The Entrepreneur Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question “What must every entrepreneur know about startup success?” is written by Brian Hamilton, founder and chairman of Sageworks.
About 10 to 15 years ago, when my sons were around 8 years old or so, I came home from work one day to see them gathered in our garage working arduously with a group of their young friends from the neighborhood. The group effort seemed to be directed toward building some kind of craft or boat. Hammers, nails, saws, screwdrivers, and other instruments capable of inflicting material bodily harm were strewn across the cement floor. The victim of their effort: a huge pile of assorted scrap wood. As I walked through the garage on that hot summer day, I noticed each child had a tool in hand while banging randomly—but with great focus—at the lumber. They were having a blast, and it lasted without break for hours.
I’ve often thought of that moment, and I’ve come to realize that this scenario embodies the true meaning of life, not just for 8 year olds and not just for the men and women who are graduating in the coming weeks from college or high school, but for everyone. To be actively engaged in doing something that is meaningful to you is the highest goal of life, or certainly of a professional life. Unfortunately, most of us rarely achieve this.
By the time we reach adulthood, there are many influences in our lives that affect our personal definition of happiness and what we think we should do for work. Some of these are socially acceptable, but nonetheless can force us into a gravitational and overwhelming pull to “settle.”
Just look at universities, for example. I believe they have become sort of employment agencies for young people, leading many of them to fall into a kind of trap of valuing the goals ascribed by groups of people and institutions who don’t know them and therefore cannot know what is good for them as individuals. These universities are recognized for how many of their students get jobs in the first year after graduation—no matter if the job is something the student really wanted. “Leading” universities often evaluate themselves on the basis of how many “cool jobs” their graduates land. I see this influence each year as I talk with many young people seeking employment. Their view is, “I got past the fifth interview at Goldman Sachs (GS); therefore, I am.” “Google just hired me; therefore, I am.” “I make $80,000 a year; therefore, I am.”
After a half century on earth, I have seen a lot of people who are “successful” working at “successful” companies and working “successfully,” but who don’t actually like what they do and who have lost meaning. Slowly, but surely, young people often drift away from passionately building a boat that could float them away from what Henry David Thoreau referred to as a life of quiet desperation. This really depresses me because, even though it’s obvious and should be easy to detect, I see it time and time again, and I see a lot of smart people make the mistake.
So, let’s move to the positive. What is a successful professional life, or a successful life, for that matter? I believe it is one where you’re happily employed doing something you love to do. Simple. The happiest people I know do what they love to do and extract whatever the market will pay them for it. I realize this is a naïve notion to some.
The best days of our lives should be during and right after college, when we dream about all of the things that are possible, and we are blissfully unaware of why they may not be achievable. Be on a quest. Search. Remember those kids in my garage. They were deliriously happy and engaged, working for hours in 90-degree weather without being fazed because they were passionate about what they were doing.