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The imperative of idealism


Conventional wisdom suggests that young people are idealistic — wide-eyed and bushy tailed  — because they haven’t experienced or learned the realities of life. But, as a long-time student of entrepreneurship, and former venture capital investor, I have found just the opposite is true for the most successful entrepreneurs. If you want to build a truly great company, you must preserve your idealism despite the enormous challenges and realities that life presents.

Consider Steve Jobs as a primary example. As documented in several books, including Walter Issacson’s tome “Steve Jobs” as well as the recently released Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s new book, “Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader,” it is clear that Jobs was far more motivated by putting ‘a dent in the universe’ than by money. Documentaries and reflections that feature Jobs’ co-workers consistently report that people put up with Jobs’ difficult personality because they believed they were part of something important, something that could and would change the world.

The best entrepreneurs are able to convincingly describe the company mission and raison d’être in a way that cascades out and inspires many stakeholders — from employees to potential partners to customers. That’s the power of idealism.

Think about it. Imagine a brand that inspires you, then ask why, and keep asking why until you get to the bottom of it, and you’ll likely find one thing: idealism. In the mid 1980s, Ed Catmull was a technologist running a hard drive company who dreamed of making the first full-length digitally animated film. That dream inspired John Lassetter, an animator who had been fired from Disney, to join on that journey. It would take a herculean effort, and the financial support and partnership from Steve Jobs, but we all know that company — Pixar — has revolutionized the film world.

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter. Credit: Pixar.

I’ve been lucky enough to come to know Catmull over the years, who is still president of Pixar and now also president of Disney Animation, and his idealism for building a great company, one that is truly built to last, still burns.

More recently, a generation of innovators starting with Mark Zuckerberg have kept very clear about their mission through various stages of company building. Say what you will about Zuckerberg, but his heart is pure for Facebook’s mission of connecting the world. People who work at Facebook understand Mark’s passion extremely well, even if they only come into contact with him once or twice a year.

That’s really, really powerful.

Start with why

I’m a fan of the concept of starting with why, popularized by Simon Sinek in his book “Start with Why.” Ask yourself why you are doing what you’re doing and keep asking that until you get to the core of your own idealism. If it’s just money, you may build something with others who share a similar goal, but you’ll never build anything lasting.

If you’re still searching for your why and deeper ideals, rest assured, that’s true for many, and that you’ll find it if you just keep asking.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked closely with Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a company with a mission to empower young girls to learn engineering and creativity skills, and invested myself. Although the company is only three years old, I’ve been blown away by how the power of GoldieBlox’s mission has touched so many people: everyone from John Legend’s co-manager, to heads of companies such as Toys R Us who wanted to bring the products in, to countless parents, to other investors in the company just believe. It’s hard to quantify that brand equity, but GoldieBlox is growing like a weed and on fire right now.

It all starts with Debbie, and her deep conviction, something she talks about and exudes countless times a day.

But, like all of us, she had to discover her idealism and why. After working as a brand strategist, she attended periodic breakfasts with friends to discuss start up ideas, and when one day they talked about a company that could empower young girls to develop engineering and creativity skills, Debbie felt as if she were struck by a lightening bolt. She knew she had to pursue the problem and idea.

That’s idealism. I could go on and on, and discuss other fields where the same principles apply, such as politics, but you get the point.

All of this is to say: cherish your idealism. Yes, to be a great entrepreneur, you must be pragmatic and savvy and realistic, but if you lose your idealism and your reason for being, you won’t have anything. Find your idealism. Live it. Make a contribution that will last longer than you. The world needs you.