By Andrew McConnell, Co-Founder and CEO of rented†
You know how you sometimes call a fortune you’ve had, only that it changes instantly when you say it out loud? That’s how I felt recently when I told a friend how lucky I’d been swimming in the ocean over the years with just a single minor collision with a Portuguese warship to show for it. Sure enough, the next morning while I was swimming, my right arm and both feet got wrapped in the 30-foot tentacles of one such warman, and I had the spurs (and pain) to prove it.
When I later told the story to another friend, he said, “I think that’s the end of your ocean swimming.” I was perplexed. What did he mean? I went swimming later that same day and took my six-year-old daughter with me, and I’ve been swimming in the ocean every day since. Why on earth would I stop?
This difference in mindset and expectations made me realize some core differences between pool swimming and open water swimming that closely parallel the differences between corporate employment and entrepreneurship.
It’s true that I’ve never seen a shark, been stung by a warman, or breathed out by a huge hurricane-driven wave in a pool (all of which I’ve experienced in the ocean). It’s also true that I’ve never seen a sea turtle, an eagle ray, countless parrotfish, a barracuda, or other remarkable sea creatures in a pool (all of which I see regularly when swimming in the ocean).
For some, the structure and security that a pool or the corporate world provides is attractive because of its lack of chaos and disorder. Knowing in advance the cadence of the quarterly earnings report and everything that comes with it is a certain reassurance. A very successful colleague of mine when I worked at McKinsey & Company described building a career with the company as, “It’s an open book test.” Saying the rules are clear doesn’t mean that the corporate world is easier than the entrepreneurial path. It’s just one that’s been navigated before and has rules that you can identify and understand when you go in.
For others, the lack of opportunities for anything out of the ordinary makes pool structure or BigCo life unappealing. For these people, it’s not about the fear of what might happen, it’s about the excitement of what might happen! Yes, the fledgling startup can fail. And yes, it power also be the next Facebook, Amazon or Google. For this, you never have to look back and wonder, “what if?” is much more important than looking at the opportunities ahead with a glass-is-half-empty mentality and worrying, “what if…?”
Like almost all swimmers, at least in the US, I grew up as a pool swimmer. Inspired and motivated by the Olympic Games every four years, That was the goal, and throughout my competitive career the only option to get there was in the pool. I only imagined what I could see, and all I ever saw on TV were pool swimmers.
Although my truly competitive swimming days ended in 2003, it wasn’t until 2008 that the International Olympic Committee made open water swimming an Olympic event. And while I was a member of the USA Open Water Swimming National Team at one point, I only really fell in love with open water swimming when my competitive days were long behind me and I developed a group of friends who all got together now and then to swimming together in the ocean.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same is true of entrepreneurship. Most people grow up in households with parents who have walked the more conventional path. Whether you work for an established company or practice one of the traditional professions such as medicine or law, there are many more people working in the world in front of other people than there are people who start new companies that are able to hire others. This is why research finds that the children of entrepreneurs, adopted or biological, are more likely to become entrepreneurs themselves. As with athletic talents, there are undoubtedly biological forces at work, but the research shows that the role of the environment, when it comes to entrepreneurship, is “twice as great as [biology]† Seeing is really a channel to believe.
And perhaps all of this leads to the question: is it better to work for someone else or strike alone? I would give you the same answer as I would give my daughter: you have to decide for yourself. Start by asking what you want, but don’t stop there. Next, and more importantly, you should ask: Why you want that. Like kids following in the footsteps of their corporate or entrepreneurial parents, the “why” behind your “what” is just a product of what you’ve seen and who you’re surrounded by, or is something more core you†
That’s why I invest so much time to give my daughter a taste of both worlds. So I help her build the skills for each and gain the comfort and confidence that she can navigate both successfully.
The reality is that life often lasts long enough that it doesn’t always have to be either/or. Sometimes we can really have both, even if it’s not at the same time. The most important thing is to make sure we know what we want, and just as importantly, why we want it. Without this knowledge, we are potentially just fulfilling someone else’s dream without ever realizing what ours was to begin with.