At the height of the cold snap we just went through last week in South Florida, I decided to take a midday stroll around the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami. I know a few of the startups in the area, and I don’t mind bumping into acquaintances at the Coyo Taco, having a meeting at the LAB or grabbing coffee at Panther. But this day I was there in a selfish mode to soak in the entrepreneurial electricity of the area, compounded by the chilly weather, and the huge crowds of tourist customers, shopping and holding the pedestrian and car traffic to a slow crawl this time of the year. The weather that day was the kind that makes you walk on the sidewalk where the sun is hitting, not a habitual South Florida behavior. Another very non-habitual sign that day was the amazing display of stratus clouds perched across the crisp clear blue sky. I think I was not the only person that day that was more enchanted by the patterns in the sky than the beautiful murals that dress every single building and wall for blocks and blocks and blocks. These patterns in my experience are not very common in South Florida, and present themselves when warm air flows over the much colder air near the ground, condensing the water vapor in the warm air and making these type of unusual, beautiful cloud formations.
I was not alone, but I was where I wanted to be that day. That, I guess, was the selfish part of it. There is a continuum in human behavior, where in one end you have the completely selfish people who only care and act for their own benefit without empathy or regard for the well-being of others, and at the other end the totally selfless people who give of themselves to the point of their own detriment. We all fall somewhere in there. Where are we, as entrepreneurs, supposed to be in this spectrum?
I remember my first ever macroeconomics class as a sophomore engineering student. It was one of the first non-technical (at least to me) electives I could take. I was there, in college, to learn how things worked and how to build things and processes that worked, and suddenly I was in a class with a crowd that was not my usual, and the professor was telling me how markets worked efficiently because of the great virtue of everyone pursuing his or her own benefit in a selfish way. At the time, this sounded at odds with my upbringing – never thought of egotism as a virtue. I purposely use that synonym – and I’m not sure if my argument is true or right – because egotism is closer to the word (sharing the Latin root) with which I learned the concept in my native language. Egoísmo, I was taught, was a horrible thing, and that put me at odds with what the professor was teaching. Maybe it is a language thing, a cultural thing. So here I am, learning business concepts in an academic setting for the first time (very different from all the lessons I learned as a newspaper carrier starting at 11) and I’m starting to get conflicted. So going back to the continuum of human behavior, I thought, if nobody acted selfishly pursuing their own benefits, would markets fail?
Over the years I grew older and more experienced, and had successes and failures as an entrepreneur, and was exposed to different life situations and the life situations of the people in my inner and outer circles. I also watched world events, and travelled pretty extensively, and got exposed further. I finally came to the very prevailing realization, in my view, that pursuing our own benefit in a selfish way is part of human nature, and that there is nothing wrong with that. I realized there is nothing wrong with that, mainly because it is also human nature to take care of others, even to the point of heroism in life and death situations among perfect strangers. I realized that being selfless to your own detriment can result in the detriment of the people that depend on you. So actually acting that way because it makes you feel good is selfish.
So what is the bottom line for us, entrepreneurs? My recommendation, and what keeps me sane right now, is: go out into the world, go out into your market, and create value for others. That is a selfless thing to do. Be truthful in your dealings so you can be highly conscious of the value you create and be selfish in the pursuit of profit from the value you create – employees and loved ones depend on you to be that way. That is a selfless thing to do. A definition of love I like is that it is the capacity to wait in patience for what is not under one’s control and to allow oneself to receive it as a gift. This would seem to be at odds with what we teach our entrepreneurs, but not really on second thought. We should not wait in patience for profits to come our way, when providing the wrong value to our customers, which would be selfish (my product is the best out there because I think so and the whole world is wrong about it!) and stupid as well. How we provide value is not out of our control. Entrepreneurs in the Wynwood neighborhood have come and gone and pivoted multiple times, tweaking their products and services to pursue profits, the result of offering a higher value, to take care of their own. That is a selfless thing to do.
I did receive a gift that midday, and I am willing to wait in patience to receive it again as a gift, because it’s totally out of my control, and it was the amazing display of stratus clouds perched across the crisp clear blue sky.