In my recent post-hip surgery lethargy, I fell into a daze of ego-driven entrepreneurial dreams with a recurrent theme: explosive global growth for our company. Lazily watching Hollywood films from the last century intensified my morphine-induced grandiosity. Wilfing on the Web – medically recommended! – I stumbled onto a review of a new book by Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity (Thames & Hudson). Scull’s argument: Hollywood in the early 1920s was obsessed with popularizing Freud.
I can understand why Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and decision-science, has gone out of favor in mental health circles and even in literary studies where Freudian interpretation was once regnant. He’s not exactly politically correct. But just 50 years ago, as Scull points out, “the gospel according to Freud (or the Tinseltown version thereof) entered the collective subconscious across America and wherever the increasingly globalized Hollywood film industry succeeded in extending its reach.” Think of Spellbound (Ingrid Bergman plays the Freudian analyst). Or Ordinary People (1980), or The Three Faces of Eve (1957).
Today, shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad deal with mental breakdowns. But mentions of Freud are scarce to nil. Hollywood keeps a pulse on popular culture. Peter Drucker, the late management guru who died in 2005, devoted significant attention to Freud in his seminal work on management. Drucker understood what today’s VCs don’t. If I ran a VC shop, I’d keep one or more psychoanalysts in-house: on constant alert for signs of entrepreneurial psychopathology, guilt, and narcissism.
Businesspeople trying to divine the intentions of entrepreneurs scarcely mention Freudian interpretation. Why am I, a founder, obsessed with global growth? Why does another entrepreneur want Peter Thiel to invest in her company? Why is another obsessed with getting cited in the Wall Street Journal? Why do some entrepreneurs care about venture funding and others don’t? Why does Elon Musk tweet jokes about his company’s ‘Model W’ on April Fools’ Day? Look to Freud.
What’s strangest is the absence of Freud in popular discussions about the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence. I see loads of references to Alan Turing, Paul Allen, Ray Kurzweil, and other tech luminaries in the debate over the ethics and opportunities of evolving cognition engines. Yet I rarely see even a nod to Freud.
Business leaders hardly ever refer to unconscious motives, or mother fixations, or sibling rivalry. Yet many entrepreneurs base their business decisions on dream-like visions, even when they are fully alert. The 2011 book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow remains in the top 10 on the New York Times business bestseller list. But never once, in 32 pages of endnotes, does the book mention Freud – an insight pointed out by Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books. That’s weird for a book about decision-science.
Professor Kahneman’s book is among the most widely cited books in business and tech in the past four years. And yet, much of what Kahneman wrote can be understood in Freudian terms substituting ego and id for “System 1” and “System 2”, substituting unconscious errors and Freudian slips, for “availability bias.” Does Kahneman disregard Freud’s royal road to the unconscious, that is, dreams?
Dreams teach us many things about ourselves – how can they not? – they are a product of our own mind, a potpourri of our experience emerging formless from sleep and rearranging unconscious entrepreneurial ambition in novel, seemingly random, and unexpected ways. They put people and places together in ways that our conscious minds never would, and yet they have a logic of their own; they operate by condensing many themes into one connected outside of consciousness by assonance or metaphor; they are fueled by emotion, either, according to Freud, by strong, perhaps forbidden, wishes or overblown fears. They are to be understood as symbolic – standing for something related but not quite the same as what they appear to be.
Freud was an entrepreneur himself: He invented and proselytized the idea of psychoanalysis. If he were teaching in a business school or running a venture capital firm, Freud would agree with Shakespeare: Our motivations lie not in the stars, but in ourselves. Entrepreneur, know thyself.
Neil Seeman is founder and CEO of The RIWI Corporation and Senior Fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto.