The next time someone tells me to believe in myself, take the leap, and follow my dreams, I’m going to punch them in the face.
These sorts of rah-rah guides to self-actualization seem to be a bit of a trend in entrepreneurship articles of late. I’m not sure when it started exactly, but it’s become so saccharine that the glycemic index might need to be recalibrated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the ability to dream big and a sunny disposition are bad qualities (far from it). But not everyone’s wired that way–at least not constantly–and that doesn’t make the rest of us less worthy or capable of success.
That’s what bothers me about these sorts of bright-side preachers (editor’s note: Fast Company, no stranger to career boosterism, recognizes the irony here). It’s not that they’re trying to motivate people to improve their lives and find fulfilling careers; it’s that they’re unable to do it without seeming so damn superior in the process, as if having a single less-than-flowery emotion is an obstacle to be overcome in one’s quest to change the world.
That’s nonsense. In fact, I’d contend that a touch of bitterness can actually help you. Who among us hasn’t wanted to stick it to someone who told us we weren’t good enough? Why is it that we applaud athletes who play with a chip on their shoulder, but we refuse to celebrate those emotions in the equally competitive world of business? For an entrepreneur, there’s such thing as a healthy amount of hate.
Listen to successful founders and you’ll often hear variations on “They said we couldn’t do it.” And, really, “they” can be anyone: A potential investor who passed, a former partner who bailed, an arrogant competitor who scoffed–it doesn’t matter. What matters is that these people were able to take a perceived slight and convert it into a driving motivation.
Is being fueled by the desire to prove people wrong the only way to go? Of course not. But for some folks, it works–and there’s nothing wrong with that.
That said, it’s important not to let it go too far. Venture capitalist Mark Suster wrote a good post about finding the perfect balance. He comes to the conclusion that having a chip on one’s shoulder can certainly serve an entrepreneur well. It’s actually one of the qualities he specifically looks for in a founder. However, as he’s quick to point out, there’s a massive difference between being emboldened and being a jerk.
No one’s arguing that being a misanthrope is going to help you succeed, but neither is being Pollyanna. A penchant for taking lemons and making lemonade only matters if you’re actually in the business of producing that particular beverage. And the folks who continue to push that myth are doing you a disservice. It’s a lazy approach that makes for a great headline and little else. “4 Steps Towards Landing Your Dream Career!” “The Secret to a Better You!” You know what? I’d love a better me. I’d also love fantastic abs in just six minutes a day–but it’s not going to happen.
Be yourself. Work your ass off. Try not to be a dick. Why is this hard? Unbridled optimism can be a powerful driver of success, but so can skepticism and a burning desire to triumph over one’s doubters. It’s just like anything else: There’s no right way to do it. And anyone who tells you different is lying.
So I say to you chip-souldered souls–you spiteful, embittered, competition-driven worshippers at the temple of schadenfreude–you’ve got a friend in me. I will carry your torch. And then I will probably set someone on fire with it.
—Joe Ippolito is a strategist at Yahoo. He writes about entrepreneurship, innovation, and the New York startup community. Like every freelance writer on the planet, he lives in Brooklyn. For more counterintuitive career advice, follow him @joeippolito.
[Image: Flickr user Mariana C.]