Some of my Twitter friends are buzzing about Alex Payne’s arguments on what constitutes a respectable entrepreneurial pursuit. In case you want to catch up on the pre-reading, it starts with a post by Justin Vincent, basically promoting the idea that indie “mom-n-pop” businesses are a reasonable alternative to massive, venture-funded pursuits. Payne responded with a snarky comment, provoking a heartfelt defense from Amy Hoy. Finally, Payne posted a retraction and clarification, the nut of which was set in bold for emphasis by Payne himself:
We should endeavor to improve the lives of as many people as possible in a lasting and significant way, making the most of our own skills in the process.
Should we aim to affect as many people as possible? My heroes have tended to please themselves first, and to please everybody else by accident. When Steve Wozniak set out to invent the Apple personal computer, he did it for himself, and perhaps to show off for a few nerdy friends at the computer club. Noam Chomsky wrote generally about languages and grammars, and was allegedly annoyed when his research happened to lay the groundwork for major fields of computer science. I doubt many of history’s great advancements happened according to the plan of the geniuses who were responsible for them.
As a self-employed business owner, I want to improve the lives of my customers. And, yes, I would like to have a lot of customers. But Payne’s measure of success is too lofty. Rather than aim incompetently and uncertainly for a massive impact, I focus on a small area that I understand and that I care deeply about. I please a small subset of all people, but I please them greatly. Focusing on what I know and appreciate is the balance that keeps me self-funded, intellectually stimulated, and productive. Who knows, maybe I’ll turn out to be an accidental genius, as well.
Ambition to influence or change the world is, on its own, relatively useless. Pursuit of truth and understanding, on one’s own terms, is the noblest of endeavors. If you’ve found something you can work on all day for weeks, months, or years, don’t let anybody tell you it’s not worth doing.