You know how sometimes you mention some good fortune you have had, only for it to immediately turn once you say it out loud? That is how I felt recently when I told a friend how lucky I had been with swimming in the ocean for the past couple of years with only a single minor run-in with a Portuguese man o’ war to show for it. Sure enough, the next morning while out for my swim, my right arm and both feet got wrapped up in the 30-foot tentacles of one such man o’ war, and I had the marks (and pain) to prove it.
When I later recounted the story to another friend, he said, “I guess that’s the end of your ocean swimming.” I was perplexed. What did he mean? I went swimming later that same day and took my six-year-old daughter with me, and I have continued to swim in the ocean every single day since. Why in the world would I stop?
This difference in mindset and expectations made me realize some core differences between pool swimming and open water swimming that parallel closely with the differences between big corporate employment and entrepreneurship.
It is true that I have never seen a shark, been stung by a man o’ war or had the breath knocked out of me by a massive hurricane-propelled wave in a pool (all of which I have experienced in the ocean). It is also true that I have never seen a sea turtle, an eagle ray, countless parrot fish, a barracuda or other remarkable sea creatures while in a pool (all of which I see regularly when I swim in the ocean).
For some, the structure and certainty a pool or the corporate world provide are appealing because of the lack of chaos and disorder. There is a certain comfort in knowing ahead of time the cadence of quarterly earnings reporting and all that goes into it. One very successful colleague of mine when I was at McKinsey & Company described building a career at the firm as: “It’s an open book test.” To say the rules are clear isn’t to say the corporate world is any easier than the entrepreneurial path. It is just one that has been navigated before, and that has rules you can identify and understand going in.
For others, the lack of possibilities for something out of the ordinary makes the structure of the pool or the BigCo life unappealing. For these people, it isn’t about the fear of what might happen, but rather the excitement about what might happen! Yes, the fledgling startup might fail. And yes, it might also be the next Facebook, Amazon or Google. For these, never having to look back and question, “what if?” is far more important than looking at the possibilities in front of them with a glass-is-half-empty mindset and worrying, “what if…?”
Like almost all swimmers, at least in the U.S., I grew up as a pool swimmer. Inspired and motivated by the Olympics every four years, that was the goal, and for my entire competitive career, the only option to get there was in the pool. I imagined only what I could see, and all I ever saw on TV were pool swimmers.
However, while my truly competitive swimming days ended in 2003, it was not until 2008 that the International Olympic Committee made open water swimming an Olympic event. And while I was a member of the USA Open Water Swimming National Team at one point, I did not truly fall in love with open water swimming until my competitive days were long behind me and I developed a group of friends who all got together periodically to swim together in the ocean.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the same is true for entrepreneurship. Most people grow up in a household with parents who have trodden the more conventional path. Whether working for an established company or going into one of the traditional professions like medicine or law, there are far more people in the world working for other people than there are people creating new businesses capable of hiring others. This is why research finds that the children of entrepreneurs, adopted or biological, are more likely to become entrepreneurs themselves. Like with athletic talents, there are undoubtedly biological forces at work, but the research shows the role of environment, when it comes to entrepreneurship, is “twice as large as [biology].” Seeing really is a conduit to believing.
And perhaps all this leads to the question: Is it better to work for someone else or to strike out on your own? I would give you the same answer I would give to my daughter: You need to decide for yourself. Start by asking what you want, but don’t stop there. Next, and more importantly, you need to ask why you want that. Like children who follow in their corporate or entrepreneur parents’ footsteps, is the “why” behind your “what” just a product of what you have seen and who you are surrounded by, or is it something more core to you?
This is why I invest so much time in giving my daughter a taste of both worlds. This is why I help her build the skill set for each and acquire the comfort and confidence that she can navigate both successfully.
The reality is that life tends to be long enough that it doesn’t always have to be either/or. Sometimes we really can have both, even if not at the same time. The important thing is to make sure we know what we want, and just as importantly know why we want that. Without this knowledge, we are potentially just fulfilling someone else’s dream without ever even realizing what ours was to begin with.