The Fable of the Scout Ant (and It’s Role in Our Economy)

17 Aug

So, people say that our neighborhood was built on an anthill… not as bad as living on an Indian Burial Ground (remember Poltergeist?), but still quite challenging in the summer.  With our houseful of people, invariably someone will either leave a dirty plate in the sink or neglect to wipe up a scrap of food off the kitchen counter.  Within an hour, I walk into the kitchen faced with a freeway of ants, carting off little molecules of edible goodness.

It’s not like the ants know where the sink is, or can figure out by sight where the counter didn’t get cleaned.  Forgive me, E. O. Wilson, if my knowledge of ant biology is a little fuzzy…  (they are soooo teeny)  From my understanding, the way that they find anything is scout ants.  Scout ants are the eyes of the colony, roaming about, taking risks, looking here and there for something of nutrient value for the group.  Whenever I see a scout ant on my counter, I crush it (sorry again Dr. Wilson!).   But, there is always another one, wandering around, in my kitchen’s Times Square or Siberia, looking for success, yet aware that any moment could be his last.

So, why am I ranting and raving about the natural behavior of ants in my kitchen in the summertime?  Well, I feel a kinship to these scout ants.  In fact, I see the role of entrepreneurs as being “scout ants” in our economy… taking risks, willing to be squashed, for the greater good (hopefully)  of our family and economy.  All the NPR economic data I hear (you’d think I would stop listening by now) mentions that firms that employ 50 people or less make up a lions’ share of job growth in our economy.  So, we collectively need the wacky, loner scout ants, roaming around trying to turn nothing into something.

Here’s the thing.  Being on the fringe, taking risks, is actually uncomfortable, scary and can often backfire, leaving you squished – emotionally, financially or literally.  In our culture, we celebrate this myth of the happy, effortless entrepreneur – “I just started making ____ in my garage and the next thing I knew, we had $5 million in sales…” – but I don’t buy it.   The myth serves to lull people into the hope that it’s easy, safe and painless – creating something out of nothing.   For those of you who have had kids, you can liken it to childbirth – super painful then easily forgotten – otherwise the human race would have died out long ago.

So I see the entrepreneur’s duty as being our culture’s scout ant, searching around for some morsel with which to build a business.   Obviously, the rate of success is low, but collectively, we must try.  We can’t all be government employees.  The challenge is carrying on socially as a normal person – a person with a good job – while leading this life of chaos and uncertainty.

I’ve been pondering this over the weekend, thinking about our buddies who own food trucks, about my old friend and his wife who are trying to open a gluten-free shop in Orange, about all the recent restaurant closures, about a guy starting a local magazine from scratch.  Not all of us will make it but that’s OK, because we’ve got to give it a valiant effort and we’ve got to make sure to support the efforts of all of us in return.  Because some of us will find the next thing.  And I hope it’s you.

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