Philosophy and Startups

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations has had a stronger impact on me than any other book I’ve read in the past year. One of my favorite passages has been on my mind lately:

“The time that any man may live is but a little, and the place where he lives is but a little corner of the earth, and the greatest fame that can remain of a man after his death, even that is but a little.” – Marcus Aurelius

It’s so easy for me to get caught up in small, trivial matters where I lose sight of the bigger picture. I’m doing some cool things at a young age, but the truth is that it doesn’t mean anything. The stuff I’m doing has such a tiny impact on my day to day existence. What is so impressive to me is how Aurelius recognizes this even as he is a god at the time he wrote the Meditations. At the time of Marcus’ rule, Roman emperors were treated like deities by their people. Aurelius had more power than almost anyone in history (certainly more than anyone could imagine having today), and yet was fully aware that his fame and his time on this earth was fleeting. What Marcus realized, and what I’m working on understanding, is that chasing after fleeting things will always end in unhappiness. True happiness and satisfaction comes from living well and constantly working to improve yourself.

Like I said, I’m slowly learning this. One year ago, I remember telling myself “if I could only get into Alphalab with a company I started, I’d be happy. That would be it!”. Now, in that position, I can see that the staircase goes much farther than I thought. There are millions of people more successful than me, smarter than me, and doing much bigger things than I am. As you move up the ladder and start to interact with increasingly more successful people, I’ve come to realize just how far “behind” I really am.

I think philosophy has a lot of parallels with startups in general. The idea of working on yourself and not chasing fleeting things can easily be applied to companies. Rather than chase the latest local-mobile-social trend, you can work on building real value and working on your company. In a way, it’s freeing. You don’t have to create an iPhone app, invest in social media marketing, define a Pinterest strategy, or do 100 other trivial things that are big today but will be gone tomorrow. Instead, you can focus on the product, your customers, and building something that delivers value – the things that matter.

It’s also harder. When you float with the trends, it’s easy to blame failure on a shifting trend or marketing timing. For me, I know that trying to focus on what’s important has made some of my excuses hollow. I’m just now starting to realize that I made a big mistake 6 months ago in my planning, one that I’ll be paying for over the next year. It sucks, but it’s also a learning experience. I messed up, I’m moving on and I’m learning from it. I’m improving, and I’ll be a better entrepreneur because of it.

My mentor pointed out this weekend that an idea I had was actually a cover for the fact that I didn’t want to deal with a tough stretch I’m going through. Rather than push through, I wanted to change and do something totally different. It sounds reasonable, but in reality was a way of disguising fear. On top of this fear lay the hundreds of decisions I have to make – some small, some critical – that could determine the success or failure of my startup. Something that’s really helped me overcome this fear is thinking about how in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Decisions that seem enormous right now will be trivial in 15 years. Realizing that in the end, if I come out of this startup experience a smarter, better person, it’s all worth it. Thinking like this certainly helps me get through some tough, stressful times, and challenges me to constantly improve.

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