The Jade Sculptor and the Serial Entrepreneur

The quest for life’s meaning after you have sold your company

September 1, 2016 | François Sicart
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A few years ago, I was invited to visit a new jade museum that was about to open to the public in Beijing. Many of the pieces on display had been left behind by Chiang Kai-shek (former leader of the Kuomintang party) when he and his followers retreated to Taiwan in 1949. The exiles had taken with them many of China’s best artistic treasures but somehow the owner of this privately-owned institution had collected enough of the remaining jade pieces to fill a museum.

Among the masterpieces shown were some highly intricate, almost lace-like sculptures which, the curator explained, had often taken the artist a lifetime to complete. It struck me that many among us might need to think hard to identify a single achievement that defines our life. But the sculptor of one of these masterpieces could take in his lifetime achievement at a glance.

Then recently, a good friend mentioned that his son, a brilliant MIT graduate (who denies any desire or ambition to become a serial entrepreneur) had already created and sold two cloud-computing companies and might soon create a third one.

Success, Achievement, and Fulfillment

The contrast between these two experiences made me reflect on the relative definitions of success, achievement, and fulfillment.

Of the various types of satisfactions we can aim for, success is the easiest, not only to achieve, but also to measure. There is a personal side to success, of course, but it usually is experience-specific: if, for example, a scientific experiment proves your hypothesis, you can claim a success. Success is often concrete, and its results are often measured in the eyes of others: fame, official recognition, and wealth.

Achievement is measured over longer periods of time but tends to reflect an accumulation of successes. As such, it still requires external recognition.

On the other hand, fulfillment must be highly personal. Its external signs are hard to make out and vary from one individual to another, like its causes. It is usually hard won, thus especially sweet. Yet we humans are restless, and even the sense of fulfillment may fade in the absence of new activities and new challenges.

When Enough Is No Longer Enough

Leaving semantics behind, all this introspection brings to mind Charles Handy’s seminal book: The Hungry Spirit (1998 – Broadway Books). It starts with the following paragraphs:

In Africa, they say that there are two hungers, the lesser hunger and the greater hunger. The lesser hunger is for the things that sustain life, the goods and services, and the money to pay for them, which we all need. The greater hunger is for an answer to the question “why?”, for some understanding of what that life is for…

… [Maybe] the greater hunger is not just an extension of the lesser hunger, but something completely different. Maybe money is a necessary but not sufficient condition of happiness, in which case more money will not help, if you already have enough.

Asked what “enough” was, John D. Rockefeller reportedly answered: “One more”. But in fact, I doubt that he was talking about money. In business, money is naturally one measure of success. But with relatively few exceptions, the successful entrepreneurs I have known were motivated by more than financial rewards. For many, perhaps most, an enterprise is at least partly a quest in which products, customers, employees, purpose, success, growth and profit coexist harmoniously. In a successful enterprise or venture, there is therefore an aesthetic reward and perhaps even a degree of higher-level satisfaction.

Shorter cycles and the quest for meaning

Our current challenge is the compressed development time of contemporary businesses, driven by constant technical innovation. Entrepreneurs are blessed by ample venture capital eager to finance start-ups at one end. At the other, investment bankers are equally eager to take young companies public at the first hint of potential success. This financial environment has shortened the entrepreneurial time span of today’s business ventures. This is why, with few exceptions (Apple’s Steve Jobs or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, maybe), most of today’s successful entrepreneurs are likely to become serial entrepreneurs, starting new ventures, selling them, and so on.

Unless, that is, they prefer at some point to adopt a new life altogether.

The first question to ask ourselves is: “When do the rewards of serial entrepreneurship become enough to satisfy the lesser hunger, but not enough to satisfy the greater hunger?” According to Charles Handy, in the search for meaning in your life:

You cannot move on to a different track unless you realize that you have gone far enough on the present one. If you don’t know what enough is, in material or achievement terms [my emphasis], you are trapped in a rut… and will never know what is outside of that rut.

Each new entrepreneurial venture brings with it a “high” combining new dreams, new challenges, the enjoyment of working again with smaller teams, etc. But, according to some entrepreneurs, even these satisfactions soon becomes repetitive and create a sense of déjà vu, which is bound to further shorten the enjoyment phase of the next venture.

The quest for meaning in the rest of our lives

What to do, then, when you sense that you begin to have “enough?”

Most of the entrepreneurs I know are still relatively young and have not had the leisure to seriously tackle the question of what else they could do “after.” Some retirees go back to school, either to study something they missed at university or to learn a new skill or nurture a dormant talent. In my observation, however, this is more typical of corporate or professional retirees. Still-young retired entrepreneurs are more ambitious for their newly-freed time but this does not mean that they have a more precise awareness of their options. I don’t know the answers either, but I do have some suggestions.

First, as Jeff Bezos says: “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.” Entrepreneurs know that new ideas come in a random fashion, unexpectedly, often when our mind has been in “neutral” for a while. Thus actively searching for a new passion or a new life mission may be the wrong approach.

Second, the example of Michelangelo has relevance. He famously suggested that the sculptor’s task is to discover and release the statue inside each block of marble. This could be a model for “the rest of our lives:” all we need to do is to chip away at the stone to uncover its potential meaning. Maybe the successful entrepreneur should approach his or her “second act” by first eliminating everything that’s out of the question.

An unusual focusing technique

Steve Jobs, who lived with the prospect of an early death from cancer, did so with urgency. “For the past 33 years,” he said, “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Charles Handy and others recognize that when we are in a reflective mode, we tend to look backward instead of forward. But it can be especially helpful to look backward but from the future. How? By periodically writing the eulogy that we would like our best friend to read at our funeral. In a catchier phrase, author and educator Zoe Weil simply advocates: “Live your epitaph.”

When I started thinking about those questions, I had a nightmare of my epitaph reading: “He beat the Dow Jones”. A commendable achievement, for sure, but still a dismal summary of one’s life. We can never give up on the quest for meaning which (as Leonardo said of art) is never finished but only abandoned. This is why entrepreneurs who have accumulated enough money to satisfy their “lesser hunger” (with a comfortable margin, perhaps) often turn their sights toward charitable activities.

Charitable, creative and efficient

Once we realize we have “enough,” charitable activities become a natural endeavor. “Giving back” is how many entrepreneurs describe this motivation. Initially at least, this altruistic élan may be mixed with remnants of egotism or social ambitions or, at least, with the desire to leave a lasting monument to ourselves. In the end, though, entrepreneurs will be entrepreneurs and they will again become the result-driven perfectionists that thrived in business.

Shortly before I started writing this paper, I had lunch with an old friend, one of the pioneers of venture capital and private equity in Europe. Six years ago he created a foundation that aims to be the pioneer of Venture Philanthropy in France.

Venture Philanthropy was born in the United States and aims to apply the disciplines of private equity and venture capital to charitable organizations: obligation and measurement of results, organization for efficient use of resources, better growth strategies and even different fund- raising approaches. And it makes a long-term commitment to accompany the organizations it has elected to help.

My friend may serve as a model for our discussion. He had long sought to undertake some action for the general good. After looking at the almost limitless opportunities and studying the organizations catering to them, he soon concluded that he could put his long experience of private equity to best use by helping organizations become more business-like in the pursuit of their charitable goals.

His approach has several advantages:

  • Former entrepreneurs do not have to learn new skills. Instead, they use talent that has been tested and proven throughout their careers;
  • They do something that is very similar to the work they just set aside, but still have the satisfaction of making room for their business successors to grow and succeed on their own;
  • They no longer work for money, but they can still use familiar tools to measure their success or failure.

My friend concluded that meaning, in his new life, came from the knowledge that he is using his well-tested expertise while producing results that are beneficial for society as a whole.

That, at least, is one testimony from a successful entrepreneur who thinks he has found a way to satisfy his greater hunger.

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