The Surprising (And Necessary) Similarities Between Entrepreneurs And Con Artists

While each is a master of turning your money into their money, one sells a lie that sounds possible, the other sells a possibility that could be made true.

In American Hustle, Christian Bale's character—based on legendary conman Mel Weinberg—sells people phony artwork and fraudulent loans. As Weinberg is quoted in the New Yorker:

It's my philosophy to give hope ... That's why most people don't turn us in to the cops. They keep hopin' we're for real.

This ability to give people hope in something that isn't proven is the same thing successful entrepreneurs do.

Take Steve Jobs, for example. As James Surowiecki observed in The New Yorker, the late Apple icon was known for his "reality distortion field." Like Weinberg before him, he could make probabilities look like certainties to the people around him.

Like a proper con artist, Jobs would do endless rehearsals of his speeches, turning the plodding PowerPoint into a theatrical experience. He would milk every moment for maximum effect, like tiptoeing around an on-stage iPhone crash or like pulling a MacBook Air out of a manila envelope.

Give this guy your money, of course!

The job of the entrepreneur isn't just to sell a killer product, but to sell hype and hope. To, as Surowiecki says, "peddle optimism." The screenwriting guru, Robert McKee, told us that entrepreneurship is the "most extreme use of story." Because really, what else do you have?

"You may have some test data, but it's not a business yet," he says. "It's only a future possibility. So you have to use data from the past and the present—'this is what we know,' and project that into a future story—'and this is what will be.'"

Henry Ford is a case study: when he was starting out, he had to convince his biggest supplier to take stock instead of cash. Before his automobile empire came to be, he was selling a kingdom to come.

While each is a master of turning your money into their money, that's the obvious difference between the con and the entrepreneur: one sells a lie that sounds possible, the other sells a possibility that could be made true. In this way, entrepreneurship is storytelling.

Hat tip: the New Yorker

[Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures]

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • I think doubt is the single biggest impediment to a project. All projects waiver and as long as people want them to work, doubt never creeps in. Doubt creates an undertone of failure.

    Don't mistake doubt for objectivity, which is important.