Pop quiz, hot shot: What do pirates and gangsters have in common with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? The short answer is innovation. According to Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips in their 2015 book The Misfit Economy, other than the latter making better decisions as young kids, there’s hardly a difference at all. Furthermore, the authors cite research concluding that successful entrepreneurs – defined herein as those who engage in “inventive or risky activity” – were commonly precocious teens, and not necessarily in a building-a-toaster-from-spare-parts way. Turns out being a wayward juvenile delinquent and participating in aggressive, illicit activities may just be a better indicator that Junior is destined for IPO riches than if he goes all Zuck by tooling around with app ideas on a dorm room bean bag chair. Clay & Phillips cobble together such a variety of odd yet remarkable tales about fringe operators that you may just consider letting your kids knock off a liquor store or two on their journey to perfecting creative shortcuts in income generation. (Editor’s note: In no way is this an endorsement of armed robbery, even though that’s precisely how it reads.)
“We have distilled five key principles for unleashing your inner misfit,” write the authors. Those are hustle, copy, hack, provoke, and pivot and here’s your crash course. Hustle involves a willingness to get your hands dirty, be resourceful, and show chutzpah. Copy suggests lifting a technology like streaming from the porn industry (ew) and have Netflix result (nice). To hack is to create, overcome, and circumvent in the spirit of ongoing improvement and to provoke is to poke and prod at business as usual to see what’s possible. Finally, to pivot is to step into the unknown to pursue new paths, haters be damned. Clay & Phillips provide a treasure map of golden ideas routed in “the frugality, determination, and scrappiness of the underground” and it’s up to us to tap the motivation level required to change. For that, we turn to the evolving world of pirates with its economies built upon the fact that necessity is the mother of invention.
Speak to your basic pirate (as the authors have) and you’ll learn that many joined the fray out of literal hunger. When there are no traditional job openings and your government – say, Somalia – collapses, one must consider all options to put bread on the table, including illegal and even violent behavior. What’s best about the book is that Clay & Phillips avoid gratuitous melodrama and plumb the depths of how non-hierarchical ship governance and fair compensation systems work in uniting “disparate groups of outlaws, ruffians, and rebels, turning them into cooperative and cohesive groups.” In short, over centuries pirates improved upon the flaws of merchant ship culture by flattening out the org chart (as it were), reducing the focus on heavy handed, discipline oriented leadership and replacing it with communities built on special values and missions. Yo ho ho, you can learn a lot from such an outlaw and this book. Enjoy it with your favorite bottle of rum, but you might want to avoid the scurvy.