First published in the Sunday Times on 15th February 2015.
What would you sacrifice in the struggle for success? Discovering the answer to this dilemma is a quest every entrepreneur must undertake. Each must decide just how far they will go to seize their prize . . .
I thought about this issue while watching a searing new movie called Whiplash. It tells the tale of a talented student at a music academy in New York and his domineering teacher. The student wants to become a legendary jazz drummer, and his vocation completely consumes him. I won’t reveal the plot, but it beautifully portrays the power of ambition, and the steep price it can extract. The film’s strapline is: “The road to greatness can take you to the edge.” Every start-up founder should watch it and take note.
It is often observed that sheer drive is a bigger determinant of achievement than intellectual prowess. Indeed, I will always back the industrious striver over the complacent first-class honours graduate.
I take the view that life is fuller with “concrete assignments” — serious projects that require vital engagement. As Howard Gossage, the legendary adman, said: “Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.” But it demands grit. Most of us are capable of more than we imagine, if we only stretch ourselves. And this invariably involves trade-offs. In Whiplash, the drummer boasts that he has no friends, and then dumps his girlfriend — in order to devote himself to his passion.
This sort of monomania is needed at times in almost any business. When young companies face a crisis, one of two things happens, and it usually depends on the attitude of the founder: either they turn around, or they fail. Mostly they recover because the founder will not let them die, and through pure force of character and a ferocious work ethic, he or she wills the business to survive — and perhaps, one day, prosper.
So often in life the crowd dismisses the ambitions of true pioneers who are utterly focused on their vision. When Walt Disney announced his plans to make a feature-length adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, observers thought it would destroy his company. It was the Disney studio’s first feature-length production, and the first full-length animated film in colour. Costs went 400% over budget. Yet “Disney’s Folly”, as it was nicknamed, went on to gross more than $1.8bn (£1.1bn) — not bad for a film that cost $2m.
Persistence is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to do something remarkable with their life. James Dyson relates in his autobiography Against the Odds how he spent three years working alone in his workshop earning nothing. There he built 5,127 prototypes of his dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner before getting it right. That invention contributed to his firm’s global success, and made him a billionaire. If he had not persevered, his appliances would probably not have enjoyed the huge breakthrough that made them world-beaters.
Another perfectionist was Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple and then reinvented it, enabling it to become the most profitable business in history. Walter Isaacson’s biography recounts just how demanding and focused Jobs was about his products. His meticulous attention to design and function inspired a culture of quality and style that no other tech business can match. Not surprisingly, Jobs also came across as something of a tyrant. He discarded a part of his humanity to build outstanding products, and create the world’s most cash-rich corporation.
I give lots of speeches to student entrepreneurs, and I always warn them that it is not a career for those who seek an ideal work-life balance. Of course, some talented venturers manage to adroitly juggle the competing claims of business, family, friends and hobbies and enjoy an optimal mix. They sleep soundly at night, delegate efficiently, have plenty of time for their children, socialise endlessly and yet still appear to run their companies skilfully. But we mere mortals cut corners in certain departments, make hard compro- mises, and suffer from divided loyalties. As Samuel Johnson said: “To be unhappy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”
I also warn aspiring entrepreneurs that only rare geniuses can afford to be perfectionists in business. The rest of us know that “good enough” is usually all that is practical.
Indeed, I would argue that pragmatism is frequently more important than passion or purist beliefs. There are times when it is necessary to pivot, as they say in Silicon Valley, and adjust one’s dreams. Moreover, ambition — if held in check — can surely be healthy; especially when it is directed towards some larger purpose.
So what propels those who seek absolute glory? A hunger for love and acceptance? A form of obsessive compulsive disorder? Selfishness and vanity? Perhaps Machiavelli should have the final word: “Ambition is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach, we are never satisfied.”