Do you need to start a company?

Years ago, I faced a choice between staying in a UCLA PhD program, doing something else, or pursuing a screenwriting career. While I didn’t see a future for myself in academia, screenwriting was a high-risk choice, especially relative to my other options. Gathering data that would help me decide, I read as much as I could. And in my reading, I came across a David Mamet quote that’s stuck with me since. When it comes to writing for a living, Mamet said,

“If you can do anything else, you will. Writing’s too hard to do unless you have to.”

He’s right, by the way. If you just like the idea or the glamour (ha!) or the autonomy — if you just want to write and you don’t have to write, you will find something else to do. Writing’s just too hard.

The same is true of founding a company.

As Steve Blank puts it,

“Entrepreneurship, particularly if you’re a founder, is a calling, not a job…The problem today is that it’s cool and trendy, so you think you should do it. Entrepreneurship is for crazy people, much like an artist…It’s something that you can’t get rid of. It’s inside of you, dying to get out.

Figuratively. Not literally, like this. (Cue the Mel Brooks reference.)

How entrepreneurs feel — “Check please!”

If you think you should (not must) do something entrepreneurial, stop now and go to law school or do something similarly low-risk.

If you think you have to start a company, read on.

Are you delusional?

How do you know if you really need to start a company or just want to? How do you know, as Blank says, if something is “dying to get out?”

The need vs want question isn’t easy to answer. It’s not easy to answer because we humans have a formidable capacity for self-delusion. This capacity obscures our real needs from us.

I faced that exact challenge when evaluating my relationship with writing. I loved writing. But did I need to write? I stuck with it for a long time and through many brutal experiences. By any measure, I was committed. Did that mean I needed to do it? At the time, I told myself that I did.

Yet I eventually concluded that I had merely convinced myself that I needed to be a writer. I deluded myself into thinking I needed to because I wanted to. Deep down, I knew all along that there were other things I could do given my talents. I just pretended they weren’t options.

Only after starting a business (another creative pursuit) during a break from writing was I able to admit that I didn’t need to write for a living.

How do you know if you need to start a company?

So how do you really know? Having been through the experience of self-delusion, I can offer a few insights into identifying the difference between “needing to” and “wanting to” start a business, drawing from examples of other entrepreneurs.

No Other Options

When South Korean entrepreneur Thai Lee graduated from Amherst College, she did a self-evaluation of her own strengths and weaknesses. Doing so, she reached an extraordinary conclusion. As she told Amherst Magazine, “I concluded I could only be successful running my own company.” Let that sink in. As a college graduate, she genuinely believed she would fail in life if she did not start her own business. Unlike me, she harbored no secret knowledge that she had other options.

Did you feel that way at age 22? Do you feel that way now?

The Mike Myers Syndrome

Mike Myers, the former SNL and Wayne’s World actor, was driving his wife crazy playing an obnoxious character around the house. One day, she grew so fed up with him that she told him he had to either shut up or go make a movie about the character. That’s how the world got Austin Powers. (Depending on your tastes, you can either thank or blame his wife.)

No stairway to heaven

What’s the takeaway? If you’re so obsessed with something that your partner demands that you either shut up or go realize your dream, you’re pretty damn obsessed. You’ve likely crossed the line from want to need. And yes, you are mental.

Job = Prison

A now famous entrepreneur spent 6 years teaching in the early 1990’s. In describing his experience, the entrepreneur likened his time as a teacher to a prison sentence. Here’s the truth. Being a teacher is nothing like being a prisoner. (I speak from experience, having taught for several years at UCLA.) While under-compensated and under-appreciated, many professions suffer more than our educators.

But Jack Ma — founder of Alibaba, felt like he was in prison. I’m guessing he would’ve felt that way about any job that didn’t involve running his own company. (Note that this is different from being miserable in your job, even if you sometimes feel like Milton from Office Space.)

Don’t touch the man’s stapler

Choose and Learn

All of the examples I listed share a common theme. The creators in them found working for someone else and not creating something of their own intolerable.

Is that how you feel? Do you feel that you’re dying to create a business and that if you don’t, you will either go crazy or drive someone else crazy? If not, you don’t need to start a business. So stop “shoulding” on yourself, relax, and enjoy your life.

For those of us who are the crazy ones, there’s no foolproof way to guard against self-delusion. All we can do is try, learn, and try again.

After all, it’s not like we have a choice.