Ode to the Boatrockers of the World

Someone told me long ago that I was a boatrocker, never satisfied with the status quo. At the time, I was in my early 30s and a good 10 years into my career. I was happily climbing the corporate ladder to the top ranks of management, so being called a boatrocker really stopped me in my tracks. That’s not necessarily what gets people to the top of the corporate ladder. And since the top of the ladder was where I thought I wanted to go, I stifled the boatrocker…or I thought I did.

The boatrocker was not to be ignored, however, and ultimately she rocked me right out of a job. I found myself faced with the choice of climbing back on the ladder or exploring new territory for my next career move. I chose the latter. In 2006, I became an entrepreneur and over time learned not to stifle but to fully embrace my inner boatrocker. In fact, I’ve given her a fancier name – iconoclast – and she is me.

Iconoclast: a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. The word adds a special flavor to the other titles and attributes I carry, but especially to entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are innovators and visionaries for sure…but are they all iconoclasts? I don’t think so. The difference lies in the distinction between “building a better mousetrap” and creating a world where mousetraps are no longer needed.

To build a better mousetrap one might invent all sorts of disruptive technologies to make a faster, cheaper, more humane, less disgusting way of ridding a house of mice. That’s what entrepreneurs do.

But what if we change the way we think about mice to begin with. Why must we rid houses of mice, after all? They’re citizens of the earth, same as we are. Some of their ancestors romped happily for eons in the woods where my house was built only 30 years ago, so maybe they want to get rid of me! What if we found a way to change to a system that allows mice and humans to coexist happily? Sure, that’s a lot harder. And requires some of us to make concessions that we might not want to make, but what if those concessions pale in comparison with the collective benefits of this new system? What if the new model is so elegant and simple that it would seem foolish NOT to move toward it?

This is the work of an iconoclast. It lines up precisely with the iconoclastic words of a quirky, brilliant inventor and visionary, hailed as “one of the greatest minds of our times,” and my personal guru — Buckminster Fuller — who said:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I took those words to heart when I first read them in 2002, and they have since become my mantra. That’s what makes me different from your garden variety entrepreneur. Of course I have to laugh at the thought of “garden variety entrepreneur” because only 14% of Americans consider themselves entrepreneurs which is a pretty small garden. Yet this drives home my point that there are even fewer of us iconoclasts out there challenging existing systems.

But we are out here.

We’re often called social entrepreneurs – those who establish an enterprise with the aim of effecting social change. That sure seems to jibe with the definition of iconoclast with even more aspirational flair. Yet I found one statistic in a Google search that estimates just 5.75% of the U.S. population are social entrepreneurs. That’s a mere handful.

Why so few?

Because challenging the status quo, rocking the boat, building new models that make old ones obsolete…it’s lonely work. People think you’re crazy. Your mother doesn’t know how to describe to her friends what it is you do. Resources are hard to come by unless you find someone as crazy as you to support your work. And you may never see the fruits of your labor in your lifetime.

But you’ve got to do it or you’ll whither inside.

Iconoclasts find ways to derive joy and fulfillment from planting seeds of trees in whose shade they’ll never sit.