The lion’s tail and the cat’s mouth

J. André de Barros Teixeira

“To be or not to be. That is the question”… The Shakespearean dilemma comes across as relevant as ever, every time I hear the drama of fresh graduates deciding where to proceed in their careers in innovation. “Shall I take the safe route, try to join a big corporation with a big budget, and drown in the deep oceans of process?” or “Shall I take the big leap to entrepreneurship, and take my creative ideas with me, running the risk of failing miserably as many do?” Like in the famous The Clash song of the ’80s, “Should I stay, or should I go?”…, there is no simple answer, there is no silver bullet.

For the baby boomers, the answer was easy. The big multinationals offered that comfortable prospect of a demanding, yet somehow safe career path. International moves, promotional opportunities, and a series of more tangible benefits, over and above the good salary packages made it a no-brainer. As a result, some of the best talents found their way into the labs and offices of big businesses. The progressive frustration over budget cuts, financial realism, structural constraints, and many other barriers was easily replaced by the nice bonuses, the big office, and the glamour of the business card.

Enter the 90’s and we began to notice the first signs of deeply ingrained dissatisfaction with a system that brutalized people, suppressed their creative juices, promoted mediocrity, and was averse to diversity and inclusion while being cynically unsustainable. The big companies, noticing the big tsunami coming, began to create their own containing dams, to preserve their talent and prevent them from going to the sprawling territory of startups. They created this fallacy of fallacies, open innovation, they set up incubators, accelerators, etc., yet many of the brightest talents began their new life as entrepreneurs.

Desperate to retain their talent (yes, the pool was and still is very deep), they coined a new term: Intrapreneurship! It was now possible to stay in big business and exercise one’s entrepreneurial spirit as if you were in a startup.

The rest is history. We have seen the new ecosystems of innovation cropping up everywhere, generating new products, services, benefits, redefining business models, challenging the status quo. We have seen the big companies using their financial prowess to acquire small businesses and bringing those creative juices into their own structures, sometimes offering them a bigger channel, a bigger reach, often though, killing them as a competition prevention move.

So, what do I answer to that fresh graduate who does not want to go to academia and who wants to be in business? Is it better to be the mouth of a cat or the tail of a lion? As always, there is no silver bullet.

My main advice is not to be motivated by money. If you decide to be the tail of a lion and your only motivation is money, you will soon find yourself to be a chameleon, incorporating the grey colors of the office furniture and becoming just a number corresponding to a badge. If your decision is to be the cat’s mouth, remember that you will most likely not get rich soon, and the frequency of failures can be daunting.

My second piece of advice is: Be an “MP”! Be motivated by meaning and purpose. If your purpose and the meaning you wish to give to your life passes through the big company or through the conversion of your great idea into a business proposition, it does not matter. Whichever way you go, if you have a clear purpose and that adds meaning to your existence, that is what matters. I have met many amazingly creative lion’s tails and many frustrated cat’s mouths. The environment alone does not define who you are. It may define what you do, but who you are, depends largely on your purpose and what your meaning is.

Finally, you are more likely to be happy by knowing who you are than by defining what you do.

The future will probably be made of innovators who have moved across in both directions and the benefits will be mutual and lasting.


This article is part of the thoughts and reflections André Teixeira has published on his website.