"It's better to burn out, Than to fade away" -- Neil Young, from his song "Into The Black"

When I was in the throws of building my company Delphi Group I had the great privilege of working with one of the last century's most admired management icons, Peter Drucker. Drucker was a font of wisdom. Nearly everything the man said seemed to come from a place of profound understanding. Still there were a few things he said to me that stood out as guiding lights for my own career. One of those comes to mind every time I see the word entrepreneur--which seems to be everywhere lately--used in a way that would cause Peter to roll over in his grave.

We've come to think of entrepreneurism as the simple act of running a business, any business. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Drucker's mind an entrepreneur was not just any business  founder or CEO, instead it was a very specific kind of CEO--one who does what most business owners don't, he or she creates something of new value that has not existed before. 

While neither Drucker nor I would cast any aspersions upon the hard work or the skill required to run any organization, what differentiates the CEO of a dry cleaners, car wash, gas station, or a McDonalds franchise from a true entrepreneur is the level of ground-breaking risk that an entrepreneur must endure in creating something for which there is little if any precedence. 

The economist Joseph Schumpeter regarded entrepreneurs as  "willing and able to convert a new idea or invention into a successful innovation." Even the original use of the word entrepreneur in the 1700s was synonymous with the term adventurer. 

Entrepreneurs are not just building a business but also creating a marketplace in the face of odds that the overwhelming majority of people would consider daunting. 

For example, imagine the uphill battle faced by the founders of companies such as Uber or Airbnb, which had no precedent for their sharing economy business model. Or companies such as Salesforce which had to redefine the way software was bought and sold against behemoths such as Oracle and SAP. Then, of course, there's Apple, which redefined the way music is packaged and consumed. 

This isn't just a tech phenomenon. The same level of entrepreneurism existed among many of the groundbreaking innovations of the early 20th Century. Innovators such as Edison and Ford, Sears and Bell had to not only convince a market but an entire society that what they had was an absolute necessity. 

In all of these cases entirely new forms of value and new business models were being created. The risk was incalculable, and yet the leaders of these businesses clearly took on the challenge. Academics, pundits, and journalists debate what drives this level of irrational optimism. Entrepreneurs don't. 

The reason they don't is that to an entrepreneur risk is like Einstein's theory of relativity, in that it depends on the vantage point of the observer. From within their own mind entrepreneurs see no risk in the value of their idea. That's a good thing because creating entreprenureal value requires unreasonable levels of commitment. It's a bad thing because that same level of commitment can create huge blindspots. However, to any objective party other than the entrepreneur there is nothing but risk.

I've come to the conclusion that whatever it is that drives the pathology of entrepreneurism doesn't fit nicely into a formula. The hunger, the need to prove themselves, the competitive determination, and the work ethic are somehow baked into the DNA of entrepreneurs for reasons as varied as their personalities.

However, every entrepreneur I've ever known has one overwhelming characteristic; they would rather go down in flames than stand safely, and passively, at room temperature--and that brings me to the quote I promised at the outset. 

This is my second favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote (see my first fav here). For me this quote is a litmus test for the entrepreneurial mindset. If after reading it you think to yourself, "Yes! That's it. That's me!"  then congrats, you're afflicted with the dreamer's disease, something for which I know of no cure other than the relentless pursuit of your dream. If you read it and think to yourself, "Seriously? Who thinks this way?"  then congrats because there are honestly times I and many other entrepreneurs envy you.

"A soft, easy life is not worth living, if it impairs the fibre of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage... For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out." - Teddy Roosevelt 

In the hundreds of times I've read that quote the one word that terrifies me is "rust." Entrepreneurs feel the passage of time; they rail against it by keeping themselves constantly in motion. Ideas come to them non-stop no matter where they are. Everything the rest of the world accepts as good enough presents the entrepreneur with an opportunity for change. They are the ones who go to the beach and can't stop thinking about how to build a better beach blanket, umbrella, and cooler. Or, as India's former president A. P. J. Abdul Kalan said, "They aren't the ones who dream in their sleep because their dreams don't let them sleep." 

Does all of that sound like a great recipe for burnout? Absolutely. But here's the thing. What looks like ridiculously hard work to the rest of the world is fuel for the soul of the entrepreneur. So, this is where I should jump in and talk about work-life balance, right? Perhaps, but that's another column for another day. For now, let's just say that given the option to burn out or fade away--well, if you've stuck with me this far I already know which one you'd pick.

Correction: An earlier version misstated the writer of the song "Into the Black." Neil Young wrote it.

Published on: Aug 13, 2019
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