The choices are fake and the truth is all made up

This post was republished on PandoDaily. You can find it here.

I like the holidays because they’re a chance to take my foot off the gas a little bit, get out of the car and reset the engine. They’re a chance to take a look at the map and make sure I’m headed in the right direction.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of conversations with some very smart people about what it takes to be successful. And as I get older, it’s interesting to get a chance to look back and see the parts of the conventional wisdom that turned out to be untrue.

I guess you can call these things myths, but really they’re statements that I can slip into a conversation with someone and have very little fear that they’ll do anything other than nod in agreement at their self-evident truth.

Two things have stuck out to me lately. The first is that the highest opportunity cost for an entrepreneur is when she’s in her early twenties. The second is that an entrepreneur has to drop every other interest in their lives except for business in order to be successful.

Myth #1: Your highest opportunity cost is your twenties
There are certain advantages that accrue to the young: lack of financial and social obligations and more energy to get things done.

But the problem with being in your early twenties is that in general you have very little idea of what the fuck is going on. Trust me, I’m 21.

Seriously though, the story of the young kid who comes out of nowhere to take his industry by storm has become incredibly ingrained in our collective consciousness. We take it so far that I know people who worry that if, by 25, they haven’t built a huge company they will be over the hill. I know people who think that if you don’t make it by 30 you just don’t have what it takes.

But we forget that the young kid with no experience striking it rich is the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. According to The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur, a research study conducted on over 500 successful companies by the Kauffman Foundation, “the average and median age for [successful founders] when they started their current companies was 40.”

Another study by SV Angel shows that 33% of founders with big (500 million +) exits were over the age of 30. 90% of founders with big exits were repeat founders.

Anecdotal evidence abounds as well.

Take Workday for example which was started in 2005 and IPOed this year. It was founded by David Duffield who is a sprightly 70 years old.

Even Paul Graham himself, champion-in-chief of the young entrepreneur, was 30 when he started ViaWeb.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be said for young entrepreneurs. I’ve been the beneficiary of that stereotype as much as anyone else. But in this particular case, the truth of the “over the hill” entrepreneur is all made up.

Myth #2: To be a successful entrepreneur you must not do anything but focus on the business.

I was having coffee with someone a few months ago when they asked me why I blog. “Most successful entrepreneurs don’t have time to spare from their business to write,” he continued. I was a bit taken aback by this, and despite the volume of evidence that says otherwise, I resolved to think about it.

After all, if I had to pick between writing and having a successful business I should pick the business, right?

Well that’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time. I’ve been programming for 10 years, but I’ve been writing for even longer. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a professional novelist. I wrote a 90 page story in 4th grade. But I decided at the tender age of 9, that I hadn’t experienced enough to really write things of substance. And so I started programming instead.

Yes I was an over-intellectual dweeb back then too.

But that choice has stuck with me, and it’s one that I’ve come back to think about a lot. There’s a lot of pressure to pick one. I have this image of a great writer who does nothing but sit in his room all day and churn out scintillating sentence after scintillating sentence. And then I have this image of a great entrepreneur who does nothing all day but build product, sell to customers, and rake in the revenues. Sometimes I feel like I have to pick one.

After all, isn’t intense focus on one area the hallmark of someone who’s great at anything?

But if I really sit down and think about it, if I spent all day sitting alone in my room I wouldn’t have very much to write about.

The truth is that being in business has made me a more interesting writer. And likewise being a writer has made me a better businessman. It gives me a platform to build an audience to market my products to and reach interesting people that I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to get a hold of.

This sentiment isn’t unique to me. I read an article a while ago that featured a letter written by Teller (of Penn and Teller) giving career advice to a young magician.

“Love something besides magic, in the arts. Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer. You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller. But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, well THERE’S an opening.

I should be a film editor. I’m a magician. And if I’m good, it’s because I should be a film editor. Bach should have written opera or plays. But instead, he worked in eighteenth-century counterpoint. That’s why his counterpoints have so much more point than other contrapuntalists. They have passion and plot. Shakespeare, on the other hand, should have been a musician, writing counterpoint. That’s why his plays stand out from the others through their plot and music.”

This isn’t to say that you should try to go and find two things to love so that you can merge them. That’s ridiculous. But it is to say that, in a way, the total agony of loving two things can help you be better at both. The choice between one or the other is fake. In fact, I’d venture to say that the choice is fake any time you feel forced to decide between two things that are important to you in your life. Non-obvious solutions exist for the intellectually curious.

I think the thing to take away from this is that unless you live in a hole you’re going to get advice from a lot of people. Some of it sounds true, and is completely false. Some of it sounds ridiculous and turns out to be true. But the only thing that you can do is honestly evaluate what’s been said (even if you don’t like it) and try to decide whether it makes sense. Sometimes the answer won’t be obvious right away. But time has a habit of making most of these things more clear.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Don’t be stubborn for the sake of it. But next time you feel like you HAVE to make a decision, or you’re running out of time to do something with your life remember this:

The choices are fake and the truth is all made up.


By the way, if you have a website and you want to do great customer support check out my startup Firefly.

27 Dec 2012, 11:59pm | 10 comments

  • Pete R.

    Nice article Dan. Here’re my opinion to both myths:

    Myth #1: Your Highest Opportunity Cost is your Twenties

    You have a point there and I agree to some extend but there are also some valid points to why this is being suggested to young people. As the saying goes:

    “For the first 30 years of your life, you make your habits. For the last 30 years of your life, your habits make you.”

    You don’t have to set an obligation to be rich or succeeded in your twenties. As long as you keep trying and make a habit of failing and learn to cope with it, it will benefit you when you are older. πŸ™‚

    Myth #2: To be a successful entrepreneur you must not do anything but focus on the business.

    I agree with you here. This myth is not for everyone. I certainly believe that if you want to create a great business, you need a story and the best way to communicate to your customers is through storytelling. The only way to become good at storytelling is to write more like what you are currently doing. πŸ™‚

    So don’t give up one or another. Do both, and mix them to create a unique competitive advantage to your business. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the great read.

    • Pete R.

      You have a point there and I agree to some “extent” – fixed πŸ™‚

    • danshipper

      Thanks for the comment. I love that quote, saving it in my Evernote for later. Good luck out there!

    • Eran

      > β€œFor the first 30 years of your life, you make your habits. For the last 30 years of your life, your habits make you.”

      I’m 35, and I couldn’t disagree more, I have changed my habits and behavior mostly between age of 29 to 35. I finished college only when I was 28 and started my first “real” job when I was 29.

      I started my first real startup at the age of 35, and it has more than 2,000 users (including several paying users) all done on nights and weekends while I try to keep some sort of normal life (Married and 2 kids, day job)

  • Asim Jalis

    Myth #3: You need at least three myths to make a compelling list of myths.

    • danshipper

      Noted πŸ™‚

  • tech zombie

    u have a good sense for truth. this is whete we lib arts majors dominate over the hack brained gruntz.

    after 30 your cognitive ability goes down, true but nothing some testosterone injections and rudolph steiner books can’t fix. the philosophy of freedom in particular will train your mind for war forever if u can get through it.

    the whole specialize and do onl one thing and one thing well is in and o itself a Hoax. a big lie to keep the weak chained in mediocirty. did goethe do only one thing? did steiner only write books on one subject? how about walter russell?

    now is the time to level up rapidly so absorb it ALL

    only pitfalls and concerns now for u…..
    stay away from wild women. they can destory a man and waste years….:/

  • Eran

    Dan, great article, and very encouraging. Reading HN and seeing the average age of “hacker rockstars” behind famous open source projects, latest cool technologies, hip startups and YC batch alumni makes an old dog like me (I’m 35) feel a little out of the game.

    And it’s not fair, when I had time to do some side projects that could be potentially open sourced, github wasn’t even conceived yet, and posting side projects to sourceforge wasn’t really something that had the same massive popularity and sometimes necessity (career-wise) as it is today. (must have github account and projects to be even considered a serious hacker)

    I was in the age right to start a startup right after the bubble, so starting a new startup was considered a “bad bet” in the general mood of the era, and everyone thought that this is a bad time to start a business unless you have a good business model, and that you need to raise money / be rich / have no life to build a startup.

    Also lack of startup education back then, things were much less “lean”, and the concept that anyone can launch a SaaS business from the dorm room / basement was not as prominent as it is today. Hosting costs, development costs (pre RoR days), and simply lack of examples (pre google, pre facebook) were simply not encouraging enough for me to even think about a startup seriously (I did think about it since I was 18 but it was always an intangible dream, like being an actor / singer / writer)

    Now that I’m married + 2 kids, have a day job, mortgage and responsibilities, yes it’s a limitation but also a blessing, I have to be 10 times more focused (e.g. limit to only one comment per week, which I hardly keep up with :)) so I learned to read faster, write faster, write shorter emails, communicate more effectively, have better self control, better time management. when I was 25 and had all the time I needed, I wasn’t as half as effective as I am today.

    I don’t say that others in their 20’s are not more productive than me currently, it seems that people like you Dan are people I can learn from a lot in terms of productivity, but it’s all relative, I think that you will find out that when you are 35, you’ll be much better at what you do (and I wish you a lot of success) than you are now. It’s all relative to you starting point.

    My people skills, technical skills, cognitive skills, business skills now at 35 are 10x better than they were when I was 25.

    But this might be just my individual experience

    Ok back to work πŸ™‚

    And thanks again for a great article once again. You have the maturity and insight that many 35’s don’t have

    it wasn’t as prominent as today to have to post your side projects as open source to get a job, frankly, I didn’t really think anyone would look at it

    But articles like this,

    • Eran

      Woops, copy paste slip, the last paragraph “it wasn’t as prominent as today…” and on should have been omitted, wish I could edit πŸ™‚

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