Creating Something Big, Alone

I spent the past two weeks on vacation, eating delicious food, relaxing in the sun, and enjoying my favourite band. I also managed to make my way through two books that came highly recommended from colleagues at TheLadders: Delivering Happiness and The Intelligent Entrepreneur 

Delivering Happiness chronicles Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s career from Harvard dorm pizza joint to CEO of a multi-billion dollar e-commerce joint. From the story of LinkExchange, his first company, through to the sale of Zappos to Amazon for $1.2Bn, Hsieh communicates his life philosophy that is ultimately summarized with a final chapter on the “science of happiness.” In it, he describes three types of happiness: pleasure, passion, and higher purpose, that range from the most ephemeral to the most permanent. Hsieh says the following about a higher purpose:

“The higher purpose type of happiness is about being part of something bigger than yourself that has meaning to you. Research has shown that of the three types of happiness, this is the longest lasting…Based on the findings of the research, the proper strategy would be to figure out and pursue the higher purpose first…”

Hsieh closes the book with a series of questions aimed at challenging the reader to take a long hard look at how he or she is spending their time. Here are a few:

“What is the net effect of your existence on the total amount of happiness in the world each day? What inspires you? What is your higher purpose?”

The Intelligent Entrepreneur tells the story of three Harvard Business School graduates from the class of 1998 who found success as entrepreneurs: Marla Malcolm, co-founder and CEO of bluemercury, Chris Michel, founder and former CEO of and Affinity Labs, and Marc Cenedella, founder and CEO of TheLadders (and my boss). Author Bill Murphy Jr. distills out of their stories common themes that culminate to a list of “10 rules” of successful entrepreneurship (which you’ll have to read in the book). If you’re a wannabe non-technical entrepreneur like me, this book is required reading. The three stories are inspiring and Murphy’s analysis is well thought out and concise. Like Hsieh, Murphy ends the book with a series of questions, challenging the reader to take a critical look at what motivates him or her:

“So now it’s your turn: Why are you here? How do you define success? Why, finally, do you want to become an entrepreneur?”

Since graduation two and a half years ago, I’ve thought often about this last set of questions, but the stories of the three entrepreneurs in The Intelligent Entrepreneur, and the language that Hsieh provides in Delivery Happiness, help frame my thinking in a different light. I’ve structured the remainder of this post into sections that best express my current thinking on these questions.

Alone on the mat

I used to wrestle in high school (pause for laughter). I was not the most talented, nor the strongest, nor the quickest. Wrestling is an individual sport – perhaps the most individual sport. It requires commitment both on and off the mat – I cut 5-10 lbs every season and had to maintain that weight for the length of the season, while burning more calories than ever in the most intense workouts of my life. This meant dinners of salads and peanut butter sandwiches, snacks of hollowed out hard-boiled eggs with cottage cheese inside, and many hungry nights. On the mat there is only you and your opponent. Nothing else. You win and lose by the extent of your commitment at that precise moment and all the moments leading up to it. Bouts are won and lost by the slightest of additional effort, when you can’t possibly put any more effort forward. When you lose, that pain is yours alone to carry, and when you win, that glory belongs to you and you alone.

What I see in entrepreneurship is an opportunity to extend this dynamic into my professional career. Entrepreneurship is an individual sport. Other people are critical to your success, but at the end of the day, the entrepreneur is responsible for selecting those people, and getting the very best out of them. In The Intelligent Entrepreneur, you’ll read about how Marla, Chris, and Marc, faced significant odds alone. Sometimes they won and sometimes they lost. In every case, they won and lost by the quality of their own decisions, and had the opportunity to identify how those decisions could be made better in the future. Confounding factors like “my teammate didn’t pass me the ball” or “my teammate passed the ball at just the right time” don’t exist in wrestling, and they didn’t exist for Marla, Chris, or Marc. Their success is theirs alone, as are their failures.

Something from nothing

In 2010 I tackled Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Rand is a phenomenal story-teller, and though I may not see eye-to-eye with her on an economic or political level, I believe that there is a lot of good in her philosophy of the individual. From Atlas Shrugged:

“Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes…which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.” – Ch. II, The Utopia of Greed, Atlas Shrugged

Starting out in business, I felt that it was important to work somewhere where I could be creative and make an impact, where at the end of the day, I could look at something and say, “I built that. Before there was nothing, and now there is something.That thing is there because of my effort, my ingenuity, and my willpower, and it is having a meaningful impact on other people.” While I believe that any career can afford you the opportunity “to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before,” entrepreneurship is, in my mind, the purest and most meaningful form of “creation” in business.

Bigger than I

Tony Hsieh’s notion of a “higher purpose…about being a part of something bigger than yourself that has meaning to you,” struck me in the context of my transition from Investment Banking to TheLadders. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had two very different professional experiences in a short amount of time. I spent a year in investment banking (you can find my thoughts on that experience here and here) and then 15 months at TheLadders. In my first role, I acted as an advisor, working with a number of different entrepreneurs to fulfil their visions. I was motivated to the extent that I felt like I had a part to play in those visions. My best days were spent sitting across from passionate entrepreneurs who were building something bigger than themselves.

Chris, Marla, and Marc started their businesses with nothing more than their own passion for building something bigger than themselves. Today, each one of them can look to hundreds of people who now share their original vision and higher purpose. Being a part of someone else’s higher purpose is meaningful to the extent that you can make it yours, shape some part of it, and then instill that purpose in others. But to be the source of that original nugget of higher purpose – to see your purpose shared by those around you, then those around them; to see something that you built from nothing taken by others as their life’s higher purpose – is truly remarkable, and is a testament to the awesome power of entrepreneurship.

I’m sure my thinking will evolve in the next few years, but for now I intend to do whatever I can to best position myself for my first entrepreneurial endeavour. In my mind, there is no better opportunity than the opportunity to create your own opportunity.

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