Over the past few years, I've had the pleasure of giving many presentations to high school and college students. Every time I've given these talks there's always a teacher or faculty member in attendance who at some point asks me to share some general advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. That's a hard question to answer without sounding breathtakingly obvious, but it has caused me to think a lot about that question. Ultimately, I've decided that the most relevant and generalizable piece of advice I can give to people is to notice what excites you.
I know, not exactly Aristotelian, but I actually think we're not by and large programmed to notice our ideas and inspirations as they pass us by. We're actually programmed to do quite the opposite. We're trained to pick a goal from a set of pre-defined options and then avoid distractions that might divert us from that goal. We learn how to follow curricula, prepare for tests, choose and complete majors, apply for jobs, climb professional ladders, etc. -- the better we are at following the trail, the more rewarding the trail becomes. And that's fine. That's a very good way of life. But this mode is so intrinsic that we're not really even aware that we're doing it and I think we miss opportunities to take a shot at something that might be a more natural fit for us -- something not on the menu.
The decision to chase after an alternative inspiration actually requires a substantial mental shift. And I think that step is perhaps the biggest hurdle to becoming an entrepreneur -- noticing the inspiration and believing in it.
I think virtually every great entrepreneur has had at least one moment in their lives where they have had to go left when everyone else is going right; when they had a notion of an alternative path, and had the confidence to believe in it. That's innovation -- noticing a different way and following it. What if that window wiper didn't have to be continuous? What if I played the guitar upside down and left-handed? What if I could reload lead in this pencil? I would wager that just about everyone experiences this at a least a few times in their life -- the difference is they don't follow it.
So the next time you're daydreaming in organic chemistry (like I did), and your mind starts drifting back to the idea you had a few days ago about a better way to recycle batteries, stay with it. Actually, get up and leave the classroom. Better yet, ask that guy a few rows back who seems to really get chemistry to ditch and grab some coffee. Who knows, maybe faculty will be asking you two to share your words of wisdom with their college students five years later...