Many of us looking in on the tech world see successful entrepreneurs like Arianna Huffington or Aaron Levie and think, How lucky. But what we too often forget is that years before companies like The Huffington Post and Box became the multimillion-dollar enterprises that they are today, their dedicated founders devoted tens of thousands of hours, sacrificed substantial resources, and overcame countless obstacles to get to where they are today.
While luck may play a small role in the success of Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley’s most famed entrepreneurs, it is their unique mind-sets that provide the energy, inspiration, and drive needed to achieve what others simply see as unattainable.
So what distinguishes these entrepreneurs from the rest of us? The seven tech leaders below shared their personal stories on how they think, live, and work in order to survive the grueling hours, overcome the challenges that others have found insurmountable, and achieve what others have failed to do.
Arianna Huffington: Think of failure as a stepping stone to success.
Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, pointed out the importance of understanding failure not as an end, but as a bridge to future success. "Clearly drive, IQ, and hard work are incredibly important. But ultimately what matters most is resilience—the ability to quickly rebound from failures, indeed to see failure as a stepping stone to success," Huffington said.
But Huffington also stresses the importance of having a balanced life—in every sense of the word. "Increasingly, leaders are recognizing the importance of renewing themselves in order to live lives that are less stressful, more creative, and more fulfilling," she says. "We see this recognition in every aspect of our culture, from the classrooms of the Harvard Business School, where students learn to better understand their emotions, to corporations like General Mills and Aetna that have added meditation, mindfulness training, and yoga to the workplace, to Olympic athletes who have made napping and stress reduction part of their daily routines.
She notes that a quarter of large U.S. companies now have some kind of stress-reduction program. And The Huffington Post has two nap rooms, and 18 lifestyle sections centered around the theme: "Less Stress, More Living."
"Brands, advertisers, and leaders are recognizing that this major shift in the zeitgeist is not only good for our bodies, minds, and souls, it’s also good for bottom line."
Bobak Ferdowsi: Make sure you enjoy the journey.
Bobak Ferdowsi, the Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose mohawk captured in a photo of the team during the Mars Curiosity landing garnered him instant celebrity status, said he makes sure to enjoy each small victory along the way.
Nine years ago when the Curiosity mission started, he said, no one had a clue whether it would be successful—so he learned to live for smaller problem-solving victories rather than the "major accomplishment" at the end.
"You begin to feel a little like a hero as you come up with a creative solution to each one," Ferdowsi said. "I think in a project like this one, in which some 5,000 men and women devoted their time and talents, it becomes such a tremendous team effort, with such a singularity of goal that you ultimately end up being caught up in the energy of it all. Those team members become friends and respected colleagues, and no one wants to be the guy who messed it up for everyone else, so there’s a fair amount of fear in there as well."
Rebecca Woodcock: Keep things In perspective.
Rebecca Woodcock, founder of CakeHealth, said if you keep things in perspective, challenges are easier to overcome. "It's important for me to make a big impact so I'm drawn to huge markets and massive problems, which is one reason for starting CakeHealth. My mother has been an entrepreneurial role model for me, coming from an entrepreneurial family in the WWII era, growing up on a dairy farm in New Jersey, and widowed with a 10-month-old at age 21 from the Vietnam War. All her life she started her own businesses, from a catering company to vegetable stands at farmers markets. I called my mother one late evening when I was overwhelmed with early startup challenges and not sure if I could finish all the work by the next day, and she said one thing that stayed with me: ‘We can do hard things.’"
"I'm reminded about my favorite book about Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe, called Over the Edge of the World. The challenges we face today are nowhere near as treacherous, yet they had such conviction despite the fear of the unknown. It reminds me that the challenges I face in business are a luxury in comparison and that we can do hard things," Woodcock said.
Ruchi Sanghvi: Don’t let fear hold you back.
Ruchi Sanghvi, VP of operations at Dropbox, explained that the fear of failure can be a big obstacle to success but said it should be dealt with simply by powering through.
"My goals and expectations have changed over time and are often motivated by different things—necessity, opportunity, independence, and constraints."
Her goals and hurdles started out small: After college, her only goal was to get a job. At Dropbox, it's been about building a new technology platform. And now she's interested in furthering causes like immigration and STEM education via movements like code.org, said Sanghvi, who previously cofounded Cove and was a product manager at Facebook. "Mobile devices, social platforms, and cheap bandwidth mean we can reach a large number of people if we build the right product, and that is what inspires me on a daily basis," she adds.
Sanghvi said she realizes that most of the obstacles she faces are internal, but that she has learned how to work through them. "Most barriers I face are internal, like the fear of failure, the fear of being ridiculed, or the fear of just not knowing how. But I’ve learned to power through them by working hard and remembering to ask for help when I need it."
Shaherose Charania: Do something that transcends yourself.
Shaherose Charania, cofounder of Women 2.0, said she is driven by doing impactful work that transcends herself. "Two things in my life always fuel my energy: helping others and innovating with technology. From a young age, through my parents’ teaching and the lessons of my faith, I have felt responsible to give back—to share my time, my energy, my knowledge. In fact, my faith tells me that ‘to save one life is as if to save the entirety of humankind.’ Early on I gained perspective by traveling to developing places and seeing my own relatives, my own people, living in ways starkly different from my own. I learned that whatever I could offer, even if it seemed simple, could create change—and by changing one life, perhaps in some way I could contribute something helpful to all of humankind," Charania said.
"Technology shows me new ways to contribute and create change on a new scale. It helps illuminate ways of using faith, intellect, and innovation to help improve lives, even societies. Through Founder Labs and Women 2.0, I am able to offer what I have to others, enabling them to see and perhaps build new opportunities and to bring new companies and new solutions to the world. That privilege renews me, making me grateful and energized to move forward and face obstacles."
Aaron Levie: Have passion for what you do.
Aaron Levie, founder of Box, said his passion and drive—and what ultimately keeps him going despite the long hours and obstacles along the way—are derived from finding answers to challenges that impact massive numbers of people every day.
"I'm motivated by solving problems. Sometimes these are problems we didn't even realize we had, or maybe they're problems we're well aware of, but haven't historically had the power to solve. And it's a never-ending thing, because the rate of change in the technology industry generates all-new challenges, as well as all-new opportunities to solve them," Levie said.
When he started Box in 2005, he had a very simple problem in mind. Sharing content between people was absurdly difficult, and was often achieved by passing thumb drives back and forth or sending files as email attachments. Levie decided to tackle this problem by making it incredibly easy for people to store and share information online.
"That's still the core of our mission today, but in the past seven years, the world has changed dramatically. The rise of post-PC devices—smartphones and tablets—is as transformative as the PC revolution was in the '80s and '90s. And in 2007, we realized that the information-sharing challenges of enterprises were far more interesting than those of consumers, so we decided to address that, going up against some of the largest technology incumbents in the process."
"Every day we ask ourselves: how can we preserve the simplicity of sharing and collaboration for users, while meeting the highly complex needs of enterprises with hundreds of thousands of employees? It's a challenge that's constantly evolving, and it's an endless source of motivation for the entire crew at Box."
Leah Busque: Practice what you preach.
Leah Busque, founder and CEO of TaskRabbit, said that focusing only on larger end goals can be overwhelming. Instead, she focuses on each smaller step.
"I wake up every morning with a singular goal—to push my company as far as I can that day. My company is dedicated to solving a pretty huge problem, and it can be overwhelming to think of the magnitude of this vision. My approach is to choose specific and actionable items to complete each day to move us closer to these goals, and to encourage everyone on my team to do the same. This keeps us on track for accomplishing the big picture," Busque said.
So, true to the mission of her company, she outsources everything that's not vital—laundry, grocery shopping, house cleaning—to free her up for the important stuff.
"Which brings me to my biggest productivity secret: I love what I do. Knowing TaskRabbit is poised to revolutionize work as we know it is like rocket fuel to me."
How do you sustain motivation? Tell us your best tactics in the comments.
[Image: Flickr user Tim Simpson]