Insights
Nov 20, 20185 min read

Why a ”Jante” mindset makes you a better entrepreneur.

philip moore headshot

by Philip Moore

Imagine, if you will, a young boy in tucked into his bed, ready to sleep. His mother sits dotingly on the edge of the mattress, admiring him fondly. She strokes the hair off her son’s forehead, removes a lingering eyelash on his left cheek, and with tenderness, leans in and whispers:

You’re not to think you are anything special.

You’re not to think anyone cares about you.

You’re not to think you are more important than we are.

Not exactly a very encouraging sentiment, is it? You just played witness to three of the ten mindsets – or commandments – of the widespread, cultural phenomenon The Law of Jante (“Jantelagen” as they say here in Sweden).

 

The Law of Jante is a set of precepts that have defined and distinguished the Scandinavian psyche since its creation in the early 20th Century. Many in Northern Europe revile the influence it holds over Scandinavian culture. Yet these commandments have contributed to the development of some of the world’s most successful peoples. And, perhaps most importantly, contains great lessons for successful entrepreneurship.

For a better understanding of this hated law, we need to turn back the clock. Originally codified by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel ‘A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks’ (En flyktning krysser sitt spor), Jantelagen is thought to be the recognition of behavior long established in Scandinavia. Sandemose’s novel describes the small fictional Danish town of Jante in which otherness and self-expression are highly discouraged in favor of homogeneity and social stability.

Scandinavia today continues to reflect much of what Sandemose’s novel encapsulated. Take Sweden for instance, the country I have called my home for the past 4 years. After meeting my partner and taking the gooey eyed walks through the streets of the Old Town I decided to move to Stockholm and it wasn’t long before I came face to face with the influence of Jante in my everyday life. For example, I noticed that cutting in line is regarded with the utmost scorn, bragging at a party is considered bad taste and stating a controversial opinion is generally discouraged. My driven and ambitious Swedish friends and colleagues make a conscious effort to talk openly of their achievements rather than feeling free to do so naturally. Many of them regard Jantelagen as oppressive and restrictive, something that holds back Swedes rather than supports and promotes their individual abilities.

So how in the world is this seemingly discouraging law great for you?

Well, while it may discourage some behaviors, the law encourages many others. First and foremost, it emphasizes the importance of mutual respect and understanding. Jantelagen has played its part in making the Scandinavian nations some of the most equal, happy and enterprising countries on Earth. Jantelagen gives Swedes skills that may go unnoticed or unappreciated, but are plainly obvious to an uninitiated foreigner like myself.

 

Here are just three reasons why I think Jantelagen is great for everyone– but especially for entrepreneurs:

“You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are” = Humility

If there’s one thing Jantelagen stresses, it is the importance of understanding your place in relation to others. The dynamic it encourages results in heightened awareness of relationships and the finer details. Remaining humble and willing to learn means that you can take the steps that others miss or that you’re the first to see when things are going wrong. The CEO of Blockbuster famously turned down the chance to buy Netflix in 2000 for $50 million, assuming simply that it was a niche business. When was the last time you rented a video at your local video rental store? Jantelagen is the perfect antidote to that deadly sin of Pride. Stay humble and you’re less likely to miss your next big opportunity.

“You’re not to think you are smarter than we are” = Diversity of perspective

This commandment of Jantelagen reminds us that there’s always going to be someone who sees something you don’t, and helps you see a potential missed opportunity. As society moves forward and new markets and social groups develop, not catching on to a new target audience will see you left behind. Listening to as many perspectives from different backgrounds as possible will keep your approach dynamic and adaptable. In an ever-changing and evolving world, a diversity of perspectives identifies and develops new markets. Jantelagen serves as a reminder that you are all just one drop in the ocean of great minds around you.

You’re not to laugh at us = Empathy

Take that most classic of workplace scenarios – attending a presentation. We all have to give them time to time, and we certainly have attended plenty. And as this law directs us, we’re expected to listen and ask questions without being laughed at or belittled. That’s not oppressive, that’s pure empathy. Many Swedes say: ‘There are no stupid questions’ with the ease of people who are very comfortable with the concept. I love that. I don’t want to be laughed at for any of my questions, and you probably don’t either. The law celebrates our human commonality, and points us in the right direction in all kinds of situations; with suppliers, colleagues and customers. Special treatment, perks or rewards don’t exist in Jantelagen – we all get the best service because we all empathize with each other’s desire to be treated in the best possible way. Sounds like a great deal to me.