If only

“If only I had ____ I would succeed.”

These simple words will kill your dreams faster than anything else you could say or think. There are so many self-defeating thoughts that an entrepreneur can have, and they often take this very simple form.

While Garry takes it in the direction of getting your hands dirty and building, and the recent HN discussion talking about whether one should sell or not, reading these compels me to take it in a different direction this morning before work–I’d like to speak a little about mental blocks.

There were many reasons why you’d want to sell your company.  Your business deals with fads and the market will go away.  You’re done with this thing and want to move on.  But there is a bad reason I want to focus on:  “it’ll give me freedom to do what I want”.  I think when people say this, they mean two different things: 1) if I have lots of money to take care of life’s annoyances like bills and college tuition, then my mind will be free to work on anything 2) if I have lots of money, I can fund whatever I want to work on.  The latter, I find to be an unconvincing reason.

My dad is retired. He talks about starting a foundation to help education in Taiwan, and seems rather passionate about it.  He spends a lot of time watching and reading Taiwanese news.  Given a chance, he’ll talk your ear off about it.  However, he says, “if only I had a million dollars”, he could start his foundation.  And the way he usually thinks of getting the million dollars is through the lotto.  Now, my dad is no fool.  He knows the odds.  And I don’t know if it’s a generation gap in the way jokes are told, but if he’s serious, it’s a mental block that I see in some friends also.  It’s an excuse to do nothing because of the preceived notion that the external world hasn’t given you permission.

By contrast, a couple years back Oprah had some special on TV about a new school she was building in South Africa.  Though she put in a hefty sum, I was surprised to find out that she didn’t put in all the money herself.  She had other people help her with donations.  That’s why she had Nelson Mendela, Maria Carey, and others visit the school–to help donate.  Even when she could pay for it all herself, she enlisted other people to help. In a more recent example, Breadpig and xkcd joined forces to put a school in Laos.  They’re putting in the work, yes, but as far as I can tell, it’s none of their personal money. 

Just because something takes a million dollars to do, doesn’t mean it has to be your million. 

Perhaps this is obvious to some of you, but I was a little bit surprised when I realized this.  Growing up, I never thought about it too much, because in movies like Batman, Bruce Wayne funded his own crazy toys.  So I naturally assumed that if you want to do huge things, you do it all with your own money. As a kid, I thought:  If I wanted to build a Mechwarrior, I’d have to do it with my own money.  If I wanted to build a loop-de-loop highway, I’d have to do it with my own money.  If I wanted to build a giant chicken slingshot, I’d have to do with with my own money.

Of course, this comes with some amount of responsibility and constraint.  Pissing away other peoples’ millions is a sure way to get your legs broken, especially with money from a loan shark (or its million dollar equivalent).  But I believe constraint in business and philantropy, as constraint in design, is a good thing to focus your efforts.  Sometimes, personal money projects fail because they’re not as readily subjected to market forces.  A bad idea is kept afloat because there’s a huge chunk of personal money that keeps getting dumped into it.

In the end, I just want to say, you have a choice.  Don’t let a little thing like not having a couple million stop you from doing what you want to do, as there’s always more than one way to skin a cat.  But if you want to build a pyramid for your burial site, then yes, please do that with your own money.

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