Last Thursday I found myself sitting on a panel called “Real Founders Talk,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, trying to look professional while the guy next to me tested the limits of my patience with his self congratulatory bloviating. Sometime between his alcoholics anonymous style confession to having “startup affliction” and the painful lesson he learned from letting go of his leased BMW, I decided there was no way I could continue playing nice in this charade.
When the moderator finally told me it was time to share my “real talk,” I said, “I’m not going to tell you my story because I’m just some dude and what I’ve done isn’t relevant to your lives. I have a question I’d like to ask the audience. Why did you people come here tonight? To hear inspirational stories? If that’s what you want, I can tell you a good story but what difference does that really make?”
A bit stunned, a few members of the audience murmured something about inspiration from like minded people, but most of the room seemed baffled by my question. As the two people on my right started talking about the power of positivity, I looked out at the faces in the crowd and wondered.
Why are these people here?
My initial thought was they were looking for easy answers. I call them magic pills, something that will cure all of their ills and concerns overnight. But this panel wasn’t about raising money or finding customers so there wasn’t even an implied promise of magic pills.
As the audience nodded in agreement about the power of positive thinking and sympathized with the personal tragedy Mr. Startup Affliction had to suffer when he had to downgrade his boat, it occurred to me that this panel, and many other speaking events, were really a kind of church. These people were just looking for something to believe in.
I was wrong about the magic pills, they weren’t looking for answers at all. They were looking for faith in what they were doing. They came to hear stories of triumph, failure, and redemption that would make them feel good about their path going forward. They came simply to be in a room full of like minded people so they wouldn’t feel alone. They came looking for someone to validate the choices they had made. And somewhere in that mix, they probably came looking for heroes.
I am not religious, but I do think people have a natural human desire to believe in something bigger than themselves. For entrepreneurs, that “something bigger” is entrepreneurship itself. But there is a problem with this. The stories, fables, and heroes that make up the religion of entrepreneurship are little more than personal anecdotes told by people as fallible and flawed as any of us.
I suppose there’s value in simply sharing with those who are like minded, but other people’s stories can’t validate you or your choices. Furthermore, treating entrepreneurship as a religion puts us at risk of creating false prophets. Why did these people come to hear our “real talk” stories as if we could provide any kind of enlightenment or value to their lives?
As things wound down on the panel and the audience asked for some takeaways, Mr. Startup Affliction talked about being able to find happiness with less money and the two other panelists told everyone to keep up the positive attitude. Before I could say anything, we were called for time and I wasn’t able to give a closing remark.
If I had had the chance, I would have told them that entrepreneurship is not a religion and that the people on this stage, or any stage, don’t matter. My story doesn’t matter. The inspirational tales of redemption from the people they hold as heroes don’t matter. And the gospel of the people they paint as entrepreneurial prophets doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how you measure yourself. If you’re looking for something to believe in, believe in that.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]