Entrepreneurs Are Made Not Born

Tom Bilyeu, Quest Nutrition

February 11, 2015

Like so many others, I was born into slavery.

Thankfully, I don’t mean the unimaginable tragedy of slavery in the truest sense of the definition. Rather, I’m talking about the mental shackles of a worldview constrained by fear and helplessness.

Helplessness. That’s the chain that binds. That’s the reason that, to paraphrase Thoreau, most men lead lives of quiet desperation. They don’t believe that they have a choice. They are endowed with certain skills and not others. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. Or so they believe. They strive to make the most of what they have rather than pushing themselves to grow and develop.

At least that’s how it was for me.

Here’s the harsh reality. I am not a born entrepreneur. [Gasp!] I sprang forth from the womb entirely average. I was not precocious. I never had a lemonade stand. I was the worst paperboy in town. I wasn’t smart enough to convince the neighbor kids to pay me for the privilege of painting my aunt’s fence. My combined score on the SATs was 990. Ouch. And when I left for college, my own mother (and biggest champion) quietly assumed that I would fail and return home.

But I didn’t. I ultimately excelled.

The question is why? How did the kid who was voted class clown rather than most likely to succeed end up succeeding?

Helplessness Is an Illusion

I often tell people that the easiest way to tell the difference between someone who thinks like an employee and someone who thinks like an entrepreneur is to watch how they react to a daunting obstacle. Someone with an entrepreneurial mindset doubles their resolve when they hit a big obstacle and steels themselves for a fight. It never occurs to them to give up. A daunting obstacle just means that they have to work harder to reach their goal.

Someone with an employee mindset on the other hand hits a big obstacle and relaxes. There’s nothing left to do. Sucks, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. They are helpless in the face of overwhelming odds.

The most terrifying part of the mental Gitmo that ensnares people with an employee mindset is that they actually believe they are helpless. It’s not just a feeling. They believe it to be true. Why fight a fight you can’t possibly win? You’ll just die tired. The sinister way in which that defeatist mentality imperceptibly erodes people’s potential is terrifying. It traps them in a prison with invisible walls, so they don’t have any impulse to try and escape. For years I couldn’t see or feel the cuffs that bound me. I was essentially waterboarding myself, all the while believing that I was free.

The thing that finally made me realize that I was trapped? A unicorn. Two of them actually.

Drowning is a Terrible Way to Die

When you’re clipping coupons to make ends meet (true story), millionaire entrepreneurs seem a lot like unicorns. But here they were, offering me a job. Not the type of job I had had up to that point, where you keep your head down, do as little work as possible and avoid punishment at all costs. No. This was a startup. There were so few of us and so much to do that there was nowhere to hide. I was told I could have any role in the company that I wanted, but I had to earn it. Then they dropped me into the deep end of the pool and walked off.

When your choices are to sink or swim, growth happens pretty quickly. The bad news is, as we all instinctively know, there is a third choice – the one most people choose: get out of the pool. But this time I didn’t get out of the pool. Why? Because the first thing these two entrepreneurs taught me is that helplessness is an illusion. It was hard to believe as I thrashed around in the deep end, sucking down gallons of metaphorical pool water. But they assured me that every problem has a solution. Even ignorance. Even lack of talent. Even being in way over your head. To find the solution I just needed to be willing to grow. And growth is always an option.

And thus the real journey began.

Think and Grow Rich

The realization that growth is always an option was liberating. It set me down the path of abandoning what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed” mindset in favor of a “growth” mindset. I had to stop thinking of my current abilities as the definition of who I am. Just because I’m not currently good at something doesn’t mean that I can’t get good. Or even great. I just have to set about relentlessly acquiring the skills I need to succeed.

Goal-oriented personal growth is a brutal journey of coming face to face with your limitations. I have yet to find a short cut around the emotionally difficult work of admitting one’s current inadequacies and setting about turning them into strengths through disciplined practice. If you’re willing to do the work, however, regardless of whether or not you sprang forth from the womb cloaked in mediocrity as I did, you really can develop the growth mindset of an entrepreneur and race, shackle-free, towards the extraordinary.

The details of what exactly constitutes the mindset of an entrepreneur would require an entire book series to adequately define. For now, suffice it to say, that just as Neo in The Matrix realizes that there is no spoon, an entrepreneur is someone who realizes that there are no shackles. They can see that the prison of fear and helplessness is only in the mind.

Tom Bilyeu is the co-founder and president of Quest Nutrition, a company that is revolutionizing food and making healthy eating fun. Tom leads the sales, marketing and media teams while also helping to guide the company’s culture of passion and transformation. Tom believes that missionaries build the best businesses and he filters all business decisions through the lens of Why rather than What.

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