The Best Advice I Ever Got

Credit: Jonas Vertuyft

Over the course of my career, both as an entrepreneur and corporate professional, I’ve gotten a lot of advice from people of all walks of life. Most of it is useless, a lot of it common sense. Tons of theory. Occasionally practical. And several just outright bad (I would know because I took them all at one point!).

But once in a blue moon, you get a good one. And this one, I got from the best of the best mentors I’ve ever had during some of my hardest times:

“It’s ok to be misunderstood.”

Sometimes, we are going to do things that make no sense to anyone else at the moment. And you have to learn to be ok with that because you’re working towards a really big or long term goal. Everything before that is just intermediate steps. Viewed in isolation, your actions or endeavors don’t compute for anyone else, because they can’t envision the overall context or the big picture.

When People Call You Crazy — Or Worse
In 2008, I graduated from Duke University with full honors and had a nice job lined up at a blue chip tech company. Even without considering the impending recession, I had something enviable. So, when a few friends and I flew off to China to pursue our own business everyone thought we had lost our minds.

If I had started with the conclusion and told you that I made a multi-million dollar exit, you’d say, “How admirable and brave — flying to a foreign place and betting all your hopes, money, and reputation!” Blah blah blah. That’s because it turned out ok and you’re hearing the story backwards.

But that’s not how the world works. Time doesn’t flow in reverse, and at the moment, when we had announced our plans, everyone — family, friends, professors, colleagues — said we were insane. Some were more vocal than others, but everyone was thinking it.

It’s easier for folks around you to label you as crazy, foolish, naive, misguided, or whatever suits their needs. Notice that I said “their needs.” That’s because it has nothing to do with you. People have a hard time digesting anything they can’t understand. So, to justify their mental construct of the world and its inhabitants, they need to fill that unknown or indiscernible gap with a placeholder to make the equations balance. And sometimes, their default remedy is to dismiss someone or something they don’t understand altogether: “That guy is so dumb!” or “She’s totally insane!”

How to do BIG THINGS
If you want to do something big — as in important to you, and not literally the size or scope — then you need to stick to your guns. It’s like that adage… or whatever … “Sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward.”

And it’s that backwards step, that really seems to make no sense to anyone else except you. You have to give up something in a world where people have grown accustomed to progress or a delusional entitlement to advancement: You put in your years and suddenly you get to where you need to be. Last time I checked, the only system that worked like that was K-12 education.

When I went to start my first company, people couldn’t understand why because all they saw were: 1) 2008 recession, 2) throwing away a good job opportunity and stable income, 3) probabilities of failure, 4) lack of entrepreneurial experience, 5) lack of life experience, 6) lack of resources. I knew about those things. I didn’t need a reminder of all the negative outcomes and challenges ahead. I needed to focus on goals, the future, solutions, and the dream of winning. That’s what I saw.

Then, after selling my startup(s), I decided to go to pursue an MBA. And when I was in school a lot of my classmates would ask me — What are you doing here? You’re such a hot shot, you don’t need business school! Did you come here just to party? (Note: no, because HBS is a pretty lame party school with a lot of posers). Their tones of mockery and disbelief are reflections of how closed-minded they were — that business school is a stepping stone and only for people that fit a pre-defined caricature of their creation.

And then after attaining my MBA, people frequently asked: why don’t you just start another company? Why go into corporate? Or why come back to corporate if you’ve already launched, managed, and sold your own company? What do you need money for? Just go sit on a beach and sip a cold beer! Go buy a nice big house! Pop some Lambos in that garage! Go collect art.

The problem with these questions is that they are asked only from the perspective of the inquirer. It reveals more about them than it does about you. It demonstrates their bias, their narrow perspective, their preoccupation with money, or that life’s only goal is to sit somewhere on a tropical island with a big mansion. They’ve been staring at too many Hollywood posters and cliches.

The Questions Un-asked
After you’ve sold a company, not a lot changes about you. If you were interested in money before, you will be interested in money afterwards. If you were interested in learning before, you will still be interested in learning afterwards. If you didn’t care about buying stuff before, you still won’t. If you wanted to buy big houses and cars (but didn’t because you didn’t have the resources at the time), the only difference is that afterwards you can go do that. But the innate desires or proclivities never changed. Get my drift?

And this idea that you still want to learn — either by going back to school or going to work for a corporate — is often difficult for people accept, just because you’ve started and sold a company. For some reason, they have a “I’ve made it!” attitude, and that suddenly because I’ve come into some wealth or success, that I no longer have the desire to have new adventures and experiences, even if they seem mundane. Where is this mysterious rule book that says — once you’ve done X, you no longer need to, or should want to do Y?

There’s No Time (or Need) to Explain Everything (or Anything) to Anyone
There’s really not enough time in a day to explain your actions or decisions to others. It’s your life. Do what you want. You don’t owe it to anyone to justify anything. So if you’re misunderstood for whatever X reason, just live with it. What do you care that people say you’re ridiculous, or crazy, or senseless? What people call you is a reflection of them, not you.

It’s ok to be misunderstood by others. It really is.