Why Did You Start Your Business?

by | Mar 8, 2020

There’s a lot to unpack in David Foster Wallace’s This is Water, of which there’s a book version you can buy or just read or listen to at Farnam Street. Of all of it this section really struck me:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

He calls it worshipping, but but another way to understand it is as motives, understanding what drives the choices that you make. Why did you buy the car you bought? Because it was the safest? The cheapest? The most reliable? Or because it was going to score the most looks and compliments?

Why do go to the types of bars you go to? If you’ve been going for awhile by now it’s probably “because you like them” but what first attracted you to them? Because they serve the drinks you like? Or the music? Or the volume of the music? Or that the people seem to look and dress like you?

Which gets us to your business and why you started it. Because it would help a lot of people? Because it would make a lot of money? Because you think you can do it better than anyone else? To work when you want or how you want?

Wallace is saying the wrong motive will eat you. But more importantly, he’s saying that awareness of those motives is what’s key. Profit being your primary motive in starting a business doesn’t make you a bad person. But don’t convince yourself you’re in it for freedom to spend time with your family. Or worse, some benefit to society. You end up setting up your business the wrong way and piss a lot of people off in the process.

This is not a diatribe about fake people who pretend to care about good work in the pursuit of profit. Like an investment banker claiming their recommendations are in the best interest of their clients while only recommending the funds that get them the highest commissions. In reality, they’re probably the most self aware of all and need different advice altogether.

This is about being fully aware of your motives and/or truthful to yourself about what will make you happy. As I talked about in my Reflections post, I thought my motives for starting a business were a nice relaxing lifestyle. Didn’t take too long to realize I’d be bored as hell and I’m not going to take up woodworking or gardening. I hate house projects. I love figuring out how to grow business’s for people I like. I’m not sure the passive income lifestyle is for me. If it gets passive I’ll end up getting antsy and creating a more aggressive one. I know this now. I didn’t when I planned and started the business.

What I regret is making decisions about the set up of my business (legal and operational) that were designed around a lifestyle business rather than a growth business. I have a Solo 401(k). If you don’t know what that is, read the first sentence and you’ll understand the problem with this. It isn’t the end of the world, but I’m going to waste time and money fixing this at some point. Potentially the worse scenario is going all in, only to find out being your own boss is terrifying and the reliable paycheck and the 9-5 hours are more your speed.

What I realize looking back now is that my initial motivations for starting a business were reactions to my current and past environments rather than true reflections of what would make me happy. It was like one of those Magic Eye pictures that you had to go cross-eyed to see the hidden 3D image underneath. My current experience very noisily obscured what I was really wanted.

But the truth was always there. Nothing really changed other than my environment. Then those false narratives dissipated and it was just me, with a blank screen observing what I’d do with it.

The question is how do you get here before making the leap, and potentially burning bridges and opportunities? The truth is this is somewhat individual to your scenario, and everyone’s journey is different. Three ideas to start:

1. Second Order Thinking – This is a mental model designed to help you think beyond the immediate consequences of your actions. The operative question is “And then what?” What are you going to do with the extra time from this “lifestyle business”? What result will “doing things differently” have on your profits, growth and customers?
Related example: There was a time where I thought investing in rental properties would be cool (as we all do right?). Then I bought a house, realized everything breaks all the time, and that I hate fixing things. That took care of that idea.

2. Create A Business Plan – You’re going to groan at this. I know, you’re not looking for a Series A investment. No one is going to see this but you, and so it doesn’t have to be perfect. The point is the exercise of establishing the point of your business, mapping out it’s structure, what it will need to get to where you want it go. Asking yourself these questions, writing down the answers, reading them back to yourself will reveal truths you may not know were there. They’ll force you to face some tough challenges you can solve mentally before they put you in a bind and cause issues physically. It doesn’t HAVE to be a business plan (the E-Myth Revisited offers some alternatives) but a business plan is the most obvious answer because this is basically why they exist and are so widely used.

3. Ask People You Love and Respect – Many times the people closest to us can see us better than we can see ourselves. Ask them what they think makes you happy. Tell them your plans and see what questions they ask. You’re not there to convince them, you’re there to observe what they observe about you and your ideas. It will help clarify things. This also fulfills the requirement of informing those of your plan that it will most affect.

I’d love feedback, or personal examples of your own experiences with this, so feel free to message me on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or pick up the phone.

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