July 05, 2010

Entrepreneurial Self-Conviction - Article by Sanjay Anandaram

This article appeared originally in The Wall Street Journal. Reproduced with permission from the author.

There’s an exercise I sometimes ask students, especially those in business school, to do. On a blank piece of paper, the size of a business card, I ask each of them to first write their name and then their “dream title” in their “dream company” that they’d like to see themselves in. Being business school students, it is no surprise that “Chairman,” “Managing Partner” and “CEO” is the typical dream title they’ve ascribed to themselves in their dream companies, usually the globally most well recognized companies from the worlds of consulting, investment banking and investments. This exercise is usually completed in under a minute.

They’re then each asked to turn the paper around and again, write their name on it. This time however, there is no “dream company”. They simply have to give themselves a title, one that describes them to another person. Now this suddenly takes time to complete! It becomes very hard to describe one self without using the crutches of a well known name and a well regarded title. There’s emotional satisfaction and comfort in being circumscribed by the warm glow of the “known” company and the “respected” title and without the crutch provided by these, it becomes complicated if not very tough to describe one self.

And this is not peculiar to these students. We go through life pretty much as tourists – a few pictures here and there taken at the most recognized landmarks during a few quick trips to places millions have already visited, eating and drinking and shopping at the very places millions already have been to. And then returning and discussing the journey with others who’ve done exactly the same! We rarely take trips that are different (note, different does not mean expensive) in terms of the places visited, mode of travel, place of stay, food and drink tasted, sights and experiences savoured and so on. The trips are generally predictable because of the very understandable reasons of safety, comfort, cleanliness, familiarity and so on.

Most of us can perhaps identify with these situations. It is not something to get judgmental over, of right and wrong or good and bad. It is the way most of us think and behave. It is hard to walk away or give up the trappings – as the world sees it- of success. It is hard to have to face the world as an unknown without any ego-friendly products around, not even a fancy business card! Since so much of our sense of who WE are, what WE want is actually derived from our perception of our socio-economic standing. We don’t stop to ask questions of ourselves. It requires the courage of conviction to stay on the journey when phone calls aren’t returned, when meetings take longer to fix, when no one has time for you. It requires enormous self-awareness, confidence and humility while still being conscious of the “opportunity cost” of not pursuing everyone else’s dream. It requires someone who’s while soaking in experiences and learning, adapting is still driven to making their own unique road. Yet there are such people. They’re the types who are willing to forego fancy titles, salaries and comfort for the chance to travel a road less traveled, to experience a journey that’s unique and singular, for putting THEIR names on THEIR cards and describing themselves as “CEO- My Life/My Company”. THEY are the entrepreneurs!

Perhaps Gandhi said it best, of course in another context altogether but which demonstrates the mindset required when he said: "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people's houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave”.

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.