What is your business about—a valuable product or service or … you? History is full of successes of both kinds. What are the benefits and liabilities?
Purpose vs. Ego
Nearly every day, for at least a half hour, I listen to personal development or business-related podcasts or books. (I listen to audio books using the Audible app.)
Recently, I started listening to Mike Dillard’s Self Made Man podcast series, which is the No.1 self-help podcast on iTunes. Mike is a marketer and consultant from Texas who helps entrepreneurs recognize their potential and create the business, the wealth, and the world they want, “so that it matches their dreams,” as he says on his website.
An episode I recently listened to presented a conversation with marketing strategist and author Ryan Holiday, about the ideas that provided the motivation for his most recent book, Ego is the Enemy.
Mike and Ryan discussed conditions and situations that I’d witnessed but had never isolated as “a thing” or thought about very much—specifically, the struggle between establishing and running a business to carry out a purpose and doing it to gain personal recognition (ego).
What are the ramifications of purpose-driven business? Of ego-driven business? Why is the latter a greater liability for the business owner?
This is something that you, as a businessperson, may have already encountered and/or will have to routinely deal with and decide upon as your career progresses.
An Example of What I Mean
One of the best examples of the purpose vs. ego businessperson I’ve heard is Ryan and Mike’s comparison between two specific automakers.
John DeLorean was an engineer at General Motors (GM), starting in 1956. His most famous contributions were the designs for the 1964 Pontiac GTO—considered the first “muscle car”—and the Firebird. As he was promoted from engineer up the executive levels at GM, he developed a jet-setting lifestyle, befriending celebrities and other high-profile business people.
Disappointed with GM’s direction in the early seventies, he left in 1973 to start DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). The company’s only offering was the stainless steel-bodied DMC-12 (immortalized in the Back to the Future movie series), which, due to production delays, did not appear until 1981. The company produced 9,000 cars but only sold about 2,000 of them. It was a failure, which put the company $175 million in debt. DeLorean was later charged with cocaine trafficking. It was reported that he financed the purchase of 59 pounds of the powder with the intention of selling it to revive his failing company.
DeLorean named the company after himself. He was involved in day-to-day operations of DMC, which was reportedly chaotic. He was effective at marketing himself but not so much his product. In short, he chose to make it about him (ego) rather than about delivering a truly exciting car to the public. So, when the DeLorean car failed, it took the man with it.
Contrast this with Elon Musk, the chairman and CEO of Tesla Motors. Though Musk is mentioned in the news somewhat regularly in relation to Tesla or his other business ventures (SpaceX and SolarCity), what he is renowned for is his obsession with things that fascinate him; he is driven by things bigger than himself: space exploration, solar energy, and all-electric sports cars.
These are extreme ventures, not guaranteed moneymakers. It’s Musk’s obsession with the work of bringing these seemingly “insane” ideas to fruition that drives him. He could easily have named any of his company’s after himself. He could easily make headlines every day, if he wanted to. But his purpose is evidently not to promote Elon Musk; it’s about promoting better things for this planet and its people.
Consciously or unconsciously, all entrepreneurs make a choice in the beginning and they continue to have that choice put before them to make again and again throughout their careers.
In the prologue of Ego is the Enemy, Holiday notes that though there have been “obsessive visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image,” there have also been “individuals who fought their egos” and “put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.”
The choice is “to be” or “to do.”
When you decide to be, you become a title, such as “CEO” or “Founder” and you put the spotlight on yourself and your accomplishments. It’s mostly about taking credit, and very little about making a difference. You see this a lot in Hollywood with personalities like the Kardashians.
When you decide to do, you are too occupied with making a difference—creating your products, your marketing, your company, etc.—to give much thought to self-aggrandizement. Not to make it sound too dramatic, but you have a mission—a purpose that drives you. You might recognize that you only have so much time on this earth to get it done and so you don’t waste time with things as fleeting and superficial as fame.
The work—not the personality—takes top priority.
Are these things mutually exclusive? Probably not. Many entrepreneurs start with a purpose to do something meaningful. But that doesn’t mean they would turn away the publicity that an interview with The Wall Street Journal or Inc.com would bring their company.
It Can Sneak up on You
Sometimes, when you’ve begun to show what you’re capable of and begin to achieve success, offers begin to come in. People—other businesses perhaps—may want to buy your talent. They may want to put you in the service of their missions, which may be very different from your own.
I speak from experience when I say that the money can be very attractive and you may lose some sleep rolling some of these offers around in your mind at night.
In such instances, you’ve got to evaluate if getting involved with outside projects will benefit your purposes or merely take you away from them while benefiting others’ purposes. Realize that one good offer can lead to another and another until you’re doing nothing but selling your time to other people.
It’s a huge compliment to have your abilities acknowledged by offers of high-paying work. And though it seems innocent enough at the start, if you’re not disciplined and careful, it can put the fulfillment of your own purposes at risk.
Keep the End in Mind
There’s nothing wrong with going into business solely to make a pile of money. Plenty of people do it. Plenty of people also try to do it and fail. For some people, it’s difficult to sustain interest in getting up in the morning just to drive money into a bank account. Many entrepreneurs want more; they want to make a difference. They want to leave a legacy.
And that’s what you have to consider: what do you want to achieve? What mark do you want to leave on this world? What do you want to be remembered for?
It doesn’t necessarily have to completely alter life, as we know it for everyone on the planet. Maybe it’s to produce more aesthetic fashions or healthy, sustainable local food sources. Perhaps it’s to produce movies that give audiences’ understandings they didn’t have before, or producing products that help people achieve financial freedom (e.g. MOBE) so that they can live the way they want to.
If you look at the end, and always keep it in mind, it will be much easier to continue to make the choice to do, rather than to be.