Don’t become an entrepreneur.
Seriously, if I had one piece of advice for college graduates or anyone considering a career change, “Don’t become an entrepreneur” would be it.
I’m a lifelong entrepreneur myself. I started my first company in college. It was called Just Beans, and we sold jellybeans and coffee beans. It was bound to make millions, or so I thought, until my dog broke in and ate most of the merchandise.
I’m not alone in having a failed business: About half of new businesses close in the first five years. Many, many successful entrepreneurs have failed, some in spectacular fashion. But the failure of that company just made me more determined. In fact, what I have learned over the years is that for entrepreneurs, failure is an important predecessor to success.
Entrepreneurs are simply a different breed. When Richard Branson graduated from high school, the headmaster predicted he would either become a millionaire or end up in prison. It was that obvious, even from a young age, that he would be an entrepreneur or nothing. Branson is a guy whose passion for creating businesses is written all over his face. He doesn’t just build an airline – he jumps out of the airplane to promote it. That’s the kind of fanaticism that can’t be faked. As for Branson, he fulfilled both of his headmaster’s predictions: His first company made him rich, but it also landed him in jail.
People shouldn’t become entrepreneurs; rather, they should figure out if they are entrepreneurs. I have a pretty simple test. Ask yourself if you regularly jump out of bed before the alarm, excited to go to work, sometimes forgetting to shower, brush your teeth, or get dressed. For the vast majority of people, the answer to that question is a resounding no. But for entrepreneurs, a laser-like focus on their venture – to the exclusion of everything else, including sleep and personal hygiene – is par for the course. I do typically make time to shower, but I haven’t shaved in 14 months, and unlike most people, I don’t drink caffeine because simply going to work is caffeinating enough.
We idolize entrepreneurs in America, people like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Larry Ellison. We think of them as rags-to-riches overnight successes, people who “made it” with nothing but a big dream and some luck. But behind every success story is a darker side, one that requires relentless focus, sacrifice, and a commitment that is hard to comprehend.
This is why the best advice I could give aspiring entrepreneurs is simply this: Don’t aspire to be an entrepreneur. You either are or you aren’t. If you can happily do anything else in the world, do that thing. A respected professional job – doctor, lawyer, accountant – complete with outside hobbies and interests is a great way to live.
In the book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America, psychologist John Gartner suggests that entrepreneurs may even have a medical condition known as hypomania. It’s like bipolar disorder without the depressive side. It’s all manic, all the time. The symptoms of hypomania include elevated mood, high levels of goal-oriented activity, decreased need for sleep, and constantly racing thoughts and ideas. Sounds pretty fun!
Or not. If you don’t think entrepreneurialism is for you, you can still be a business owner or executive. The majority of business owners are not hypomanic entrepreneurs: They’re simply good at running businesses. Entrepreneurism is like an incurable disease – do yourself a favor and don’t try to catch the bug.