Back in high school, my favorite teacher said to me: ”Jonathan. Remember to die a little every day.”
Back then, I thought it was a strange thing to say. Both him and I were and are generally optimistic people, so why even bother thinking about such a sad thing as death? And why did he mention it to me, when I shared my passion for starting new projects with him?
Today, I understand what he meant. Hans Oluf, which was the name of my high school teacher, officially taught Danish literature to me, but ending up giving me one of the most important insights into entrepreneurship and life.
Jumping forward from high-school to today, around 20 years later, I’ve become a quite well-known entrepreneur in Scandinavia. I’ve founded five companies, and I’ve had businesses with offices in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Munich, and Palo Alto. I’ve been named Entrepreneur of the Year, and I’ve lived entrepreneurship in both body and soul.
When I started my first company, back in 1999, I was totally focused on the idea. My passion was, and to some extent still is, to come up with new ideas and watch them grow. I’ve fallen in love with the journey, and using the phrase “watch them grow” is actually dead wrong, because you don’t really watch anything as an entrepreneur. Instead you push, you struggle, you make things happen. No one there to do it for you.
I sometimes describe the lifestyle of being an entrepreneur as a constant limbo between passion and panic. Some days what you do is the very essence of life. You forget whether what you’re building it really that important to the world. Your brain just falls in love with the project and the process.
Other days it’s a total feeling of panic. Will you succeed or fail? Will you be able to pay your employees’ salaries? Entrepreneurship becomes like life … and death.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to understand, what my high school teacher Hans Oluf was trying to explain to me. He talked about the realization, not just in theory but actually feeling it in your body that one day you will no longer be on this planet. And then contemplating about what that deep understanding does to you.
In my own life, it has taught me that entrepreneurship is about so much more than starting a company. Entrepreneurship has major ups and downs just like life itself, and even startups are born and die again like human beings.
So entrepreneurship is life and death, and deciding to start a new growth company is therefore a truly existential decision.
I know from experience that building a company from idea to a sustainable business takes around 5-10 years. 5-10 years of your life. Despite human beings getting older and older, this timeframe leaves you were few opportunities to turn ideas into companies in your life. Perhaps five of them in total! So the questions should not be: CAN you build it, but SHOULD you build it?
Perhaps this perspective on entrepreneurship is the most important of all. That life has so many decisions and choice that you can make, but without a lens to look through, they become equally meaningful – or meaningless. It’s really up to you and your perspective on life.
Let me give you an example: building a company that produces dog food can be viewed as a total waste of time, because we all end up dying anyway, also the dogs, so why bother?
On the other hand, producing dog food can also be seen as the most meaningful thing in life. Growing an idea into a company that employs people with the vision to give life to other animals, is perhaps one of the biggest achievements of all, so in this way your dog food company becomes the very essence of life.
No matter which idea you choose to attribute meaning to, you will need willpower. You will need stamina. You will need endurance. All of these skills require some sort of purpose for you to keep on going, so why not make it a question of life and death?
I have to admit that thinking about entrepreneurship like this is something relatively new to me. I didn’t start doing so until a few years ago, where I suffered from a severe depression. I felt like being dead for an entire year, and when I finally came back to life, I decided to travel the talk and talk to inspiring entrepreneurs and leaders about what motivates them, and what truly makes them happy.
My depression, the journey and the reflection above drastically changed my life and my approach to what entrepreneurship is really all about. It transformed entrepreneurship to being primarily about good ideas, money, and hard work to something much bigger and deeper. It made entrepreneurship a life-and-death-matter, and it made me realize that I never want to waste my life again on ideas that are not worth the effort.
I wanted to share this with you. I wanted to share the words of my high-school teacher with you: “Remember to die a little every day.”
That is the best entrepreneurial advice I’m able to offer you.