Nothing recedes like success.
—Walter Winchell, newspaper and radio gossip commentator.
In 2009, Canadian recording artist Drake released “Successful,” the second single from his third release, titled So Far Gone. The song has a melodic and a catchy chorus: “I just wanna be, I just wanna be successful.” The same lyric is repeated over and over as if it were a religious chant. Drake glorifies what he believes is the life of a successful person, craving money, cars, women, clothes, and awards. As I heard the song for the first time, I certainly could relate to the twenty-three-year-old’s desire to be successful. But as someone seven years his senior I couldn’t help to think how being successful is such a frivolous goal and how desiring accolades, possessions, and cheap companionship won’t bring long-lasting joy.
I often mentor or cross paths with people who think that being an entrepreneur is one of the fastest ways to become successful or to gain respect. They see the media frenzy surrounding Facebook’s IPO or Instagram’s billion-dollar acquisition; they watch their favorite music artists and actors in the limelight, making millions of dollars. The pressure to be respected by peers and to live a successful lifestyle is especially prevalent among members of generation Y. In fact, according to a recent study from the University of Oregon, the desire for respect as a core value has risen tremendously over the levels of previous years. The study’s lead author, Eda Gurel-Atay, said, “We found that people want respect for themselves and they want to be important to other people.” This increased value is quite evident in social media, as the heightened desire for respect and importance often turns into embellished and narcissistic posts on Facebook. Unfortunately, the motivation of these posts, like Drake’s song, is a belief that true success comes from status, not from self-actualization.
A true entrepreneur is not driven by outward appearances of success, but rather by solving a problem whose solution provides value to its customers. This dedication shows up time and time again among high achievers in business, and it’s most evident among those who despite their great wealth and accomplishments continue to live a modest lifestyle. For example, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was a renter for years even though he was worth billions of dollars. His commitment to Facebook’s original goal of enhancing human communication was reiterated in his speech on the day his company went public: “Our mission isn’t to be a public company. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” He could have cashed out years ago, but his concept of being successful is making his idea a complete reality, or in other words, attaining self-actualization.
Many serial entrepreneurs learn the value of self-actualization after the first exit. After reaching a point in my life where I thought I was successful, this feeling didn’t last very long. Although other people continued to think I was successful, I didn’t go on feeling that way. I had sold my first company and was off to starting the next one. I learned that what matters most to me isn’t so much receiving the rewards of a highly profitable company as much as it is solving problems, building valuable companies, and making an impact in the world. Yes, it may sound lofty, but it’s the reason I get up every morning and the measure by which I determine my success.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, but it is the wrong reason to start a business. Starting a business to be successful is like getting married to have sex. People too often focus on the benefits of the undertaking rather than the true purpose. If you remember to focus on your purpose—unadulterated by any ulterior motives—you stay headed in the right direction to accomplish your goal, and the benefits of your efforts are more likely to accrue to you. I like how Dave Navarro, “the Launch Coach,” put it: “Success is not a person. It’s an event.”