Sunday, August 04, 2013

How to be happy and successful: Find the intersection of the spheres

“There is no path to happiness.  Happiness is the path.”


Because I often speak in person and in my book about using meditation as a tool for self awareness (“clear the mind to see clearly”), and intuition to find your path (“follow the clues to reach the treasure”), I’m often asked for advice on how to be both happy and financially successful.
 I’m also asked the same question, though in a different form, by entrepreneurs about their startups.  “How can my startup be both financially successful and feel like we’re doing something meaningful/unique/making a difference?”.
 It turns out that my answer to this question is the same for both individuals and for startups.

A Tale of Two Extremes

First let’s look at two extreme pieces of advice that I ‘ve often heard given (and followed):

Extreme Advice #1: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” 
This is great advice (and if I’m not mistaken, was the title of a bestseller long ago) in theory, up to a point
But what happens when you start to do what you love and the money doesn’t follow?  The reason there’s still a self-help industry is because it isn’t always so easy to make a living  doing just what you love.
I was reading a book by Dannion Brinkley recently (there’s a throwback to the nineties, when Dannion was a bestselling author, famous for having an NDE after being struck by lightning) and he said that one vision he brought back from the “other side” was a form of spiritual capitalism. In this vision, everyone would do work that they loved and earn enough income from it to make a decent living.    Again, a great vision, but one that doesn’t always play out in the real world the way we’d like. 
 This is also true for startups/entrepreneurs as well, though it can seem paradoxical.
 Some of the most successful startups did in fact start off doing something they believed in, and the monetization came around much later (think twitter, facebook, and Google).  But these are also extreme cases; unfortunately, more often than not (let’s say 9 out of 10 times), simply focusing on your vision without taking the time to fit it to the market is also a recipe why most startups go out of business.
 Too often I see entrepreneurs holding on to a vision of what they want their startup to be, but that vision isn’t producing results and isn’t generating enough cash to stay as an on-going concern, and they don’t admit it until it’s too late.

Extreme Advice #2: “Do what the market needs.  Find meaning elsewhere.”
In a way, this is great advice to be financially successful, but it leads to a whole different kind of frustration.  In the work world, many people have jobs that do not involve something they are passionate about and provides no meaning whatsoever – it’s simply a way to earn a paycheck.
For a startup, this means doing whatever a customer is willing to pay for. While this may lead to a successful company financially in the short term, as an entrepreneur you an feel like you’re “selling out” your vision and you’re not likely to make a big difference or feel passionate about what you’re doing. 
I’ve been in startups which started out as “fun” and “innovative” but ended up being slaves to the almighty dollar – every decision that was made had to do with “will it improve our financials or not?”.  That’s no fun either and you end up wanting to "quit" your own startup and go do something "fun" and "innovative" again!

The Middle Way: Find the Intersection of the Spheres

After reflecting on this question for most of my adult career, I have come to the conclusion that people are only happy and financially successful when they can find the intersection of three spheres. 

Sphere #1: What you love to do, what you want to do. 
Suppose you love writing. Or music.  Or acting, and you decide you want to pursue these things full time.  One thing to think about is that something that we “love” as a hobby may not be so “enjoyable” if it is the sole source of our income – it turns from a “hobby” to “work”. 
Still, it’s useful to create a list of the things we “want” or that we would be happy doing.  For a startup this is our “ideal vision” of what the world might look like with our product/service, without regards to the financial question.
As I mentioned before, focusing too much on sphere #1 often leads to unacceptable results in our careers and our startups but it’s a great starting point.

Sphere #2: What we are good at? 
Creating a list of what we are “objectively” good at is not as easy as it seems.  This is because we are often so concerned with sphere #1 and sphere #3 that we don’t stop to reflect on ourselves.  In fact, I often recommend asking someone else for this list, and we are more likely to get objective answers.
It’s important to be honest with ourselves here.  As an extreme case, suppose I want to be an NBA basketball player – but the truth is that I’m only 5’6 and not very athletic and objectively not that good at basketball.   In fact, I’m a much better computer programmer than I am basketball player. Or for that matter, an actor.  Orson Scott Card wanted to be a stage performer and “loved it”, but he realized he wasn’t that good at it. In fact, the was a much better writer than he was performer.
If you aren’t good at working with people, should you really pursue a goal of becoming the top salesperson (or multi-level marketer) in your region?  How many of us set goals that aren’t appropriate for either our skillset or our DNA (here I don’t mean our actual DNA, I mean our energetic patterns and what we are intuitively drawn to - Steve Jobs would call it "fate, destiny, karma"). I’m not trying to be negative here, I’m saying that each of us has unique talents and aptitudes.
In his bestselling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an “expert” at something.  The thing he ignores though is that people aren’t interchangeable; we are drawn to different things and good at different things naturally.   I have a friend who has spent this many hours rock climbing. She’s an expert.  Would I be an expert too if I spent 10,000 hours rock-climbing?  Maybe, but most probably I wouldn’t make it to 10,000 hours because I’m not that interested in it, and not naturally drawn to it.  You might say it’s not in my karma.
This is equally true for startups. I’ve noticed that founding teams in different startups have different DNA (again i'm not talking about actual DNA here, i'm talking about aptitude and experience). As a result, certain business models are just easier for them to follow. Interestingly, they aren’t always the business models that they “choose to follow” because they aren’t being honest with themselves..
As an example, in one of my startups, we were very good at delivering developer tools that we sold for thousands of dollars and customized for many thousands more.  Why? Well, it turns out because we were developers ourselves and really understood this market.
At one point someone (I think it was me!) came up with the bright idea to build an end user tool and sell it for $49 or so.  We went ahead – and while we did an OK job, building end users products wasn’t really what we were good at – the product looked very “developer-y” and we couldn’t provide real end user support.  The point here is not that you shouldn’t experiment with different business models or products, it’s that you need a clear mind to see what you are good at and then play to your strengths.  
VC's will often tell you to "play to win".  But you can't "play to win" if you're playing to your weaknesses.

Sphere #3: What the market is willing to pay for..
This brings us to sphere #3.  If we are good at something, there’s a good chance that someone will pay us to do it, and more importantly – keep paying us to do it!
This may seem obvious, but many people set their sights on doing something that no one is willing to pay for, or they get paid for it once and despite the fact that they aren’t very good at it- they keep thinking that others will keep paying them for it.
The important point here is to define the “market” appropriately.  In your career, it might mean local job market – it might mean any company anywhere willing to hire someone full time – or it might be much more specific: “online e-commerce companies that are willing to pay consultants for”.
For a startup, the way you define of market is crucially important.  For example, if you are freemium model in video games, is your market that’s going to pay consumers or advertisers?  This is an important distinction.  You might find you have a free app that millions of people will download, but no one is willing to pay for it – that’s where the advertisers come in.
Usually, an entrepreneur can figure out what’s in sphere #3 by meeting with potential customers.  Very often, they won’t be ready to buy what you are selling, but if you listen closely, you might hear them say something like: “well, yes, that’s nice, but if you could do X, I’d be willing to pay for it right now.”

By listing items in all three spheres, you can start to look for the “intersection of the spheres”.   Seems obvious? In theory maybe, but in practice, it’s anything but, which is why I recommend you look to people that know you (or your startup) well and ask them what is in sphere #2 - what are you really good at?  If you can do this, you can find the sweet spot that can propel your career or your business to the next level, and make you (and/or your employees) happy in the process.

Like the mysterious "one thing" in the movie City Slickers, I can't tell you what lies in the intersection of the spheres.  

That's for you to find out.

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