Tracing a national tradition from the American revolutionaries and Amelia Earhart to graffiti artists and venture capitalists
On January 14, 2015, the world waited with bated breath as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson came over the rim of a notoriously steep section of the rock known as El Capitan, the largest single block of granite in the world. Over the course of 19 days, the pair had climbed the Dawn Wall, the most difficult part of the famous rock formation at Yosemite National Park, with just their hands and feet; rope and harnesses were used only to break deadly falls. Caldwell and Jorgeson became the first people to “free climb” the Dawn Wall, a feat many thought could never be accomplished.
The pair had trained for more than five years and encountered serious injuries on previous attempts. In recognition of their arduous and potentially fatal quest, one of them even called this climb his Moby-Dick, after that white whale that taunted—and destroyed—Captain Ahab. When Caldwell and Jorgeson made it to the top with their bloodied, bandaged, and superglued fingers, it was such a quintessential moment of American optimism that even President Obama sent his congratulations, tweeting, “You remind us that anything is possible.”
Could anyone other than Americans have scaled this incredibly difficult granite face with so scant a safety net? Of course—but it was Americans who made the seemingly impossible climb. And many of the world’s elite rock climbers—including the one considered the world’s best, Alex Honnold—are Americans. In advance of the “What It Means to Be American” event “Are Americans Risk-Takers?” we asked scholars and people who dabble in risk for a living: What is it about American culture that encourages risk-taking?
A young mindset for a young country — Joyce Appleby
Risk-taking appeals to the young; it’s only as we grow older that we’re cautioned by the downsides. One of the remarkable aspects of the American Revolution is the freedom won by young people. Both girls and boys escaped the drudgery of farming by becoming schoolteachers, an occupation greatly expanded after the Revolution. Similarly, the union of the states made it possible for boys to become peddlers, carrying goods from the Northern states to Southern plantations. These experiences made youth a time for experimenting in new careers.
Crucial for risk-takers in the early national period was the fact that old colonial wealth withdrew from speculative economic ventures, leaving many opportunities open to ordinary men and women. Old wealth stayed in the city and benefited from the rise in the prices of urban real estate. Early manufacturing centered in rural areas because of the available water power, and a new enterprise could begin with sweat equity and borrowed seed money from family and friends.
The opening up of the lands in the national domain west of the Appalachian Mountains also enticed many—mostly young people—to pull up stakes and move west where they might acquire land and the respect land ownership bestowed. First comers had an unusual chance to capitalize on their labor, clearing land and selling it to those in the second wave of westward adventurers.
Unlike European societies, American society freed its youth to create their own careers. Giving the natural risk-takers such a free scope led soon to embedding an admiration for risk-taking in American culture. It has continued to prevail as a distinctive feature of the culture of the United States.
Joyce Appleby is professor emeritus of history at UCLA who has studied England, France, and America in the 17th and 18th centuries, focusing on how economic developments changed people’s perceptions of politics, society, and human nature. Her recent publications are The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (2010) and Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination (2013).
You can’t pass up an opportunity — Sket-One
Living in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave gives us a kind of “I can do that” attitude. No wonder we’re the birthplace of Nike’s “Just do it” campaign. Immigrants have brought their hopes and dreams here for a long time.
Growing up a graffiti artist in America isn’t all that free, and you have to be at least a little brave. To hone your skills, you mostly have to make art illegally—most people don’t have large blank walls sitting that they’re allowed to practice on. I remember being a kid and writing all my plans on pieces of paper—what colors to use, how to execute the sketch of the work I planned to do that night. And then I’d have to sneak out and hike to abandoned places like train yards or bridges. I could’ve been caught, electrocuted, or hit by a train or car. I could’ve been fined, had my artwork removed, or gone to jail. But I did it because I couldn’t find any other outlet to express myself. I wanted to create, and be seen creating.
If I imagine embarking on the same journey in a different country, I’m not sure it would’ve been worth the risk. Friends, for example, have told me about punishment for graffiti in Singapore—from huge fines to caning. If I were hit with a punishment of this caliber, I wouldn’t have continued or received any support for my artistic endeavors. Instead, I have a career doing what I love, and a comfortable home for my family.
Sket-One, also known as Andrew Yasgar, is a painter, illustrator, and designer who began as a graffiti artist in the 1980s. His studio is in Long Beach, California.
The ‘self-made man’ is an entrenched story, but a fable to many — Zulema Valdez
With 13 percent of the working-age population, the United States boasts the highest rate of entrepreneurship across 25 industrialized economies. Robert Fairlie, an economist at the Kauffman Foundation, noted that in 2013, the U.S. economy added 476,000 new business owners each month.
These numbers are consistent with the strongly held belief by most Americans that the United States is the land of opportunity, where anyone with a good idea, a positive attitude, and a willingness to work hard can own a business and succeed. This ideology is expressed by a higher percentage of Americans when compared to people in other nations. In a 2013 report published by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, fully 47 percent of Americans agreed that good opportunities for new businesses exist, and 56 percent “believed they had the capabilities to launch a business.”
Yet the economic reality for most American entrepreneurs is that most businesses fail. Regardless of personal drive, hard work, and risking it all, successful businesses are generally owned by older, white, middle-class men, who, yes, possess a propensity toward risk.
The idea of America as the land of opportunity—which we can even call the American Creed—sparks risk-taking among a large and diverse population willing to take a leap of faith and start a business. What the ideology fails to reveal, however, is that the U.S. remains a highly stratified society where successful entrepreneurs are rarely “self-made.” The Horatio Alger “rags-to-riches” fable is just that, a fable that exists to reinforce the possibility of the American dream. The reality, however, is that risk-taking, while perhaps a necessary ingredient for entrepreneurship, is not sufficient in the absence of human capital (education and work experience), social capital (business networks), and financial capital (personal savings, wealth, access to credit or loans). Ultimately, these factors trump risk-taking, or perhaps diminish the “risk” entirely.
Zulema Valdez is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced and the author of The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class, and Gender Shape American Enterprise.
Challenging authority and taking chances is in America’s DNA — Susan Wels
From the beginning, independence and self-determination have been essential elements of the American character. As a culture, we tend to challenge authority and take risks to pursue our own convictions and interests.
That history helps shape who we are, and the scope of our expectations. Amelia Earhart—the first woman and second person to fly solo across the Atlantic—is one example. She grew up in a family of risk-takers. Her grandfather, Alfred Otis, moved to Kansas in 1855 to help escaping slaves—hiding them in trunks and covering them with grain in the back of wagons. He raised his daughter, Amy Otis, to embrace risk, travel, and adventure. She raised her daughter, Amelia Earhart, to have boundless potential. She began Amelia’s baby book with a quote from Ruskin: “Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines.” And Amelia was determined to push every limit and break every boundary. Risk was never a hurdle—it was an attraction.
When I was researching my book on Amelia Earhart, I came across an essay she wrote called “Thrill” that was never published. “When I undertake a task,” she confided in the piece, “over all protest, in spite of all adversity, I sometimes thrill, not with the task, but with the realization that I am doing what I want to do.”
Amelia Earhart was an extraordinary risk-taker. But her insistence on self-determination was quintessentially American, and it was worth everything—even the risk of death on her final, record-setting flight around the world.
Susan Wels is the author of Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It.
American life is so predictable we can make ‘educated’ guesses — Alfonso Morales
Deciding whether to take a risk involves thinking about a number of variables—the consequences of a bad decision, figuring out your choices, and understanding how much effort you are willing to exert to gather knowledge about a business opportunity or to continue your education, for example.
The relative predictability and stability of American life helps Americans take risks. While corruption scandals do erupt from time to time, the local, state, and federal governments do function, as a general rule. Supermarket shelves are always well stocked unless there is some kind of super storm. Traffic is always bad at 5 p.m. on a weekday. Largely this is the same in “Western” societies where the rule of law provides predictability, but the U.S. combines an ease of entry with an institutional transparency that encourages new immigrants (and others) to funnel their energy into entrepreneurship.
Our society is stable enough that we can imagine the circumstances that have enabled another person to succeed and then take our own risk to do what he or she has done. Our society is also diverse enough that an interest in business found in one generation might get replicated in a very different way in the next generation. For instance, each adult and child in a family I knew at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market had his or her own business: The adults sold clothing and recorded music; the children had their own line of toy cars, Rubik’s Cubes, and other novelties. They made choices built on previous experiences, and these experiences and incomes led to new, risky choices. Those risks were moderated by investing in the children’s education. (All four children earned post-secondary degrees, including a Ph.D. and a law degree.) This balancing act is not easy, nor are people always successful, but in the U.S. people can see themselves navigating risky situations successfully, even if it means exerting the effort for years before succeeding or even if their efforts might not bear fruit for a generation.
In short, when we take risks, we make “educated” guesses about what we’re going to do.
Alfonso Morales is an associate professor in the department of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-edited the books Street Entrepreneurs and An American Story: Mexican American Entrepreneurship and Wealth Creation.
Our cultural idols are people who are willing to take enormous risk — Peter Sims
I’m not one for pandering the notion of “American exceptionalism” as politicians do. But after working as a venture capital investor in the United States, then in Europe, I realized one day—while riding on a train through the English countryside—that when it came to risk-taking, there really isn’t anything like the culture of entrepreneurship in America.
In England, you’re considered an entrepreneur if you buy a small company and try to grow it. In Germany, most of the economy is driven by the Mittelstand, large, privately held companies that grow 5 to 10 percent a year. In France, Italy, and Spain, government regulations and high capital costs hamper start-ups.
Yet in many parts of America, especially the valleys and universities, almost everyone is an entrepreneur, willing to tinker, toil, and enthuse about ideas late into the night, perfectly aware that failure is probable, even likely. Our cultural idols are the people who are willing to take enormous personal risk and toil through troughs of defeat. They emerge somehow as stronger human beings, perhaps wildly wealthy, or at the very least wiser and more original versions of themselves.
Some call that the American dream. And the challenge in America today is to ensure that entrepreneurial capitalism doesn’t take a back seat to a kind of crony capitalism that excessively enriches executives while cutting back innovation budgets. We don’t want the kind of capitalism that depends on a cozy relationship with government, where contributions flow from corporate pockets to Washington and back, deteriorating our faith in both government and the functioning of our market institutions. In my opinion, the danger in America today is that we forget the courageous, risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit that got us here, and replace it with a corruption of the ideals that built our country.
Peter Sims is co-founder of The Silicon Guild and founder of The BLK SHP (“black sheep”) Foundation. His latest book is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, which grew out of a long collaboration with faculty at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, as well as his previous work in venture capital.
This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.
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