September 16, 2010

Success Cannot Be Pursued, It Must Ensue

The title of this post is inspired by a quote from one of my favorite books: Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, tells us his remarkable story of survival from the death camps of Nazi Germany. The book also lays out his personal approach to psychotherapy, which he developed as a direct result of his experiences during the Holocaust. Reflecting on his time in the camps, Frankl wondered why so many of his fellow prisoners simply gave up and succumbed to despair, while the few who remained were able to overcome disease, starvation and horrors beyond description. He realized, in nearly all cases, that the survivors were animated by a deep sense of purpose. In his case, it was a steely resolve to make it out alive and be reunited with his family.

So what does Man's Search for Meaning have to do with starting a business? You might think the lesson is about persistence or the need to have a mission statement for your company. While these may be important, but that's not why I'm writing this. Instead, I'm speaking to you, because I firmly believe that the very first step to launch a successful new venture is not knowing your customer (although that is indeed critical), but knowing yourself.

Knowing yourself is a matter of honestly evaluating your strengths and weaknesses and understanding where your blind spots are. It is also a matter of understanding what drives you and gives you energy. The lesson of Frankl's book, in a nutshell, is that this sense of purpose can only arise when we are committed to a project greater than ourselves. It's easy to forget that business isn't just about making money; the heart of any lasting business is providing a product or service that improves people's lives in some meaningful way. The getting rich part is a fortunate byproduct of serving your customers well, and the better you serve the needs of others, the richer you can become.

That's why Frankl argues that the naked pursuit of fame or fortune is a serious case of letting the tail wag the dog. If you don't enjoy the struggle, the day to day grind of managing a business can be as confining as any prison. It's the trap you fall into whenever you let money become your master. So, the first step to becoming a successful entrepreneur is figuring out what makes you tick. When you know why you get out of bed every morning, you'll have a much clearer picture of where to search for opportunities, and you will have a much better chance of finding one that satisfies both you and your customers.

This is not to say that passion is the only thing that matters when screening a business opportunity. There are a host of other important factors to consider, but if the opportunity does not align with your inner purpose, the risk of burnout and failure becomes very real. This means that opportunities are situational. A great opportunity for you might be entirely inappropriate for an entrepreneur with different skills, interests, or resources.

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