I recently read an article in The New Yorker that discussed the business dealings of Carl Icahn, a multi-billionaire dollar Wall Street investor.
The article focused on Icahn’s relationship with Donald Trump and the former’s influence in the latter’s presidential administration. While reading the article, I found the following passage interesting (emphasis added):
Plenty of titans who are not as old and not as rich as Icahn have opted to devote their remaining years to spending their money, or to giving it away.
Not Icahn. A tall man with a shambling manner, he recently grew a white beard, which softens his round face, giving him the cuddly appearance of an elderly Muppet. But he has not lost his taste for the kill. A few years ago, he sold his mega-yacht, because cruising on it bored him. He has engaged in philanthropy, building charter schools and a stadium on Randall’s Island that bears his name.
But the charity circuit is a snooze. What Icahn loves beyond all else is to rise late each morning, and then to spend the rest of the day and much of the night working the phone, making deals.
The last sentence says it all. Here’s a man who loves what he does. He’s not doing it for the money. He’s not doing it for fame. He’s doing it because it’s part of who he is at the core. Never mind that he’s 85 years old. Never mind that he’s wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He does what he does because it’s a fundamental part of who he is.
Entrepreneurship has become a philosophy. People endlessly debate how you must fail quickly and fail often. But when you’re trying to make a living, this is what you do, day in and day out. The word “failure” stops being some abstract buzzword that you learn in some business book or blog and becomes something that you’re intimately familiar with like the menu in your favorite steakhouse. Failure becomes an integrated part of your life because the process requires it; you can never find what works until you first throw out what doesn’t. Being an entrepreneur is all about continuously finding what works by throwing out what doesn’t. I’ve failed more times than I can count and look forward to failing even more in the future. That’s my barometer for living an authentic life.
When I lived in the beautiful neighborhood of Condesa in Mexico City, one of my good friends was an Italian guy who moved to Mexico from Sicily. He met a great woman, got married and was busy raising a couple of kids. For some odd reason, we’ve hit it off right away. What I loved about him was the fact that he was always experimenting with different things. He was a driven man. At any point in time, he was working on at least ten different projects. Buying up domains, building up landing pages, designing and creating products. He was always moving, always hustling, always trying new things. And, if something wasn’t working, he immediately abandoned the idea and began doing something else.
“This is the life I’ve chosen,” he liked to say. “If you want stability and predictability, get a regular job.”
I remember those words because for a long time I used the same line of thinking to categorize the world. My world was composed of two types of people: those who seek stability and comfort, and those who eschew both in favor of risk.
I was always firmly in the latter camp. True, I’ve had various jobs throughout my life, but I’ve also ran various businesses on the side as well. Having a stable salary deposited into my bank account was great, but there was an inexplicable rush of adrenaline in building out a little website, putting some products on it, negotiating with the suppliers and running a marketing campaign. Although I was a productive 9–5 employee, the latter was always much more rewarding and satisfying.
When you’re driven, interruptions are the enemy. When you’re not driven, your life is a series of interruptions. I spent the entire month of August feverishly working on a new project. Today, I realized that one of my favorite shows, Narcos, has a new season out. I loaded Netflix and pulled up the first episode. I watched it halfway through, closed the Netflix window, and returned back to my project. It’s 11:45 pm on a Friday night, and I’m just itching to keep working on the project.
Being driven is addictive. The more I work on it, the sooner I finish. The sooner I finish, the sooner I launch. The sooner I launch, the sooner I’ll know whether I’ll fail or not. There’s a certain low-level pressure to finish. The entire process is extremely addicting. (Update: I finished watching the entire season of Narcos after finishing the project.)
The majority of people aren’t driven. The majority of people come home after work tired and dejected. They need something that will reset their brains before they pass out to repeat the process the next day. The last thing they want to do is to build out some website and sell some products. They also aren’t going to be running any marketing campaigns anytime soon. They just want to watch an episode of their favorite sitcom and then go to sleep.
When I lived in Colombia, my roommate was a young American guy who was working for a local NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). One night, while we were hanging out in one of Medellin’s bars, he asked me what kind of work I was doing. I told him. He was interested and immediately asked if I can mentor him. I wanted to test his commitment first, so I pointed him to some quality books and blogs to get started.
He looked over the material and then asked me a couple of questions. A few days later, he told me in a dejected tone that it’s not something he wanted to do. When pressed for an explanation, he explained that he realized the chance of failing was just too high and that he’d rather continue working his regular job.
The proxy for everything
It was at that point that I realized something profound: it was never about business or entrepreneurship. It was never about making money. It was never about having some passive income and traveling around the world. It never about any of that. Building your own business and/or becoming an entrepreneur is really a proxy for how you choose to live your life. It’s just a state of being. And it’s the result of the choices you make.
My roommate declined because the life he was living was perfectly suitable for him. Period. He didn’t want to deviate from a familiar routine and embark on some risky voyage to some unknown destination. And if that meant he wouldn’t make money on his own terms, then that was cool with him. He was perfectly fine with being told what to do by someone else.
Not everyone is cut out to build their own business just like not everyone is cut out to approach a woman in the wild they find attractive. Fear, uncertainty, and insecurity stop people dead in their tracks from reaching for the ultimate prize and realizing their true potential. Even though the rewards for carving your own path — both from the business or personal standpoint — can be unlimited.
The mind inherently knows this. There is a certain feeling one experiences when one is living a life that deviates from how they want to be living. This feeling never lies. It’s like a tiny rocket in your shoe: you know it’s there, but you don’t know what you can do about it. This feeling doesn’t just disappear; it remains, affecting everything in your life: your inner state, your relationships with others, and your experiences with the world. Unfortunately, instead of fixing the root cause of the problem, most people spend their entire lives rationalizing away this feeling.
I’m not trying to motivate you to do anything. I don’t even believe in motivation. Motivation is horribly unreliable because it’s fleeting; it comes and goes as it pleases. I experience this all the time. Some days I feel super excited and optimistic. Other days, I feel as though the sky is falling. It could be dependent on a lot of factors: the weather, amount of time I slept, what I ate the day before, or something else.
But the outcome is always the same: the feeling dissipates, and I sit down and start working. I’ll never let something as important as my work be hijacked by some “feelings.” If I viewed motivation as a prerequisite to working, then most days I’d probably never get out of bed. And there’s really nothing else I’d love to be doing than what I’m doing right now.
The scariest people are those who would drop everything they’re doing and start working on a project after getting a rough idea. They don’t wait for the “right time.” They don’t want for a “stroke of inspiration.” They might not succeed the first time (they probably won’t), but because creating something is really a conversation with the market, they’ll succeed on the second, third or fourth time. They only way they’ll fail is by giving up.
I’ve known guys like that. I’ve worked with them. I’ve worked for them. After initially failing numerous times, many of them are successful beyond their wildest dreams. And, you know what? They’re still working because they enjoy it so much. They scare me because they’re so dangerous.
The process is king
The process is the secret sauce. If you want to build a successful blog, you must love to write. If you want to create a huge audience, you must love to market. If you want to make a lot of sales, you must love to sell. If you want to build a successful company (after a lot of prerequisite failures), you must love to hustle. If you want to learn a foreign language, you must love memorizing new words and making a fool of yourself while pronouncing them to the locals. Just like if you want to be a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu champion, you must love to spend hours and hours training on the mats.
I enjoy writing. I view writing as a fundamental skill that facilitates the crystallization of ideas. It’s like a workout in the gym but for your mind. Am I successful? With several thousand visitors per day and over eight thousand followers across social media accounts, I’m still not sure. It doesn’t even matter either way.
My affinity for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a testament to being in love with the process and little else: I could spend hours training on the mat, every single day. Am I good? I’ve been training for more ten years, so I guess I can hold my own at my belt level. It doesn’t really matter. I really couldn’t care less about competing or championships.
I know for a fact that if a million dollars landed in my bank account tomorrow, I’d still be writing about travel, culture, business, economics and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In other words, I’d be doing exactly what I’m doing right this minute, and what I’ve been doing for the past ten years.
Doing something regularly, something that you enjoy matters much more than whatever happens afterward. I’ll go even further: doing something — anything — is much more important than worrying what to work on. Writing a 3,000-word article about the first thought that pops in your mind is better than wondering what to write about. Doing 50 pushups in the morning is better wondering whether to do sit-ups, push ups or take a bus to the gym.
The title of this article is actually a quote by Charles Bukowski, a writer who didn’t much achieve success until later in life. He was kinda of a mess his entire life, being drunk and vulgar most of his waking hours. He naturally didn’t care what others thought of him. He was also as authentic as they came.
The motivational gurus were wrong all along. It was never about building a business. It was never about making money. It was never about some fancy word called “entrepreneurship.” It was never about building a startup. It was never about having passive income while traveling around the world. It was never about learning affiliate marketing or day-trading cryptocurrencies.
All these fancy terms were actually proxies for something else: drive. It was always about the drive. The fire in the belly. The desire to make a dent in the universe. The will to persevere, day in and day out, working on something that matters. Believing in something. Caring about something. Getting others to care and believe in it also.
Drive is why an 81-year-old man, Carl Icahn, who’s worth more than $16B, still wakes up every single day, goes to his office, and makes business deals. Most people his age are long retired, spending the rest of their days in some nursing home in Arizona or South Florida.
A person who refuses to learn a new skill that’s outside their existing realm of knowledge and/or comfort isn’t just refusing to learn that specific skill, they’re refusing to change their way of life; they’re refusing to take the lead instead of being lead; they’re refusing to believe in something that’s greater than themselves. And, yeah, it’s not a stretch to assume that being an entrepreneur is most likely not their cup of tea.
The richness of life can be reduced to a binary component. You’re either all-in or you’re all-out. You either have something that you’re crazy passionate about or you’re perennially on the sidelines waiting for some miracle to drop on your lap. That’s the foundation upon which everything else is duly built.