clearly make a strong case for welcoming immigrant entrepreneurs, but it made me wonder. Why are the figures for cutting edge science and entrepreneurship so skewed toward immigrants? Why aren’t Americans developing technology and starting companies at a similar ratio to those who are foreign born?

I believe the problem has to do with comfort. Comfort is the enemy of ambition, and Americans have simply grown so comfortable that it has sapped our initiative. We hear plenty of lip service about American ingenuity, but if we were even half as driven as those who are foreign born, then we wouldn’t need the constant flow of immigrants to fuel innovation and job creation. But one look at the disproportionate ratio of immigrant technologists, patent grantees, and entrepreneurs, and we see that this is clearly not the case.

Considering the relative malaise of American citizens when it comes to innovation, Vivek’s proposed solution of allowing more STEM immigrants is sound. But at the same time, it is a bit like arguing that a large stagnant company like HP can turn itself around by smart hiring without addressing its entrenched cultural issues. It should help, but it doesn’t address the core problem.

If we want to fix America’s innovation engine, then we need to change our nation’s internal culture. An improved immigration policy is only a stop gap measure if the general population continues to drift along. Our goal should be to close the gap between the ratio that immigrants get patents and start companies, and the ratio that American born citizens do.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever tried to change an organization’s culture can tell you, this is an almost impossible task, but we may be able to learn a lesson from startup culture. Contrary to the overly triumphant “We are the champions” messaging that people like to perpetuate, it is the underdog ethos that is the more useful mindset. The underdog ethos is why a startup’s core team feels bound together and united in a common mission of “us against the world.” It’s why you often see sports teams embrace the underdog role, because their coaches and team captains know it is a more effective narrative for keeping the players motivated.

Maintaining this mindset over the long term is difficult, because when companies reach a certain level of success, a culture of comfort settles in and the underdog ethos naturally dissipates. Once it’s gone, it is almost impossible to bring back, even as the organization starts to drift. You can see this trend at HP, Yahoo, Microsoft, and almost every other large organization including the one known as the United States.

But things aren’t completely hopeless. Once before we were able to rally the nation and spark a generation of science and innovation. For a period, we were the underdogs, and it made us uncomfortable. It started on October 4th, 1957 when the Soviet Union put Sputnik 1 into orbit. That day would launch a space race that would ultimately see American engineers and scientists put astronauts on the moon using computers that were less powerful than a pocket calculator. Our paranoia at falling behind pushed us out of our comfort zone and transformed us into a nation that made science and innovation a priority.

Alas, that era is over, and we’ve slipped back into a comfortable stupor. Vivek is right. We need the immigrant innovators, because we’re not hungry enough or industrious enough to do it on our own. The situation reminds me of my eldest sister who was 10 years old when my family moved to America. She went on to get an engineering degree from Berkeley at a time (1980) when few women studied STEM majors. By comparison, her second generation American son grew up in the lap of comfort and dropped out of state college after spending his entire freshman year playing Xbox. I can’t help but think America, much like my nephew, has been lulled into complacency as a result of simply being too comfortable.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]