An uncomfortable question

Posted on November 23, 2010


I left Denmark in my early 20’s because it felt like a place that was too ‘constraining’. Our culture, to this day, is strongly influenced by ‘Janteloven’ / ‘The Jante Law‘ This set of rules, first codified by the DanishNorwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his novel A fugitive crosses his tracks, “is a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticizes success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.”

Image courtesy of Marianne Jakobsen

I felt an immense need to break out of this and traveled to Israel, where I learned the meaning of ‘economic disparity’. This disparity, which I had never experienced in Denmark, truly was what set me off on my path. I moved to England in the late 90’s, where I studied and graduated with a generation set on becoming Internet billionaires, and founded a software start-up. I wanted to work hard and be rewarded for it.

This sense of disparity, I believe, drives large parts of the entrepreneurial eco-system. The promise of big returns in a short number of years leads us to work more hours and travel more miles than in any other profession, sacrifice relationships (ALL entrepreneurs in our main fund’s portfolio went through a divorce), whilst retaining a razor sharp focus on becoming ‘successful’.

But entrepreneurs are only an exaggerated version of most humans: We have been brought up and educated to strive for a relatively narrow goal: Growing our material wealth. Our expectation is that our wealth will increase throughout our life and that it will enable us to consume more. We now know, although we might be denying it, that this growth in wealth is not sustainable given the limited resources of our planet.

When I recently hosted a group of danish lecturers at MIT, they inevitably asked the question ‘What can we do in Denmark to become as entrepreneurial as in the US?’

These days I am wondering if this is the right question asked by the right people. The question on my mind is: How can I evolve to shift my focus and basis for competition away from external metrics such as ‘profits’ and ‘material wealth’ towards more sustainable metrics, such as ‘consciousness’ and ‘connectedness’? What metric can I find that is as powerful at grabbing my attention as that of the share price of my company and ultimately could replace it?

In some sense, although I am still not comfortable with the notion, I am asking ‘Did we have it right in Denmark all along?’