A cautionary tale about a brilliant young entrepreneur

By Cliff Ennico

As I get ready to celebrate my 63rd birthday, I find myself spending more and more time with young people.

As a lawyer dealing with technology startups and other entrepreneurial ventures, I not only find my clients getting younger and younger but also the lawyers I deal with. I find myself acting as mentor for a growing assortment of Millennial attorneys who have chosen to follow the path of solo practice as I have, and in my spare time I find myself coaching student entrepreneurs at local universities.

I have joked before in this column about there being no greater pleasure for a 60-something person with a Y chromosome than cornering some poor unsuspecting kid and boring the living crap out of him for hours on end.

But my experiences in mentoring youth reminds me of a story – a true one – I learned from my father at an early age. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, there was a famous art critic in Vienna, Austria. This critic’s opinions were universally regarded, and his blessing was often considered a ‘make or break’ for young struggling artists looking to secure a foothold in the art world.

One day the critic learned about a young army veteran who was scraping out a living doing sketches of people on street corners. Always looking to spot young talent before anyone else did, the critic visited a small hole-in-the-wall gallery where the artist was exhibiting some of his paintings.

The critic wasn’t impressed, and he told the young artist so. ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘you have some talent, but your work is very generic and traditional. You are unlikely to make it as an artist, especially here in Vienna which is the center of the European art world (as indeed it was in those times).

The artist was disappointed, but after some reflection realized that the critic was right – his future did not lie in the arts. He would need to choose another way to make a living, and choose he did.

The young man faced a lot of hurdles in his new profession – for a while he lived penniless on the streets, sleeping in flophouses, fending off pneumonia. Rejected nearly everywhere he went in Austria, he moved to a neighboring country. Making enemies there as well, he was thrown into prison for several months. During his incarceration, he wrote an international best-selling book which is still in print today.

Upon his release from prison he rose rapidly. Within 10 years he was a household word in his adopted country. Within 20 years his name was known throughout the entire world.

His name is still a household word today, more than 70 years after his death. No matter who you are, I guarantee you have extremely strong opinions about this young man and what he stood for.

Nobody today remembers the Viennese art critic who set this young man on his path to fame and glory. His name is lost to history. But you all know who the young man was. You studied him in school, and your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will probably do the same.

His name was…Adolf Hitler.

You didn’t see THAT coming, did you?

This story is a powerful teaching tool for entrepreneurs, and not just because of the shocking punch line at the end. While absolutely true (the best-selling book was “Mein Kampf,” and Hitler was indeed a native of Austria before moving to Germany around 1920), the story teaches two very important lessons about young people and the right – and wrong – ways to influence them.

First, it is not enough for an individual to have positive qualities: moral leadership is also required. The young Adolf Hitler portrayed in the story is the model of an exemplary young entrepreneur – disciplined, hard-working, tenacious, dedicated to his profession, listening to constructive criticism, persisting in the face of adversity and personal hardship, following his dream despite the brutal obstacles that were placed in his way – until at the end you realize the evil, horrifying ends to which he put his success. Had he devoted the same energy and focus to his art, he may have been another Picasso.

Today, throughout the world, many young, gifted entrepreneurs are working on technologies (some using artificial intelligence) that look to exploit “behavior design” – a psychological discipline designed to influence the choices you make every day such as what you buy, who you talk to, and what you do at work (for a truly sobering picture of how pervasive these technologies already are, see www.1843magazine.com/features/the-scientists-who-make-apps-addictive). If you are spending hours each day on social media websites or checking your smartphone over 150 times a day, you have experienced the results of “behavior design” entrepreneurship. But nobody, to my knowledge, is asking if this is a worthy or even a moral pursuit for entrepreneurial energy.

The other lesson from the A.H. story is much more obvious: be careful when giving advice to young people. They just might take it.

• • •

Cliff Ennico (cennico@legalcareer.com) is a syndicated columnist, author, and host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2017 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.