How to Become a Hero c.j. hayden
   How to Become a Hero
   You Are the Champion the World Is Waiting For

   C.J. Hayden, MCC

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Discovering the real world 

Recently, I've been exploring the issue of the necessary conditions for people to become entrepreneurs. For me, this is one aspect of a larger question -- what enables people to take action on the change they wish to see in the world?

At an Empowering Women Entrepreneurs event last weekend, I learned that in the developing world, one of the obstacles to successful entrepreneurship is the expense and difficulty of legally starting a business. In Honduras, for example, to open a legal sole proprietorship requires 169 steps, 270 days, and $3,765 U.S.

The interesting fact is that all this doesn't stop entrepreneurs from getting started in Honduras. Instead, they go underground. Up to 89% of all businesses in Honduras operate extralegally. Doing business in this underground economy has many problems. Entrepreneurs have no access to capital, so they can't expand. Businesses can be shut down arbitrarily by the law or local bosses. But despite these difficulties, new underground businesses get started every day.

This phenomenon isn't limited to the developing world. In the urban centers of North America, underground economies thrive. In Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh describes how conventional business owners -- not just drug dealers and prostitutes -- operate in the economic underground. Self-employed mechanics, food vendors, painters, hairdressers, and more are all operating outside the law and without participating in the tax system.

When people are unable to participate in the legal economy because the cost of entry is too high or their path is blocked due to racial, class, religious, or gender barriers, it doesn't stop them from entering the economy. They just create their own.

When I was a street kid in the 70's, I lived in this twilight economy. Money changed hands, products and services were obtained, people worked in exchange for compensation, but no one I knew had a paycheck or a business license or paid taxes. I used to look at the straight world -- the one where people had jobs and stores and checking accounts -- and think that was the real world. People like me, without an education or the right connections or respectable resumes, didn't have the price of admission to that world, so we stayed in our own.

But in an environment where more money changes hands under the counter than over it, isn't that where the "real world" truly lies? In an economy like that of Honduras, there are clearly more people participating in the shadow economy than in the legal one. In the U.S., no one knows how many people make a living in the underground economy, although the number of illegal immigrants alone has been estimated as high as 20 million. Estimates of the monetary size of the U.S. underground economy suggest that it is equivalent to 9% of the legitimate economy, which would make it about $1 trillion per year. That amount seems pretty real to me.

In the 1999 film The Matrix, the transformative moment for the central character, Neo, is when he discovers that the world he has been living in -- where residents have homes and jobs and businesses -- is all an illusion perpetrated by evil machines. The real world is one where a ragtag band of dropouts struggle for survival, fighting against the machines that dominate the planet. This real world exists, quite literally, underground.

In the surface world, Neo is a person of no importance, and feels lost and alone. But in the underground world, Neo becomes a hero and a leader to his people. For Neo to make the transition from the false surface world to the real world underground, he first must be able to see through "the matrix" projecting the false images. But once he does see the real world, the false one no longer deceives him. He can (literally) see right through it.

So what do underground economies and The Matrix have to do with taking action to change the world? Simply this. If you look around you at the world you believe you live in and think you don't fit in, or feel excluded from participating, or you don't have the price of admission, find another world. It's probably already operating right under your nose.

There is a back door into almost every line of endeavor you can name. If you believe that door exists, and are willing to knock on enough doors to find the right one, you can gain admittance. You can start a business with no capital, operate a nonprofit without registering one, or get a job as a researcher without credentials. I mention these three examples because they are all things I have personally done at one time, but many more examples exist.

To set up the necessary conditions for you to take action, perhaps you need to forget about whatever you have been led to believe the real world looks like. Instead, seek out people who are already doing what you want to do, connect with others who themselves have felt disenfranchised or excluded, locate the community where at last you feel welcome. Wherever that is, for you, that is the real world.

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