Over the weekend we took part in the Thiel Foundation 20 under 20 Summit in San Francisco. It was an energizing event, full of incredibly bright young people with massive ideas and the will to pursue them. Here are my three big take-aways:
1) Whatever you’re thinking, don’t be afraid to think bigger. It’s one thing to run into people who say they want to be a millionaire, or help people in the third world, or create a mobile app. It’s another to meet people who say they want to cure aging, use virtual reality to reprogram emotional and cognitive weaknesses, and make space travel an everyday thing. That’s the kind of fearless vision we ran into in this crowd of 300 young people. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in a crowd where it’s almost impossible to say something too outrageous or unrealistic. A good take-away is to put yourself in such settings frequently. If you can’t do it in person, find online communities of big thinkers. If you don’t, your sense of what’s possible will probably keep shrinking. Make it expand.
2) If you made a word-cloud of the advice given by every keynote speaker and successful entrepreneur at the event, the most prominent would be things like, “Meditate”, “Exercise daily”, “Dance.”, “Do Yoga.”, “Make strong bonds of friendship”, “Break away and go your own way”, “Move to a new city”, “Take time to think”. It’s a little surprising to hear Luke Nosek, co-founder of Paypal and partner at Founders Fund say that dancing was a crucial element to his success, but upon reflection maybe it’s not so surprising. The common thread among all these diverse entrepreneurs with different personalities and products was essentially, focus on what you can improve internally. Focus on you. The activities listed above are all about getting to know yourself, what you need, and making sure you get it. You’ll have a hard time raising venture capital or building customers if you let your greatest asset – you – fail into disrepair.
3) Despite the importance of thinking big and cultivating your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being, I was a little surprised by what was not mentioned much at the event. Hard work. Grit. Reliability. Discipline. Drive. Professionalism. Perhaps it is assumed that any kind of entrepreneurial success requires these, and it goes with out saying. In my experience though, too few young people know this. I’ve met many who are brilliant and unafraid to dream big. I’ve met few who respond to an email in a timely, professional fashion, who do what they said they’d do when they said they’d do it, who figure things out and make sure to get it right, who go the extra mile, who build social capital by going out of their way to be helpful to others.
I’ve often said the only real regret I have is that I didn’t realize sooner what was possible. I limited myself and never knew I could go where I wanted and do what I wanted. I grew up in the Midwest, surrounded by mostly honest, hard-working, blue-collar business owners and small entrepreneurs. It’s a culture where talk of space travel or the 3D printing of human organs doesn’t really occur. It’s taken me a long time to learn to think bigger, something the Silicon Valley crowd is amazing at. Yet every time I attend an event like this, I can’t help but think the up and coming San Francisco scene could also learn something from those humble Midwesterners. The need for and value of the unglamorous grind.
At every conference on entrepreneurship you’ll meet the conference junkies. The forever wantrepreneurs who are full of ideas and have met all kinds of big players and networked their way to an impressive stack of business cards. Maybe they’re working on a startup or three. They live in the right place and have all the trappings they think it takes to be an entrepreneur, but they fail to do the most crucial part. Hard, sometimes boring work, and the ability to see something through to completion. You can exercise every day and dream big every night, but until you roll up your sleeves and manifest your potential, it’s just that.
I think every one of the speakers and successful entrepreneurs who attended the event know this. I’m not sure why it was not emphasized much during their talks. Possibly because they are so accustomed to doing hard work they assume that’s a trait shared by everyone there. I wish it were, but as I said, I’ve met so many brilliant young people who fail or miss big opportunities because of things as small as lack of punctuality.
Don’t laugh at any idea, no matter how wild and crazy. Dream big. Don’t overlook your own well-being. Regularly engage in activities to keep you relaxed, clear-headed, and stable. And never forget to just get **it done.