Not often do I fully agree with or recommend a “life advice” article, but I do highly recommend the “Four Stages of Life” by Mark Manson. In fact, I think every entrepreneur should read it to put their entrepreneurial activities into perspective. The article forced me to ask myself why I am a serial entrepreneur and what my motivation is for starting new companies. Based on my experience so far, the intrinsic motivation of an entrepreneur is extremely important for the success of a new venture. After all, founding a company always depends on the entrepreneur to perform above and beyond expectations. In his article, Mark describes the four stages of life and how we define ourselves in relation to others. The stage a person is currently in has a direct impact on their entrepreneurial performance and the understanding of how a company should be managed and created by a motivated founder. It also provides insights for investors, employees and clients of newly started businesses. Basically all stakeholders can deduct basic motivation of entrepreneurs from this concept.
The author defined the stages of life as follows:
STAGE ONE: MIMICRY
We are born helpless. We can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t feed ourselves, can’t even do our own damn taxes… The goal of Stage One is to teach us how to function within society so that we can be autonomous, self-sufficient adults.
STAGE TWO: SELF-DISCOVERY
In Stage One, we learn to fit in with the people and culture around us. Stage Two is about learning what makes us different from the people and culture around us. Stage Two requires us to begin making decisions for ourselves, to test ourselves, and to understand ourselves and what makes us unique.
Another interesting component, which will hold some of us entrepreneurial types “stuck” in stage 2 is the will to accomplish all of our dreams:
„At some point we all must admit the inevitable: life is short, not all of our dreams can come true, so we should carefully pick and choose what we have the best shot at and commit to it.
But people stuck in Stage Two spend most of their time convincing themselves of the opposite. That they are limitless. That they can overcome all. That their life is that of non-stop growth and ascendance in the world, while everyone else can clearly see…“
In addition, the author makes a very important statement – it is more important to fully apprehend what you suck at than to fully understand (and be told by others) what you are good at. A successful entrepreneur has a deep understanding of his/her shortcomings and constantly questions decisions. Only our ability to self-reflect generates smart business decisions.
„Your limitations are important because you must eventually come to the realization that your time on this planet is limited and you should therefore spend it on things that matter most. That means realizing that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it. That means realizing that just because you like certain people doesn’t mean you should be with them. That means realizing that there are opportunity costs to everything and that you can’t have it all.“
Which leads us to stage three.
STAGE THREE: COMMITMENT
„Once you’ve pushed your own boundaries and either found your limitations (i.e., athletics, the culinary arts) or found the diminishing returns of certain activities (i.e., partying, video games, masturbation) then you are left with what’s both a) actually important to you, and b) what you’re not terrible at. Now it’s time to make your dent in the world.“
If you are an entrepreneur – have you fully gone through stage one and two? I agree with the author that now is the time to make your dent in the word. This will be reflected in the maturity and sustainability of your business ideas. If you are not in this stage yet, you might start yet another start-up weekend company with no sustainable business model nor a valid “raison d’aitre”. I am not saying that this is wrong or worthless, but might be an indicator you’re still in stage one or two. An important trade for all those who have transitioned to stage three is that they are “doubling down”!
„Then you double down on what you’re best at and what is best to you. You double down on the most important relationships in your life. You double down on a single mission in life, whether that’s to work on the world’s energy crisis or to be a bitching digital artist or to become an expert in brains or have a bunch of snotty, drooling children. Whatever it is, Stage Three is when you get it done.“
Moving on to stage four will likely result in a shift in your entrepreneurial activities. Why do very, very successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet give most of their wealth away? They want to create a legacy for themselves. Bill Gates surely does not want to be remembered for building a software that basically every user hates. He wants to be remembered for fighting hunger or eradicating polio disease from this planet. I can absolutely relate – wouldn’t we all rather be remembered for our service to humanity instead of a selfish service to your own wallet and family fortune.
STAGE FOUR: LEGACY
„People arrive into Stage Four having spent somewhere around half a century investing themselves in what they believed was meaningful and important. They did great things, worked hard, earned everything they have, maybe started a family or a charity or a political or cultural revolution or two, and now they’re done. They’ve reached the age where their energy and circumstances no longer allow them to pursue their purpose any further.“
Finally, I want to address the topic that resonated with me most: the value of trauma. It is easy to be a 20-something without a worry, never having felt the weight of losing a loved one, responsibility for others or the deep concern for a sick child. This phase of being a student or a young professional with little worry in the world – except on where to spend the next weekend bash is a luxury most of us only realize after it has passed.
In my experience, trauma can change lives and people’s perspectives severely: for example a good friend and entrepreneur who recently lost a loved one or went through an extended period of severe illness will generally come back from this experience and make significant changes in their private as well as business life. Generally, these entrepreneurs posses a significantly higher level of self-reflection. They understand that not all their actions will result in success and that business success is not about winning but about building something sustainable that goes beyond the contribution of a single individual.
„But the truth is that transitions between the life stages are usually triggered by trauma or an extreme negative event in one’s life. A near-death experience. A divorce. A failed friendship or a death of a loved one. Trauma causes us to step back and re-evaluate our deepest motivations and decisions. It allows us to reflect on whether our strategies to pursue happiness are actually working well or not.“
I actually believe that most strong leaders and sustainable entrepreneurs have been “tested” for their deepest motivations by some kind of trauma. Whenever we face misfortune or things do not work out the way we hoped, we are forced to re-gain strength and re-evaluate our lives. If we succeed, these traumas are what shapes and strengthens us, reaching much farther than success or the opinion of others.
Which ever stage you’re in, I recommend you read Mark’s article and reflect on your current stage and your own, personal motivations as an entrepreneur. It will encourage self-reflection and without that a successful and sustainable business cannot be created.