Getting off of/on entrepreneurship porn

by Melissa Mesku

On my shelf at home is a huge stack of magazines, most all of them pornographic. They’re all dusty but every month more come in the mail. I’d say that I mainly read them for the articles, but to be honest I subscribed to them for the same reason you did — they’re seductive.

Yeah, yeah, I’m not talking about actual porn, I’m talking about entrepreneurship porn. Fast Company, Inc, Entrepreneur: it’s all porn. The stars that grace their covers titillate us with their fetishized activities, from the pivot—an invigorating change in thrust—to the Silicon Valley money shot, the big IPO. Every act entrepreneurs engage in has received a flattering centerfold, from “innovation” (on par with adding a new entry into the Kama Sutra) to “failure” (upcycled to now conjure the image of an experienced man of the world). At the center of the excitement is the powerful and ever-ready stunt cock: the successful entrepreneur. Following the pornography 1.0 model, we’re not looking at a prick we want, we’re looking at a prick we want to be. The entrepreneur is the dick we identify with through envy. His exploits are the stuff of fantasy, and the world he dwells in—at least what little we glimpse of it—becomes a deep-seated fantasy of our own.

While it’s not exactly a one-to-one correlation, the storytelling in startup journalism appeals to these fantasies. It works its magic subtly by cultivating aspirational lust, lifestyle envy and identification with an entrepreneur archetype, a new world man whose work, and therefore life, is sexier than ours.

In such stories, no realistic account is given of the abject situations through which one regularly stumbles as an entrepreneur. Of crying in the bathroom when your ego is utterly shattered by smug investors who tell you your business is crap. Of the embarrassment in begging funds off everyone and their mother and then losing it all. Of having to fire your first employee. And your best friend. Of three years of your life spent looking up a dog’s hole.

When these stories are told, they’re airbrushed. The going narrative reassures that since entrepreneurs are rarified beings, their experience is inherently valuable. That no matter what an entrepreneur had to go through, it was worth it because being the founder of a company is a fundamentally worthwhile experience. The same could equally be said for getting a divorce, fasting, learning Mandarin, losing your religion or living off the grid. But since work is all the rage, entrepreneurship is viewed as the ultimate in self-transformation.

If entrepreneurs are illuminated in their grossly favorable spotlight, the rest of the show’s cast is dimly lit and pallid. Little attention is given to the other players that make entrepreneurs’ businesses possible. If entrepreneurs are so great, where in the business press is the article about signing on to a great entrepreneur’s vision? Where is the series on what it’s actually like to work for Zuck, or even Tony Hsieh? In all the business media is there even one article about slogging it out as a cube jockey in a startup? Yet millions of educated minds want to know. And all they’re hearing is Be a rockstar—go start your own company.

In this pornified idea of work, we all hope to be the stunt cock. There is only one subjective experience here, that of the star of the show. Everyone else is an object. No thought is given to who must, er, hold the boom mic. And certainly no thought is given to who gets fucked.

My first notion of this came one Saturday night while I was reading Fast Co alone on the couch. I had that moment every young, virile person has on a Saturday night, which is Really, is this what Im doing on a Saturday night? My answer to my self-asked question was a frustrated Yes. Im reading Fast Company because I am going to own a fast company one day, goddamn it! (I already fucking owned a company, it just wasn’t a fast one. Have you heard of the slow food movement? It was like that, but without the food.)

For the next half hour on the couch I sat balls-deep in an exotic daydream. I was a bad ass bitch of a boss, hiring and firing, wheeling and dealing, earning a shit-ton of respect and a shit-ton of cash. For once in my life I’d have fat stacks of taxable income. I’d be feared and revered! I’d wear tailored suits!

A half an hour later (and it’s never longer than that) it was over. The magazine lay there limp, spent. I felt a mix of lethargy and self-loathing come over me. I’m not saying this to knock porn per se, more to note that it’s a lot like eating McDonald’s. When it was over I saw myself as I was: the pajamas, the take-out, the solitude, the lazy preference for fantasy. I’d have been much better off if I’d just had a real wank and then went out for a drink. Or McDonald’s.

Since then I started eyeing those magazines with trepidation. Surely they weren’t so bad—they were full of useful information. 22 Qualities That Make A Great Leader! 12 Secrets To Supercharging Your Personal Brand! What Small Brands Can Do That Big Names Cant! True, there’s good stuff in there. But that’s the thing about porn. It’s not always the thing itself that’s pornographic; it’s your relationship with it. Every time I found myself reaching for Inc it was because I had an inkling that something was missing. Success! That’s what was missing. But where to find it? Through more …work? Ugh. It’s so much easier to just open up a magazine, stare at a glossy spread and imagine I already have it.

In the article, “The Dangerous Rise of Entrepreneurship Porn” in Harvard Business Review, Morra Aarons-Mele wrote, “I’ve come to suspect that the rise of ‘entrepreneurship porn’ is at least as much about escaping a company as starting one.” Most people don’t like their work and, as she puts it, “[e]ntrepreneurial escapism thrives in such an environment.”

If we can extricate ourselves from the fantasy, we can start to reckon with the fact that we can’t all be the star, the successful startup entrepreneur. Ironically, the best prospect even a startup entrepreneur has is not to start up but to quit and go work as an employee for another startup. Yet for all the adoration that startups receive, data shows that the workplaces with the happiest employees arent startups. In the end, all the press coverage and general hoo-hah for entrepreneurialism comes down to this: after years of subscribing to entrepreneurship porn, the best most of us could hope for is to be the one getting fucked.

 

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Nicholas Postiglioni, edited by New Worker Magazine.

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