During my time at University Venture Fund and Highway 12 Ventures over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with many highly successful entrepreneurs and investors. I’ve always been fascinated by the common threads that bind successful people and one story in particular on the subject.
Chris Gardner’s life was portrayed in the film Pursuit of Happyness. He never knew his father. His childhood was draped in poverty and scarred by domestic violence, alcoholism and sexual abuse, all while being shoved from one foster home to another. As a 27-year-old new father and struggling salesman, he discovered his passion for finance and embarked on a mission to join the elite of Wall Street. Bearing no credentials (not even a college degree) he eventually pried his way into an internship with a premier San Francisco brokerage firm.
With no savings or family to lean on, he spent the next year homeless—his two-year-old son on his back almost the entire time. He worked harder, longer than his cohorts. He bunked in shelter homes, under his desk and even in subway restrooms. He miraculously landed a full-time offer, and five years later he founded his own brokerage firm. Today he has an estimated net worth of $50 million.
I’m not sure there are many stories that better illustrate how drive can triumph even the most insurmountable odds. An Ivy League pedigree and God-given genius are mere additive, not required, ingredients to success. Drive is manifest by sacrifice; it’s the translation of thought into action, regardless how inconvenient.
Through my observations during the last few years, I’ve come to believe that drive is the great equalizer. I echo Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, in asserting that intelligence has a threshold. Just as height in basketball has only marginal benefit after a certain point, I believe it’s the same with intelligence. I think intelligence is more than mere data regurgitation, it’s using past experiences to infer course corrections and avoid pitfalls. From my perspective, once a person becomes generally intelligent, whether boasting a doctorate degree or a high school diploma, it’s a level playing field.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that being smart and naturally talented isn’t part of the success equation. But I do think that “lack of desire” is often mislabeled “lack of talent.” I’m simply a believer that there are rarely external constraints preventing us from reaching our aspirations. Rather, these constraints are typically excuses that we fabricate to complacently remain in mediocrity.
While I’m not saying everyone should just run away chasing dreams, I do find it ironic that those who know deep down that they are driven often need no outside stimulant. Handed a how-to-guide or not, they’ll find a way to achieve whatever their passion implores. Granted, although they may be insatiably driven, I think almost every person can attribute much of their accomplishments to mentors and co-pilots that helped them successfully navigate the journey.
I do think drive is something that can be cultivated and improved, but I find it interesting that the drive of the most successful people I know is rooted in their passion, it’s not forced. Some people’s passions may be broader than others, but the fact is, if what we’re doing isn’t somehow rooted in our passion, then we’re swimming upstream. We’re leaving untapped our richest deposit of drive, and what’s more, it replenishes organically.
I can’t think of many things that rival the importance of a person discovering his passion, and then aligning his life with that passion. Tim Ferris, a TechStars mentor and author of The 4-Hour Work Week, has an interesting thought on discovering one’s passion, “What would you do if there were no way you could fail? If you were 10 times smarter than the rest of the world? If you had unlimited money?” I’ve noticed that if my response to such questions doesn’t elicit raised eyebrows and borderline ridicule, then I’m likely not being honest with myself.
But this isn’t to say that everyone reacts that way. In fact, the most successful people I know have typically responded with encouragement, despite my audacious aspirations. I’ve found that more often than not, they once stood in my shoes. Relatively few are natural geniuses or boast Ivy degrees, and even fewer were born into wealth, but they’ve all accomplished incredible feats. It seems the more time I’ve spent with these individuals, the more I’ve felt a vibe from them that basically says, “you can do it, you’re not all that different from me… if I did it, so can you.” I’ll be the first to interject that this isn’t always the case, but I’ve found that those who realize their accomplishments are both a weave of merit and luck seem to radiate this sentiment.
I think at some point, after preparing and evaluating potential risks, and amidst the pessimistic scoffs, you just have to take that step into the unknown and follow your passion.
Maybe there is a certain hereditary gene required after all; but I don’t think it’s genius, I think it’s drive.
Tap your passion.