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Immigrants are often described as a highly entrepreneurial group. “There is more than a grain of truth to this perception,” according to a 1997 report by the International Migration Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In every census from 1880 to 1990, as long as they have been keeping records, immigrants were significantly more likely to be self-employed than natives.28 The single exception to this 110-year-long trend was the roaring 1990s. In that decade, when every American college student wanted to found the next Yahoo!, native-born Americans increased their level of self-employment to match the immigrants’: both immigrants and native-born Americans were self-employed at a very high rate, just above 11 percent. Temperament may not be the only factor. An immigrant who doesn’t speak the language of his new country might find economic opportunities limited outside ethnic niche industries, such as Korean grocery stores, where fellow countrymen can help him start his own business. But even this speaks to the psychology of the immigrant: if he had stayed in Korea, no one would be extending him credit to open a store.

Thus, it follows that nations that absorb more immigrants should have more entrepreneurial activity, and that is indeed the case. In the past decade, America, Canada, and Israel were the top three countries in new company creation, according to a 1999 cross-national survey of ten industrial nations conducted by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a joint project of the London Business School and Babson College.29 “What’s unique about the top countries is that all three have been created by people moving into them,” Paul Reynolds, one author of the report, told Business Week.30 Moreover, the magnitude of these differences is large. The average American is four times more likely to be the founder of a company than a Frenchman, for example.

As Tocqueville predicted, there is a solid statistical relationship between entrepreneurial activity and the wealth of a nation. Gross domestic product growth and employment rates both correlate with new business creation. Because they are “constantly driven to participate in commerce and industry,” Americans, who make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, account for 31 percent of its economic activity.

Because of its origins, America has an abundance of people with hypomanic temperaments. And it has made good use of them by giving them freer rein, more opportunity, and greater respect than they have received elsewhere. As British economic historian Edward Chancellor noted in his history of financial speculation, Devil Take the Hindmost, the result is a society of people both culturally and genetically predisposed to economic risk:

The American is equipped with more than just a hopeful vision of the future and a drive for self-improvement. He is prepared to take enormous risks to attain his ends. To emigrate to America was itself a great risk. This appetite for risk—so great one might say it was imprinted in American genes—has not diminished with time but remains a continuing source of the nation’s vitality.

The next gold rush, the next boom, the next market mania is coming. Hold on to your seat. America has been a ship riding the waves of irrational exuberance for hundreds of years, and she’s not likely to change course any time soon. It’s in our blood.

Captains Outrageous

America has been good to hypomanics—a land of opportunity that has liberated their energies and lifted their spirits. In return, hypomanic Americans have been good to America, powering a wilderness colony ahead of every other nation on the planet in just a
few hundred years. They may be our greatest natural resource. An untold number of hypomanics helped make America the richest nation on Earth. This book tells the stories of just a few.

It was not easy choosing the people to focus on, nor was it a scientific selection process. There were so many candidates to choose from. To show America’s development through a kind of time-lapse photography, I searched for people from each century of our five-hundred-year history who played a leading role in America’s growth, especially her economic growth. Christopher Columbus discovered America; prophets such as John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and William Penn populated it; Alexander Hamilton was one of a handful of men who conceived its national future and economic potential; Andrew Carnegie sparked an industrial revolution that led to mass production; the Selznick and Mayer families helped create Hollywood, usher in the age of mass media, and portray a national self-image; and Craig Venter cracked our genetic code, the implications of which are only beginning to be fathomed.
Each chapter of this book is a small biography. Written by a psychologist, they are also clinical case histories that illustrate hypomania in action. These men were outrageous—arrogant, provocative, unconventional, and unpredictable. They were not “well adjusted” by ordinary standards but instead forced the world to adjust to them. Their stories are inspiring, comical, and sometimes tragic, as the hubris that fueled their improbable rise often led to their fall as well. Yet without their irrational confidence, ambitious vision, and unstoppable zeal, these outrageous captains would never have sailed into unknown waters, never discovered new worlds, never changed the course of our history.


Copyright © 2005 by John D. Gartner

 

 

 

 

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