Are you prepared to face the first obstacle of the Entrepreneur’s Journey?
I’ve always thought entrepreneurs are like superheroes. Not in a narcissistic or self-aggrandizing way. I don’t mean we’re saving the world. I just mean that the journey of a successful entrepreneur is very similar to the journey of a hero.
To understand what I mean, let me start by explaining a concept popularized by a literature professor named Joseph Campbell in a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces. SPOILER ALERT: Once I clue you into this concept, it’s going to ruin every movie you’re ever going to watch for the rest of your life. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The TL:DR on Campbell’s book is that every great heroic story you’ve ever known follows the same basic pattern. That includes everything from the Iliad to Hamlet to Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Hunger Games. In fact, you won’t be surprised to learn that one of Joseph’s Campbell’s most famous disciples is a man named George Lucas.
According to Campbell, a hero’s journey always begins in the “ordinary” world before some sort of call to adventure brings the hero into the “supernatural” world where the heroic events will ultimately take place. An example of this is Luke Skywalker working on his uncle’s farm on a remote planet when a droid shows up with a message from Princess Leia asking for help.
However, in Campbell’s model, before the hero can embark on the forthcoming adventure, he or she has to be temporarily blocked by some sort of resistance. In Luke’s case, it’s his cranky uncle. In Harry Potter’s case, it’s his cranky uncle. In Frodo’s case, it’s his… umm… cranky uncle.
Hmm… I feel like we’re starting to see a pattern here…
In any case, Campbell’s model gives these types of people a name. They’re called “threshold guardians.” They provide the resistance that’s necessary to determine whether or not a hero is worthy of the upcoming journey. Put another way, if the hero can’t overcome the initial resistance, then we — the audience — don’t get the rest of the journey through the galaxy or Middle Earth or Hogwarts or wherever.
The same thing happens in an entrepreneur’s journey. Every entrepreneur begins life in the “ordinary world.” We’re just standard employees, working for someone else. At some point, we’re called to our entrepreneurial adventure, but, before we can get started, we encounter threshold guardians that try to derail us from our destinies. And, just like in the stories I’ve already referenced, those guardians are almost always our friends and family.
For an example of how the hero’s journey impacts entrepreneurs, consider the story of one of my friends. She’s a lawyer, but she’s also a crafter, and she’s been experimenting with selling her products online and at local markets. She’s not quite the next Martha Steward, but she’s trying, and that’s what matters.
Or rather, I think that’s what matters. Her other friends and family… not so much. The constantly complain that our mutual friend is spending too much time on her “hobby.” Instead of joining us for happy hours in the evenings after work, she goes home and works on her crafting. Instead of hanging out on weekends, she’s up early to get her booth setup at yet-another craft fair. On multiple occasions I’ve known her to be out of her house well before dawn on a Saturday morning, driving to a city three hours away just to spend the day sitting at her table and trying to make sales.
She always comes back exhausted. Sometimes she’s frustrated, too, because an event on the other side of the state made her less money than the gas she spent to get there.
And what do people do when they’re frustrated? They complain to their friends, of course.
Unfortunately, when my crafting friend complains to her friends, they all respond the same way: “Why are you doing it?” they ask her. “Why are you wasting all that time and money?”
Her friends are trying to stop her. They’re her threshold guardians.
When I first began my entrepreneurial journey, I struggled to get past the same kinds of threshold guardians as my lawyer friend. I wasn’t a lawyer moonlighting as a crafter. I was in college. Specifically, I was an English major who enjoyed tinkering with computers and websites and database architectures. When my friends and family saw me doing this, they’d ask me why I was learning to code and why I was spending so much time messing with computers. After all, my late-night coding sessions weren’t going to help me get a better grade on a Shakespeare midterm.
Twenty years later, after multiple VC-backed software companies and a long(ish) career teaching entrepreneurship, my friends and family don’t wonder what I’m doing anymore because… well… I like to think I’ve proven myself. And even though my friends and family are supportive now, I honestly feel like I got to where I am in spite of them. Or, more specifically, I got to where I am by learning to ignore them.
The same is true for every would-be entrepreneur. In order to be a successful entrepreneur, you’re going to need to learn to ignore your doubters. And your first doubters are going to be the people who love you.
Your friends and family surely love you. And they surely want the best for you. In fact, it’s because they want the best for you that, when you’re first getting started as an entrepreneur, they’re going to be some of the least supportive people in your life.
To be clear, I don’t mean they’re not going to be supportive once you declare you have a company. By that point, your friends and family are probably going to be the most supportive people you have.
Instead, I mean before you even realize you’re an entrepreneur, and as you’re just getting started on your entrepreneurial journey, that’s when your friends and family are going to try to stop you. But they’re not doing it to be mean. Like all good threshold guardians, they’re doing it to help you prove you’re worthy of the journey you’re about to undertake.
If you are, indeed, worthy of embarking on an entrepreneurial journey, then the way you’re going to prove it is by showing you can ignore the people doubting you and continue focusing on what you believe is right. That’s because learning to ignore doubters is a critical skill every entrepreneur has to develop. It’s especially important because your friends and family aren’t the only people who are going to doubt you along the way. They’re just going to be the first.
Author: Aaron Dinin, PhD