A few years back, I was getting complacent. I was a successful entrepreneur, in the top 1% for my age. Whenever I compared myself to people similar to me, it wasn't even close. I worked more, accomplished more, produced more, did more meaningful things, was traveling the world. I read more books, did more writing, was generally healthier and more disciplined, spent my time well. I was the top 1% for my age, and even better than that if you measured me against people from similar backgrounds.
I think it's easy for people who are doing great to get complacent. You look at the general sloth and laziness and complacency of most people, you see that you're achieving greatly, and you feel like you're so far above that. You give yourself a pat on the back. "Ah, yes, I'm doing great!"
I had a shift. I don't remember the exact day, but one day I thought to myself -
"I'm not going to compare myself against people my age any more. I'm going to start comparing myself to the greatest men of all time."
As an entrepreneur for the past 12 years, I haven't collected a paycheck from any employer other than a company I own. In theory this sounds great, but there are few things in life that apply more pressure than being responsible for not only your paycheck, but the paychecks of employees. Most of these companies have done well, but some haven't. It's also quite taboo to talk openly about the emotional and mental stress that startups create, but privately almost every CEO I've spent time with has shared similar feelings with me. When Sebastian and I discussed posting on each other's blogs, I figured this was a great opportunity to open up about what it's like to be the CEO of a technology startup along with several previous companies, and specifically to discuss the self discipline that's required to successfully navigate the stresses of startups, because these same lessons apply in anyone's daily life. As you can tell by the title, I liken it to having the self discipline of a Buddhist monk.
But first, some background: When I was 22, I graduated from college with an offer from General Electric to work in their Technical Leadership Program. It was a sweet offer -- a fast-track to management role where a select set of college graduates were rotated through various parts of the company. It gave me the opportunity to work in Latin America. I was sent to GE's Crotonville leadership campus, where I'd see Jack Welch, GE's CEO at the time, fly in and out on his helicopter, and senior GE executives would train us in leadership seminars. It was like being a golden child, a chosen one. We knew that we were being groomed to be the next generation of leaders at GE, and GE did everything it could to foster that confidence in us.
This leadership program was just two years long. It was going very well, but something was nagging at me: Growing up, I had to be very entrepreneurial out of necessity. I had to pay for college myself. I'd always been very independent and self sufficient. Suddenly, I was part of a huge machine. Although I was being treated very well, I felt that I wasn't being true to myself and my entrepreneurial spirit. I knew that I could do more, and that if I didn't quit then, I would get sucked into the trappings of corporate life. So I quit GE six months before I was supposed to graduate from the leadership program. It was 1999 and the tech bubble was going in full swing. I felt that staying even six more months would be too long.
Going from GE's leadership program to a startup company is a bit like going from the comfy cigar chair at country club to washing dishes in the back. It's a jarring experience, but one that I was thirsty for. I soaked it up, and quickly learned my first lesson in startups: If you're not really, really passionate about what you're doing, then don't do it. Although being an entrepreneur is romanticized in popular culture, the road is so long, and the pain is so great, that unless you're really passionate about it, you'll be crushed by the pressure.
Passion for what you're doing in life applies beyond startups. It's easy for any of us to become trapped in the constructs we create. We feel like we have responsibilities to those around us to be risk averse. Maybe you have a mortgage. Or kids in school. Or a spouse depending on your income. But I'm here to tell you that you are not trapped by your environment. You are never a victim of your circumstances, and you have not only a right, but a responsibility to live your life in a way that inspires passion inside of you. Those around you will benefit far more from that passion than from your fear of pursuing it, and they will be inspired themselves to seek out the things that they are passionate about. You only live once. No, seriously, you only live once. If you're not doing something today that you're passionate about, then quit. Take that scary plunge into the unknown. You will be so happy that you did. It won't be easy at first, but it well be better immediately.