A measure of success

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 26, 2010, 8:35 PM | comments: 0

I read with great interest Time's Person of the Year story on Mark Zuckerberg. A lot of people questioned whether or not he really deserves this attention, but I really think he does. He has, without question, managed to transform our culture by way of Facebook. I can't imagine it failing easily at this point due to its scope. It has changed the world.

Of course, there's also the part of me that is jealous and maybe a little bitter that I didn't think of it. I actually had a vision for a social network a year before Facebook launched at Harvard, but I had two fatal flaws in my idea: I wanted to charge for it, and I thought that long-form sharing between friends, i.e., blog posting, was what people really wanted. Status updates and pokes seemed impossibly stupid and shallow to me. So yeah, I was not headed for billionaire status. I was beyond wrong.

Which is OK, because that level of success has odds of a billion to one. Clearly, I needed a more realistic view of what success looks like, but to this day, I'm still not sure. I'm still surprisingly idealistic for being in my late 30's, and I cling to that because I truly believe that combined with life experience, you can lead a better life.

My modern interpretation of success comes in two flavors. There's the kind of success that you achieve in the context of someone else's rules, climbing a ladder and kicking as much ass as you can. I think this is the typical route that people associate with the American dream, the thing that "they" sold us growing up. The pro to this approach is that it's relatively safe. It comes with health insurance, and it's a steady routine. The downside is that it's crazy slow and it does have a bit of a ceiling to it that's hard to crack through. I think there's also some risk that it becomes more about the money than whether or not you enjoy the work, which for me at least would suck.

The other kind of success is the entrepreneurial variety. The biggest negative right off the bat is the risk. It's not stable, you need a good idea, you need the ability to execute, etc. Failure is entirely your own. But the positives are a sense of freedom, self-accountability first, doing what you like (if you're doing it right) and a genuine pride that you're serving yourself first.

Zuckerberg is the ultimate manifestation of entrepreneurial success. In the Internet age, I think we unfortunately associate that level, the massively huge dotcom or IPO, as success. Even as much as I've been drinking the 37signals Kool-Aid for a few years, my idea about what that success should look like has been ridiculous, and I think that's part of the reason I've never really pursued it at the level that I should. Realistic entrepreneurial success starts at $60k profit in a year, if you want to be realistic. That's not a lot of money.

Why am I thinking/blogging about this? Because I'm headed into the retrospective spirit that I fall into every new year. As my social and family situation has stabilized, I'm thinking more about what's important in terms of career and such. I'm starting to realize that I've really straddled the world of traditional work and entrepreneur work for years. I'm questioning how this arrangement has served me. Not questioning good or bad, just evaluating the level of work and commitment to each side relative to the reward, both financially and spiritually, if you will.


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