The Meaning of Meaning

When I was a venture capitalist, I noticed that entrepreneurs whose primary goal was to make money usually failed. This is because this kind of entrepreneur attracts other people who want to make money, and then when the company doesn’t pay out big bucks immediately (and no startup does), these folks look for greener pastures.

To combat the problem of ill-suited people pursuing entrepreneurship, experts often recommend rigorous self-examination before starting a company. However, most people  ask themselves the wrong questions:

  • Can I work long hours at low wages?
  • Can I deal with rejection after rejection?
  • Can I handle the responsibility of dozens of employees?

The truth is that it is impossible to answer questions like this in advance, and these questions ultimately serve no purpose. On the one hand, talk and bravado are cheap. Saying you’re willing to do something doesn’t mean that you will do it. On the other hand, realizing that you have doubt and trepidation doesn’t mean you won’t build a great company.

How you answer such questions has little predictive power about what you’ll actually do when you get caught up in a great idea. No one really knows if he or she is an entrepreneur until after the fact—and sometimes not even then.

The key question you should ask yourself before starting any new venture is:

Do I want to make meaning?

Meaning is not about money, power, or prestige. It’s not even about creating a fun place to work. The meaning of “meaning” comes down to making the world a better place. You can do this in two ways:

First, you can create, enable, or increase something that’s good. For example, Macintosh increased people’s creativity and productivity. Google and Wikipedia enabled all of us, rich and poor, to access virtually limitless amounts of information.

Second, you can prevent, eliminate, or decrease something that’s bad. For example, Tesla is trying to decrease air pollution and our dependence on oil. Palantir and other cybersecurity companies are trying to prevent the bad guys from hacking our computers.

The desire to change the world is a tremendous advantage as you travel down the difficult path ahead because focusing on a lofty goal is more energizing and attracts more talent than simply making a buck. And if you do make meaning, one of the natural consequences is that you’ll also make money.

It has taken me twenty years to come to understand the meaning of meaning. In 1983, when I started in the Macintosh Division of Apple, I wanted to beat IBM and send it back to the typewriter business holding its Selectric typewriter balls. Then in 1987, I wanted to crush Windows and Microsoft.

I finally figured out that these motivations were silly if not stupid. Focusing on your competition diverts you from what is really important. The DNA of great organizations contains the desire to make meaning–to make the world better for their customers and for their employees. Having this desire doesn’t guarantee that you’ll succeed, but if you fail, at least you failed doing something worthwhile.

So if you’re thinking of starting a company, your starting point is to figure out how your product or service will make meaning. Everything flows from the answer to this question.

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