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One outlet for this restless energy has been business. “Americans are constantly driven to engage in commerce and industry. . . . This is the characteristic that most distinguishes the American people from all others,” wrote Tocqueville in Democracy in America.21 He sensed that the American motivation to get rich was more about the excitement of making money than it was about wealth itself. “The desire for prosperity has become an ardent passion . . . which they pursue for the emotions it excites as much as for the gain it procures.”22 And these people never stopped working. “Everybody works,” wrote Tocqueville. The aristocratic European ideal was to become so wealthy that one did not need to labor. In America, “work opens a way to everything; this has changed the point of honor quite around.” To Americans it was a disgrace not to
work.

Americans work more hours than any other people in the world.23 We’ve changed little in that regard since Tocqueville’s day. We tend to attribute this habit to cultural influences, without even considering biological causes. America’s workaholism is typically attributed to its Puritanical “Protestant work ethic.” But is it reasonable to ascribe such enormous influence to a defunct seventeenth-century English Protestant sect on the contemporary day-to-day behavior of hundreds of millions of diverse Americans? The average American recalls only the barest outline of who the Puritans were. When you talk to these strivers, they tell you that their drive comes from within and that they have been strongly “self-motivated” since they were children. They hit the ground running and couldn’t tell you why. I would attribute the number of hours Americans work to what I call the “immigrant work drive,” an internal biological compulsion passed from parent to child through their hypomanic genes.

Tocqueville noticed that Americans were entrepreneurial risk takers: “Boldness of enterprise is the foremost cause of [America’s] rapid progress, its strength and its greatness.” Though some individuals failed, the collective efforts of entrepreneurs drove the nation forward. Americans believed so deeply in the “virtue” of “commercial temerity” that they had all but removed the stigma surrounding financial failure:

Commercial business is there like a vast lottery, by which a small number of men continually lose, but the state is always the gainer. . . . Hence arises the strange indulgence that is shown to bankrupts in the United States; their honor does not suffer by such an accident.

At that time, a European who went bankrupt might end up in debtor’s prison, so Tocqueville was surprised that there was little shame in bankruptcy here. The stereotypic American success story is of an entrepreneur who fails numerous times before achieving his big success. Such “serial entrepreneurs” will tell you that they shake off failure like a dog shakes off water and are soon raring to go again with a new idea.

That America rewards and celebrates such people is culturally unique. When asked, “Do you think that starting a new business is a respected occupation in your community?” 91 percent of Americans said yes, as compared to 28 percent of British and 8 percent of Japanese respondents.25 In Japan there is still deep disgrace attached to business failure. Men who lose their jobs often hide it from their families and pretend to go to work each day. Some economists have argued that Japan has been slow to bounce back from its decade-long recession because the population has lost all taste for risk after the fallout of the stock and real estate bubbles of the early 1990s. Most Japanese save a substantial portion of their money in secure savings accounts that yield zero interest, tying up capital that could either be invested in businesses or stimulate the economy through consumption. Americans, by contrast, bounce back from failures, scandals, and bubbles with infinitely renewable confidence. After the stock market and the World Trade Center came crashing down in succession, one might have expected a pessimistic mood to take hold in America. But a subsequent poll taken in 2002 found that 59 percent of American college students believed that they were on their way to becoming millionaires.26 Our immigrant genes predispose us to optimism. “You had to be an optimist to move. Pessimists didn’t bother,” wrote Yale historian George Pierson.27 Because this optimism comes from within, it is not easily discouraged by external events. And optimism, like pessimism, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

 

 

 

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