This post was triggered by two articles related to Phil Libin’s talk on “Why startup?”:
‘My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “dont do it”‘
‘To change the world is a terrible reason to do a startup‘
I am a very pro-startup guy, but I think the second article raises a very important issue that few startup founders acknowledge. In fact, I think the issue is a bit deeper and penetrates other professions as well (eg. scientists). It came up first in a discussion with my roommate and I think it deserves more attention. The issue is this: a very frequent reason for the “why startup?” question is “change the world/ make the world a better place”. Sounds good (maybe even inspirational), so let’s ask the next question: “change the world for whom? make it better for whom?”. What’s the model of the world that you are assuming? Truth be told, majority of the startups build products for an audience which can afford their product and or can do OK even without the product. A huge population of the world (mostly living in poor third-world countries) does not even have basic health, sanitation and education facilities. If anyone deserves a better life, isn’t it them?
If you think about the set of startup founders who try to build a new product or scientists trying to discover something new, the probability of success is pretty low, the probability of changing the world is even lower. How many companies create tools that profoundly change the world? Probably a handful that includes Google, Amazon and the like. You are more likely to change the world if you take up a job which satisfies your “minimum life expectations” and honestly trying to make a change in the life of someone you know: you can teach someone, adopt a child or actively support your favorite NGO. So, why this obsession with creation of new things? money? fame? the hope of leaving behind something bigger than yourself? the pride (for lack of a better word) in “being different”? or maybe because working with people sounds less glamorous? if you think startups are hard, try actually dealing with people on a day-to-day basis. I think the pro-startup guys demonize the “mediocre 9-5 job” folks when they talk about changing the world; this could be a side-effect of defining a person just in terms of their professional career. Maybe they should think about acts that change the world on an absolute scale instead of just professional careers? I am reminded of a quote from Jeff Bezos’s talk: “… one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever”.
My usual response to any scenario that involves a lot of people interaction is “well, that’s not really for me”. I personally enjoy creative and intellectual tasks. I do them mainly because they make me happy, not because I believe I make the world better (though I would like to believe I do ;)). I think understanding and accepting what truly motivates us is the first step towards discovering a life of happiness and purpose.
“… The truth is often threatening, and once our defenses are up, it’s difficult to be completely honest with anyone, even ourselves … True self improvement requires becoming a better version of our selves, not a lesser version of someone else. But without self acceptance and understanding, how can we even know what that looks like or whether we’re headed in the right direction? It would be like putting the final touches on the Mona Lisa while picturing some celebrity you saw on the cover of People magazine — the result would be a mess. Until we let go of our mental images of who we are or who we should be, our vision remains clouded by expectation. But when we let go of everything, open ourselves to any truth, and see the world without fear or judgement, then we are finally able to begin the process of peeling off the shell of false identity that prevents our true self from growing and shining in to the world. And it starts with nothing.”