There’s an ancient question that goes like this. If you knew everything, if you could be everywhere, and if you could do anything, what would you be lacking?

I was in a meeting recently with a successful entrepreneur that started his company in the 1960’s and sold it in the 1990’s for what today is still a very sizable fortune. It had been a year since we last met or interacted. His company was, broadly speaking, in the automotive industry, an industry that did not exist prior to the beginning of the 20th century. His product – for which he developed the intellectual property – was the first and only significant innovation introduced in the industry since its inception, and it came after a half century of players following the same designs with which the industry started. The 20th century ended, and almost one fifth of the 21st has gone by, and his designs are still in use, and they do not solve new problems that have risen in the last 50 years that the industry needs solved today. He has a second-generation product, also IP protected, that addresses these problems. As I left the meeting, I kept pondering why, in such a technologically advanced world, where barriers to entry to most industries trend down over time, would the market fail to address today’s shortcomings?

I found a few hints of what could be happening here. For one, the industry is heavily monopolized, where the two main players control over 80% of the market. One of those players is who bought him out decades ago. Since that purchase, no innovation has occurred. Additionally, the industry is not in a sexy niche. No millennial or techie digital world entrepreneur would typically be attracted to this industry. But the problem and the opportunity persist, and his new protected designs would seriously disrupt the industry for the second time in more than a century. Over the past year and a half of knowing him he has convinced me of this.

During the recent meeting, we asked him why, at this point, having enjoyed all the fruits of his tremendous success decades ago and continuing to live a comfortable life, does he want to go through this process again? Nobody has cared for another half century to solve the new problems creeping into the industry. Why him? Why now? “Because it is my life’s work”, he answered without missing a beat. After making an indelible, still present mark in his industry in the 1960’s, he does not want to leave a legacy of not fixing the new problems that appeared as the auto industry evolved with the times. This is his life’s purpose.

Going back to the original question, if you knew everything, could be everywhere and could do anything, what would you be lacking? First, if you had all these characteristics, you would be more than human. You would be perhaps supernatural, or divine. Entrepreneurs that have devoted themselves to their “life’s work” so fervently, like the one whose story I share, are a special kind of human. They are not supernatural or divine, but they have put such intense focus on their pursuit of innovation, becoming wealthy enough in the process, that in combination you could say that in some ways they could be everywhere (although not at the same time), they could do anything (or most everything that would need to be done, within their high focus field of expertise) and they pretty much know everything (in the industry they have devoted their life’s work to).

Again, I ask you, if you knew everything, could be everywhere and could do anything, what would you be lacking? You would be lacking limitation. There would be nowhere to go and nothing to do; nothing to be. I would not want that for myself. Limitation is what feeds the yearning to do, to go, to innovate. Even the best among us, like my friend in the story – which many could think of as divinely gifted, highly accomplished and needing nothing else in life – feels himself limited and therefore driven to finish his life’s work. What a great thing. I would not wish it any other way for him, nor me, nor anyone else.

Our View from the Top – December 4, 2018