Why Start Something?
On quite a regular basis, people come to us at AstroLabs asking, “How do I start a startup?” or “Where do I find investors or co-founders for this new startup?”
While these are very important questions. A question that should be considered much earlier is “Why should I start a startup?”
First a quick clarification: unlike commonly used definitions of startup as either a “new technology company” or “a company with very fast growth” I am using startup in the simplest definition “a new venture that brings two or more people together to achieve a mission that one person alone cannot achieve.” This also applies to starting a social enterprise, a mission-driven social group, a small company, or other forms.
Here are some attempts to answer that question without going into the specifics about what type of startup to launch– we’ll tackle that one once we get more tangible/practical in an upcoming post. (1)
For now, let’s start with the absolute fundamentals: a truly fulfilling life is a life that has meaning and growth. (2)
Meaning arises from a variety of sources such as spiritual beliefs, life missions, and other prime directives or personal values that afford you the sense that you are not wasting your time on this planet as a passive consumer.
Personal growth comes from (real) learning and facing tough and interesting challenges. There is no growth without challenge and while there are many different ways to find challenges that drive and excite you, a proven path is joining or starting an organization with a mission that resonates with your core values.
Joining a mission-driven startup is always a great option; however, finding one with the right people with whom you would want to spend this journey is more challenging than it seems. This is because the external messaging and internal values of an organization are not always coherent- something that’s not easy to uncover before joining an organization. (3) This often leads to attracting passionate people in the short term who later become disillusioned and cynical as a result of a misalignment between the actual culture and the personal values.
So, by elimination, if you have not been lucky in finding the right organization, one remaining option would be to start one and get together a group of people with similar values and ambitions.
Why does starting or joining a mission-driven organization lead to personal growth, again?
I will not even try to rehash the history of the collective human wisdom (See: Seneca, Nietzsche, most world religions, and others) on this, or even some more modern discussion about the topic.(4) But, in summary, just as light weights and sitting on the couch don’t build new muscles and lounging by the side of the pool does not turn you into Michael Phelps, living and working in the comfort of the easy and familiar doesn’t lead to significant personal growth. And a new venture, by definition, means entering the realm of the unfamiliar. Crossing that line may be uncomfortable for some, but the rewards of doing it is a fulfilling life of personal development and growth.
Aligning your values with the culture of the organization doesn’t mean that you have to necessarily work in an education startup if you believe in the power of education. Working on development programs for your team and other stakeholders might turn out to be even more fulfilling if you are able to see the outcome of your work, regardless of the industry of your company.
A quick caveat here is that it is definitely possible to start something new, fail and only blame the world for your failure and thus, learn little to nothing. However, the assumption is that, hopefully, the reader of this post isn’t that type of person. Same as you can spend long days in the office and not do anything of value; it’s not the process that counts as much as what you get out of it. Also worth noting is that struggle alone doesn’t lead to growth, sometimes it is just like beating your head against the wall, no upside.
In summary, what you should thrive for is a life focused on meaning and growth, and one of the ways of achieving growth is facing challenges that help you develop new skills, capabilities and tools. Similarly, one of the ways of achieving meaning is for this challenge to mirror your core values and lead to an objective you would be proud of once you start reflecting back on your life.
Finally, a preview of a few good lessons you might extract from your journey. Although really internalizing these will only come from experience itself, maybe this might give you a glimpse of what to expect (5):
· The easy path is always the harder one in the longer term
· Always be skeptical of any action you take to impress others
· Only work with people you respect and that share the same values
· Focus first on the quality of your product or service
· Curiosity is an infinitely rewarding quality (In fact a meta-quality: a quality that leads to even more qualities)
· You are able to avoid tough decisions, but you cannot escape them (otherwise said: You can never escape reality, you can only face the other way)
· More often, doing less (fewer tasks, fewer meetings) is a better choice than doing more.
· More interesting and sustainable outcomes come out of vigorous disagreements.
· Take advice from people who have been on journeys you admire, not in places you desire.
· Time is rarely the bottleneck, brain-share, creativity, and decision capacity are.
(1) In Part 2 I will cover why pursue a specific idea, and in Part 3 I will cover some of the early warning signs that you might be doing it for the wrong reasons. (Or combine both topics in the next post, if possible)
(2) Somehow (through teaching, experience, reflection, etc), by the time most people reach adulthood they have formed their internal model of what constitutes right and wrong, this is what I mean by personal values.
(3) Examples that come to mind are plenty: Non-profit organizations that advertise an important mission but are chockfull of bureaucrats who want to feel good about themselves, service firms that talk about impact and client importance but with internal incentives to promote employees who bring in the most money regardless of impact. Corporation with aspirational missions and visions, constantly being caught polluting, shipping faulty product, etc. Overall, read any mission statement and compare it to what the organization actually does.
(4) Recommended books on the topic: The Road Less Traveled (incredible book), Man’s Search for Meaning (interesting book), The art of Possibility (surprisingly practical), Most of Stoic Philosophy (admittedly I have not read most of it), biographies of most interesting people (have yet to read one where the author had an amazingly easy life, most likely growth and success were achieved BECAUSE of hard times, not in spite of hard times), etc.
(5) I am looking forward to reading these and cringing in a few years. But cringing is a great way to learn humility.
Thanks to JP Aramouni and my wife for the feedback and corrections to an earlier version of this post.