I once saw a high school teacher lead a simple, powerful exercise to teach his class about privilege and social mobility. He started by giving each student a scrap piece of paper and asked them to crumple it up.
Then he moved the recycling bin to the front of the room.
He said, “The game is simple — you all represent the country’s population. And everyone in the country has a chance to become wealthy and move into the upper class.”
“To move into the upper class, all you must do is throw your wadded-up paper into the bin while sitting in your seat.”
The students in the back of the room immediately piped up, “This is unfair!” They could see the rows of students in front of them had a much better chance.
Everyone took their shots, and — as expected — most of the students in the front made it (but not all) and only a few students in the back of the room made it.
He concluded by saying, “The closer you were to the recycling bin, the better your odds. This is what privilege looks like. Did you notice how the only ones who complained about fairness were in the back of the room?”
“By contrast, people in the front of the room were less likely to be aware of the privilege they were born into. All they can see is 10 feet between them and their goal.”
“Your job — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”
Everybody wants what feels good. Everyone wants to live a carefree, happy and easy life, to fall in love and have amazing sex and relationships, to look perfect and make money and be popular and well-respected and admired and a total baller to the point that people part like the Red Sea when you walk into the room.
Everyone would like that — it’s easy to like that.
If I ask you, “What do you want out of life?” and you say something like, “I want to be happy and have a great family and a job I like,” it’s so ubiquitous that it doesn’t even mean anything.
A more interesting question, a question that perhaps you’ve never considered before, is what pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.
Everybody wants to have an amazing job and financial independence — but not everyone wants to suffer through 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, obnoxious paperwork, to navigate arbitrary corporate hierarchies and the blasé confines of an infinite cubicle hell. People want to be rich without the risk, without the sacrifice, without the delayed gratification necessary to accumulate wealth.
Everybody wants to have great sex and an awesome relationship — but not everyone is willing to go through the tough conversations, the awkward silences, the hurt feelings and the emotional psychodrama to get there. And so they settle. They settle and wonder “What if?” for years and years and until the question morphs from “What if?” into “Was that it?” And when the lawyers go home and the alimony check is in the mail they say, “What was that for?” if not for their lowered standards and expectations 20 years prior, then what for?
Because happiness requires struggle. The positive is the side effect of handling the negative. You can only avoid negative experiences for so long before they come roaring back to life.
At the core of all human behavior, our needs are more or less similar. Positive experience is easy to handle. It’s negative experience that we all, by definition, struggle with. Therefore, what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings.
People want an amazing physique. But you don’t end up with one unless you legitimately appreciate the pain and physical stress that comes with living inside a gym for hour upon hour, unless you love calculating and calibrating the food you eat, planning your life out in tiny plate-sized portions.
People want to start their own business or become financially independent. But you don’t end up a successful entrepreneur unless you find a way to appreciate the risk, the uncertainty, the repeated failures, and working insane hours on something you have no idea whether will be successful or not.
People want a partner, a spouse. But you don’t end up attracting someone amazing without appreciating the emotional turbulence that comes with weathering rejections, building the sexual tension that never gets released, and staring blankly at a phone that never rings. It’s part of the game of love. You can’t win if you don’t play.
What determines your success isn’t “What do you want to enjoy?” The question is, “What pain do you want to sustain?” The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. And to get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.
There’s a lot of crappy advice out there that says, “You’ve just got to want it enough!”
Everybody wants something. And everybody wants something enough. They just aren’t aware of what it is they want, or rather, what they want “enough.”
Because if you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs. If you want the beach body, you have to want the sweat, the soreness, the early mornings, and the hunger pangs. If you want the yacht, you have to also want the late nights, the risky business moves, and the possibility of pissing off a person or ten thousand.
If you find yourself wanting something month after month, year after year, yet nothing happens and you never come any closer to it, then maybe what you actually want is a fantasy, an idealization, an image and a false promise. Maybe what you want isn’t what you want, you just enjoy wanting. Maybe you don’t actually want it at all.
Sometimes I ask people, “How do you choose to suffer?” These people tilt their heads and look at me like I have twelve noses. But I ask because that tells me far more about you than your desires and fantasies. Because you have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns. And ultimately that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?
That answer will actually get you somewhere. It’s the question that can change your life. It’s what makes me me and you you. It’s what defines us and separates us and ultimately brings us together.
For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I fantasized about being a musician — a rock star, in particular. Any badass guitar song I heard, I would always close my eyes and envision myself up on stage playing it to the screams of the crowd, people absolutely losing their minds to my sweet finger-noodling. This fantasy could keep me occupied for hours on end. The fantasizing continued up through college, even after I dropped out of music school and stopped playing seriously. But even then it was never a question of if I’d ever be up playing in front of screaming crowds, but when. I was biding my time before I could invest the proper amount of time and effort into getting out there and making it work. First, I needed to finish school. Then, I needed to make money. Then, I needed to find time. Then… and then nothing.
Despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time and a lot of negative experiences to finally figure out why: I didn’t actually want it.
I was in love with the result — the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, pouring my heart into what I’m playing — but I wasn’t in love with the process. And because of that, I failed at it. Repeatedly. Hell, I didn’t even try hard enough to fail at it. I hardly tried at all.
The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 pounds of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I didn’t like to climb much. I just liked to imagine the top.
Our culture would tell me that I’ve somehow failed myself, that I’m a quitter or a loser. Self-help would say that I either wasn’t courageous enough, determined enough or I didn’t believe in myself enough. The entrepreneurial/start up crowd would tell me that I chickened out on my dream and gave in to my conventional social conditioning. I’d be told to do affirmations or join a mastermind group or manifest or something.
But the truth is far less interesting than that: I thought I wanted something, but it turns out I didn’t. End of story.
I wanted the reward and not the struggle. I wanted the result and not the process. I was in love not with the fight but only the victory. And life doesn’t work that way.
Who you are is defined by the values you are willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who get in good shape. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who move up it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainty of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.
This is not a call for willpower or “grit.” This is not another admonishment of “no pain, no gain.”
This is the most simple and basic component of life: our struggles determine our successes. So choose your struggles wisely, my friend.
Finally the SMS arrived:
“Tomorrow morning 5am, flight number AZ610 from Rome to NewYork.”
An SMS hitting my BlackBerry on Sunday evenings used to decide my destination and client for the coming week.
I was working for one of the top three global strategy consulting firms.
A life packed in a suitcase. A consulting life where you miss out on everything and everyone in life, except Excel spreadsheets. A fancy business life we are taught to be ideal slaves of, at top business schools whose degrees we are proud to hold.
After few hours of sleep, the private driver was taking me to the Rome Fuimicino airport so I could take my fancy business-class flight to NYC. Upon arrival, I was checking in to a fancy five-star hotel and heading to my client’s office afterwards.
The salary? It was fancy, too. The company was proud to be among the top payers of the industry.
There was something wrong with this consulting life, though. I couldn’t stand this fancy bullsh*t any longer and one day I called my parents:
“Dad, mom, I just quit my job. I want to start my own startup.”
My mom almost had a heart attack. It wasn’t the first thing a perfectionist mother wanted to hear after encouraging me to graduate from the world’s top business schools with top grades.
I tried to ease her distress. No chance.
“Mom, I hate it. All these consultants are pretending to be happy and they are taking happiness pills. I get to sleep only 3–4 hours a day. All those benefits the company promised don’t exist. Remember the fancy five-star hotel? I am working almost 20 hours a day and I don’t even enjoy it. Fancy breakfast? We never have time to have that. Fancy lunch, dinner? It’s just a sandwich in front of our Excel spreadsheets.
Oh, by the way, instead of enjoying a champagne, I stare at spreadsheets during my entire business class flights, too. The fancy salary? I never have time to spend a single penny of it.
I hate my life, Mom, it’s such a loser life. I don’t even see my girlfriend. I can’t fake it anymore. I want to start my own business.”
My parents had retired after years of a 9–5 working routine at their secure and boring government jobs.
I knew that coming from a family with no entrepreneurial background, it would be difficult to explain my situation to them, but I didn’t expect the call next morning.
It was my mom on the phone:
“Sooooooooo, how is your business doing?! Is it growing?!”
No matter what I said, I couldn’t explain to her that a business needs more than one day to grow.
Girlfriend, Friends & Social Circle
Having had the most supportive girlfriend ever, it was now time I shared the news with my friends who were busy climbing the fancy career steps in the fancy corporate world.
I told everyone that I just quit my job to follow my startup dream. Some of my friends gradually stopped seeing me, probably because they thought there was something wrong with me since it was the second “fancy” job I had quit in a short period of time.
While the rest of my friends were supportive, there was, however, still something wrong with my relationship with them:
I soon realized I was starting to pull myself away from social gatherings.
Every time I met with those friends, I didn’t have many updates to give them in response to their repeated questions, such as, “So, how is your startup going? You are going to be the next Zuckerberg, right?” “Oh man, we are so proud of you and we are so sure you will soon receive a huge round of investment.”
Doing a startup was a long journey and I was putting myself under so much pressure by giving such a f*ck about what other people think.
Day by day, I was getting lonelier and more depressive as I avoided social occasions. My startup progress was not as fast as my social circle imagined it to be and I was fed up with telling people it took years for startups like Facebook and Twitter to arrive at where they are now.
The only comfortable place was next to my few entrepreneur friends. It was true, only an entrepreneur could understand an entrepreneur.
Cash, cash, cash.
As if the social pressure and loneliness were not enough, I was meeting the mother of all stresses: running out of cash much faster than I had imagined.
This was killing my productivity and ability to make proper decisions. I was panicking and rushing to be successful and to make money.
One day, I even found myself asking my girlfriend for a few cents because I had no money to buy bottled water. I didn’t know it was just the beginning of such a difficult life full of ups and downs…
Enough with the drama: more than two years have passed since those days. I am now writing this blog post in a beautiful resort in Phuket, Thailand, while enjoying my mojito.
Wait, I am not selling a dream. No, I haven’t become a millionaire startup founder.
However, my business has a constant stream of cash that allows me to travel the world and to work from wherever there is WiFi.
There are, however, five things I wish I had asked myself before starting this painful journey. Five questions I believe every future entrepreneur should ask himself before taking the first step to entrepreneurship:
1. Are you ready for the social pressure?
If you have friends and family who are not entrepreneurs, they won’t truly understand what you are trying to achieve and the public pressure will be even higher.
I cared so much about what other people think of me– so much that it ruined my life.
I was so hard on myself and punished myself with even more work so I could announce my success as soon as possible. That is, until the day I realized no one gave a f*ck about me, so why would I?
You are no more than a few seconds of attention other people give to a Facebook status. In 2014, no one has time to care about others in such a crowded, noisy world.
If you care so much about what others think, you will waste your time trying to prove that you are successful instead of focusing on your startup.
Get a life. I got mine quite late.
2. Are you single or do you have an extremely supportive partner?
As we grow up, we share more of our life with our partners than with our friends or family. While I was lucky to have such an amazing girl, it was so sad to see many of my entrepreneur friends breaking up with their girlfriends along the way.
Doing your own business is tough – way tougher than I could have ever imagined. Your mind is constantly f*cked up with a million things going on inside and no other person, including your girlfriend, has a single clue what is going on in there.
If you are not single, make sure your partner understands it’s sometimes normal not to have a mindset even for a simple kiss. Yes, for a simple proper French kiss.
3. Do you have enough cash to last at least a year?
Good, then multiply that amount at least by three because you will be running out of your savings way faster than you ever imagined. Along the way, there will be so many hidden costs, accountant fees, lawyer needs, broken iPhones or PCs, etc.
Get ready for a smaller apartment, smaller food portions, or counting your cents, which you never cared about in your life previously.
The last few months before you totally run out of your cash will be especially difficult and the pressure will grow so exponentially that you won’t be able to sleep properly.
Success will come slowly, and cash will burn fast. Be smart – plan from day one.
4. Are you ready to sleep only few hours a day?
Having escaped from the corporate consulting world, I was thinking I was finally going to live the dream by working whenever I wanted to work – until I read Lori Greiner’s following quote:
“Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”
It all started by little wake-ups in the middle of the night. At the beginning, it was because I was too excited about my ideas and I had so many of them. I simply couldn’t wait for the morning to arrive so that I could start working again.
Then came the exaggeration phase. I was working too much because I never had enough of working for my idea and I wanted to do more. However, the more I worked and the later I went to bed, the more difficult it was to fall asleep and the lower the quality of my sleep became.
As a result, at least two or three days of every week I was having days with almost no productivity.
Don’t be fooled by my fancy Instagram picture above. Don’t be fooled by over-hyped funding news about startup founders becoming millionaires.
The stories behind the scenes have so many painful days, sleepless nights, and continuous rejections and failures.
The journey to success is long. Very long. Very often, too long.
5. How do you define success?
Each of us has a different priority list in life. For most people, money is the number one priority on the list, while work-life balance ranks higher for others. Consequently, people define success differently.
Depending on your definition of success, the difficulty of your entrepreneurial journey will differ, too. If money and public success are what matters to you the most, you are likely to have a hard time along your journey.
Remember Hemingway’s wise words:
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the
Successful entrepreneurs are not necessarily those who raise millions of investment rounds. Don’t forget, they are one in a million.
There are, however, thousands of dreamers out there who manage to bootstrap their startups or live so well off on their own, but even they do not make it to the top of tech news.
No matter how much your journey f*cks up your life or how difficult it will be, enjoy the ride and keep following your passion. As Tony Gaskin puts it perfectly:
“If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs.”
A boy grows up poor in Poland, drops out of high school and moves to the U.S. at age 17 without speaking one word of English, becomes a millionaire, loses it all and rebuilds over and over again, each time with more success.
That may sound like a movie script, but it’s part of the fascinating real-life story of serial entrepreneur Tomas Gorny, co-founder and chief executive of cloud-based communications provider Nextiva — as well as iBoost (funded by SoftBank) and IPOWER, now part of Endurance International Group where he remains a director.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Gorny recently and he shared some of his secrets of entrepreneurial success:
Creation is greater than accumulation: Gorny’s biggest lesson came from learning to focus on creation, letting his drive and passion guide his decisions instead of money. “Don’t chase the money,” he advises. He says it is too easy to get caught up in the game of capital raising or focusing on an exit strategy — which was a roadblock to his own success. When he refocused his energy on creating and innovating, the money followed, instead of potentially compromising decisions that ultimately would not have been in the best interest of the company.
Never compromise quality, especially with people: Quality is paramount, and that extends to the people that you surround yourself with, from friends to employees. Gorny said that having friends that were focused on wealth and flashy lifestyles made him unfocused and actually led to his temporary financial woes. He learned from that lesson and brought it into his professional life where he only hires people that he is proud to work with. This creates the quality environment on the inside of the business that translates into high quality interactions with customers, every time.
Good products will thrive and survive: There is a lot of noise in every marketplace, which is something that every entrepreneur trying to compete for customer mind-share is acutely aware of. However, Gorny advises delivering the best products or services you can that solve customer needs. Those products and services outlast the noise as customers can’t live without them and often refer them to friends.
Making sense makes sense: When Gorny first came to America, he distinctly remembered needing to buy shoes and seeing a July 4th special sale offering two pairs for the price of one. This two-for-one special bothered him, because he only needed one pair of shoes and informed how he approached marketing from then on — always from the customer perspective. That’s why in his current company he focuses on one-stop bundling and offers that are precisely what the customers want and help them simplify their decision-making.
Your past is not your future: Having been extremely poor, losing his fortune and having to start over working as a valet and carpet cleaner in between building million-dollar businesses, Gorny encourages every entrepreneur to realize that your past and current circumstances don’t determine your ability to be successful in the future. Only you and your willingness to work hard, work smart and keep trying do.
Having been there a number of times, Gorny’s success speaks for itself and will hopefully inspire your success too.
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