The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma
I sat in the car, waiting for my next appointment. I was about to meet with two CEOs back-to-back. My bag was filled with literature for my start-up. And I was ready to take the stage.
That’s what it feels like, becoming an entrepreneur. Taking the stage. After months of work, day and night, you put yourself out there to sink or swim. You believe in your idea whole-heartedly, almost to the point of being surprised that others don’t see as you do. But in the midst of the risk, the excitement, a temptation can worm its way into our hearts: I am my idea.
Several months ago, I remember speaking with a pastor in Boulder who works with young tech entrepreneurs. The temptation for entrepreneurs is to so wholly identify with their new start-up that their soul becomes bound up with the new venture’s success. This is the entrepreneur’s dilemma.
Usually one of two things happen: (1) We are successful. We get the venture capital, our insane hours produce a killer product that takes off. The cash begins to pour in. We believe those who reverently call us “founder,” and soon we begin to whisper to ourselves, “Look what I have done.” And pride begins its cancerous growth. Or, conversely, (2) We fail. Either we get the venture capital and the product flops, or the idea never takes off at all. And because our identity has become so tied in with our logo, our website, the global impact we had envisioned, when the business crumbles, so do we. This failure can lead to caverns of isolation, despair, or a simmering cynicism that bubbles over into subtle anger toward the world who couldn’t see our “true genius.”
Being an entrepreneur myself, I have acutely felt both of these temptations – pride and fear, desire for glory and the specter of failure. But as I sat in the car that day, waiting for my two appointments, I turned on the radio. A song came on, and as I was listening to it, it was if I was experiencing a small taste of a Beauty so much larger and more soul-delighting than a mere song. As I offered a quiet prayer before my appointments with the two CEOs, all of a sudden I felt a rush of emotion. I felt point to a Beauty beyond me, a Beauty so rich, so filled with life, that I remember thinking: He is my great treasure, my eternal song, and he is mine, all mine. He can never be taken from me.
As I grabbed my bag, got up from my seat and shut my car door, I remembered a quote from C.S. Lewis: “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.” That is, the Christian with wealth, power, prestige, pleasure – “everything” – has no more than the Christian with none of those things.
As both my pride and my fear began to melt away, I came to see what I wish all entrepreneurs could see: Christ himself is already the highest treasure and sweetest gift. So, if I succeed, and I can build my new venture to mythic proportions, I will have no more than what I have now. I can be no wealthier, and have no more enduring happiness than here, in this moment. And if I fail, and all my plans come crashing down, I will still have all the riches of heaven, for they are a gift that cannot be taken from me. As St. Patrick said, “Thou and Thou only, first in my heart, High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.”
It’s here that the Christian faith is the truest and best support for both entrepreneurs and economic development in general. The Christian faith is based solely on God’s gift of grace. And when risk-taking entrepreneurs bring His grace into their hearts, they neither ruin themselves nor others by their new enterprises, because they become neither prideful CEOs or despairing “failures.” Instead, they are liberated to both risk everything and, ironically, nothing at all, for their greatest treasure is secure.
On a societal level, I believe Christians have the best reason of all to take big risks. Secular humanism means the risks are real and failure can crush the human person with no reference point beyond him or herself. And it can often lead to Founder’s Blues, an all too common emotional roller coaster that can swell egos but also can lead to suicidal bouts of depression. But for the Christian, to win all or to lose all are both minuscule in comparison to the unsurpassed gift of God himself.
It’s been noted that entrepreneurs are the fuel of the modern economy. What risk. What reward. What responsibility to fuel our modern way of life. But I’ve come to believe that it’s only in the Christian story that an entrepreneur can truly answer take risks without damaging his very soul and ultimately those around him – for in Christ, he already has his great reward.
It is with this confidence that I walked into those corporate offices that day. But the confidence was certainly not in my own ability. But it was with a deep sense of peace that offering my idea was not the same as offering myself. I could confidently share my business plan, and our future prospects, and not try to wrangle him for money or support. Instead, I held my idea loosely, with a balance of eager expectation and an openness to a future that is ultimately in the hands of the One who gave me this idea in the first place.
If I had just thirty seconds with every entrepreneur, I would share with him this mystery. I would give him a soul-filling reason to work, to risk, to build a new business. I would tell him: “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.”