“What you see is all there is.”
In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes this cognitive phenomenon. The idea is that we fail to account for the things we don’t know, even when we *know* that we’re only seeing a small piece of the bigger picture. One consequence of this shortcoming is that we tend to place undue weight on the representativeness of our own experiences, leading us to believe that our problems are everyone’s.
Unfortunately, if you’re a student at an Ivy League college in Manhattan, chances are your problems are not representative at all. I realize that Paul Graham tells people to build companies that scratch a personal itch, but here’s the thing: To a venture capitalist, the things that make you itch right now just aren’t all that interesting. In all likelihood, they’re not very lucrative either. Sure, maybe you’ll follow in the footsteps of Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Levie, Drew Houston, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs—but odds are, you won’t. And we’re not talking 100:1 here, we’re talking odds so long that they are effectively zero. Mathematically speaking, you’re better off playing the lottery.
Entrepreneurial success is not formulaic and neither is it completely elusive. But you’ve only got one chance to make this life count and some advice can take you a long way.
Go work for a company that makes lots of money—companies that make money are almost by definition solving problems that people care enough to spend money on. If you want to become a social entrepreneur, substitute “impact” for “money”—the song remains the same.
Spend your days figuring out what traits you admire in your co-workers—this information will prove essential when the time comes to build your own team. Cultivate a network, within your company and without. No founder has ever built a startup without help.
Gather feedback, positive and negative, from co-workers whose judgment you trust. You have to understand your weaknesses if you ever hope to overcome them. In the same vein, spend weekends trading notes with your more entrepreneurial-minded friends—see whose notes you listen to and whose you ignore.
Save as much money as you can—trust me, you’ll need the cushion. There’s something poetic in the image of the young founder living on Ramen noodles and credit cards, testing and iterating his way to success. In reality, starvation and seclusion are both counterproductive and stupid. More than effort, startups require insight, and insight is built on a foundation of knowledge.
And therein lies the problem: Without real world experience, all you know is what you’ve read and what you’ve heard, and the world’s a whole lot bigger than that. So go out there, and grow your world. If what you see is all there is, then your best option is to keep looking for more. Soon enough, you’ll find an itch worth scratching. For those who truly want to be founders, it’s only a matter of time.
The author is an assistant instructor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science who is co-teaching Managing Technological Innovation & Entrepreneurship this semester.
This article is part of a series reflecting on Columbia's start-up week, and the relationship between entrepreneurship and students on campus and beyond.
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