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Pandora founder: The most important career lesson I learned in college

Tim Westergren, founder of PandoraTim Westergren, founder of Pandora
Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?” is by Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora.

I was a senior in college, when unbeknownst to me, I decided to become an entrepreneur. It wasn’t that I started a company, rather I followed an unusual impulse that sent me down that fork in the road. You’ll have to bear with me as I tell the story.

I took a class focused on organizational leadership taught by an extraordinary professor named James March. Although on the surface it was a classic course on organizational behavior and decision-making, in hindsight, I think it was more of a vehicle for Professor March to impart his philosophy on how to live life, and to provide an alternative perspective to consider. His philosophy was relatively straightforward: do something because it matters to you (or in his words, “because it’s beautiful”), not because of the reward or external validation it will bring. He brought this philosophy to life through an examination of some classic figures in literature, such as Don Quixote and Joan of Arc to name a few, but all were contrarians who were ultimately rejected, ridiculed, even burned alive by their peers, for pursuing unorthodox paths.

The final for the class, which accounted for a majority of my final grade, was a series of short essay questions based on the assigned reading. In the spirit of these characters’ rebellion, and feeling inspired by Professor March, I completely ignored the final exam instructions and wrote one long essay about living life because it has meaning for you, which I titled “Heresy.” It was my shining moment of intellectual freedom. I basked in the profound joy of my philosophical manifesto until I came back from Spring break to discover the “D-” on my transcript.

With tears running down my face, I bee-lined to Professor March’s office, feeling my grand moment of individuality dying under the crushing weight of the institution. He sat me down, put a knowing arm around me, and explained that proud as he was of my act, the best way he could think to honor it was to respond in a manner dictated by the institution, whose test I had clearly failed–hence the F, which averaged up to a D-. As he rightly pointed out, I wasn’t doing it for the grade. I was doing it for the meaning it had for me and to give me a good grade would have defeated the point. So, to this day I proudly carry a D- in organizational leadership on my college transcript–a transcript I have never used.

So what’s the point? Entrepreneurship is a fundamentally quixotic adventure. If you’re doing it for the outside reward it will bring you, be forewarned: you will mostly likely get burned at the stake. Sustaining your commitment to something in the face of ridicule and doubt is the greatest challenge in doing something out of the ordinary–and let’s face it, starting your own business, given the statistics, is a fundamentally irrational choice. There’s no cost-benefit analysis that would support it. But if you’re doing it because you love it, and because it has meaning (and beauty) for you, than you can’t really fail.

Now, fifteen years into what has been nothing short of an odyssey–full of ups and downs–I’ve found myself returning to this fundamental truth. It must be a labor of love. Ironically, it turns out that pursuing something you genuinely love is not just good for the soul. It’s also good business. Nothing is more important for a young company than an indomitable, unflinching sense of purpose. And there’s a simple reason for that: True purpose is inspiring. And inspiration is how you attract great people and get them to do their greatest work.

I’ve come to believe that the real task for every entrepreneur is to find a purpose and then convince others to adopt it. The most valuable thing you can do in your company, and this only grows over time, is to populate it with great people who are just as committed to the journey. And the best way to attract and retain great people is with a true, compelling, and yes, beautiful purpose. With each passing year, I find myself investing disproportionately in the intangible, human side of things–the culture of our company. Nine out of the 10 things I do for Pandora are purely about purpose and culture; be it a sales call, an email to a new employee, or an interview with a young recruit. If this investment isn’t increasing as the company grows, that probably means you’re beginning to lose sight of why you started.

As an entrepreneur, there is nothing more fulfilling than assembling a team, seeing them succeed, and then watching as they too invest in the intangibles as their tenure with the company unfolds and extends. Building a company you’re proud of should be your true north–external reward will come (or not) as a by-product of this focus.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?

When starting a business, it’s you vs. the world by Ryan Smith, CEO and founder of Qualtrics.

6 things every new entrepreneur should know by Erin (Mack) McKelvey, CEO of SalientMG.

Why this CEO believes an MBA is worthless by Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora.

How much would you sacrifice to start your own business?by Clara Shih, founder and CEO of Hearsay Social.

4 secrets behind a successful startup by Veenu Aishwarya, CEO of AUM LifeTech.

How this startup failed (twice) and still found success by Kevin Chou, co-founder and CEO of Kabam.

Are you resilient enough to start your own business? by Ryan Harwood, CEO of PureWow.

The most important lesson I learned as a tech CEO by Kyle Wong, CEO of Pixlee.

How to avoid a startup failure by Jim Yu, CEO and co-founder of BrightEdge.

3 things to consider before starting your own business by Sunil Rajaraman, co-founder of Scripted.com.

4 ways to persuade people to join your startup by Nir Polak, CEO and co-founder of Exabeam.

GoDaddy CEO’s 5 tips for aspiring entrepreneurs by Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy.