What drives someone to want to change the world?

Pure market economists would tell us that self-interest drives innovation. But Wall Street has shown that one’s self-interest is better served by financial manipulation than by inventing or creating something of lasting value. For those who have opted for entrepreneurship, rational self-interest dictates that they reach for low hanging fruit. Our market opportunities are so large that it is unnecessary to aim high when even a modest opportunity can result in millions of dollars in profits. For example, a well-known technology incubator recently launched an underwear delivery service. Unless you’re someone who finds it difficult to keep your underwear clean, I hardly think this qualifies as game-changing, and yet I hear the company is doing well. Who’s to judge them? After all, they are being rational. Why shoot for the stars when success can be had at significantly lower risk?

The next question is one of necessity. As Plato said, it is “necessity who is the mother of invention.” In the developed world, are there really any necessities? Even if nothing else is invented in our lifetimes, we still live lives many times wealthier and more comfortable than any generation before us. When our ancestors were forced to invent a spear or crossbow, the necessity was to prevent their families from starving. Today, many of us face no such pressing need. In terms of necessity, the modern world is similar to the airplane. For the first 70 years after the Wright brothers flew, airplane development grew by leaps and bounds. But, since the 747 made its first commercial flight in 1970, development in airplanes has nearly ground to a halt. Once we reached pressurized cabins and jet engines, the pressing need to innovate all but disappeared.

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