4 lessons from an almost dropout

In my last academic year, I spent 2 months trying to decide on whether I should quit school or not. I kept going round and round, running decision metric after decision metric, and after burning through all that time. I found myself stuck between living in the future and what had to be done in the present, a place where my vision said I had to get to this next level, that my present state did not reflect.

What made it worse was all the feel good motivational material that plagues us these days, offering a false sense of comfort in believing whilst not acting on that belief.  The stuff that told me to ” live in the forward” that ” what I was to be, I was now becoming” backed up by the “all successful entrepreneurs dropped out of school” mantra. I mean, they even made a pretty infographic about it! Yet here I was…all the work that I had put in seemed to not be translating into the visionary company that I had set out to build. I got burnt out and felt like I had washed out at 23. I got it in my head that what I needed to do was to dedicate more time and resources to doing what I was doing and that everything else around me was just a distraction. To push even harder and disregard all else, and brute-force my way to success.  So after going through those 2 months I made the decision, and here is what I learnt in doing so.

What I learnt

  1. Just do it! When you decide to do something, find it in yourself to disregard the fear of the future and simply act on it, moving quickly means that you make the mistakes even faster and get back up. So do not let your fear of the imaginary paralyse you into inactivity. Decide, commit and execute.
  2. It will take time….lots of it. Starting up will take time, and it is important to focus on the simple fundamental principles on which you intend on building your legacy. It will take longer and feel twice as hard as they said it would on day one and that is okay. So do not try and fast forward the present so as to live in the future, do what has to be done today, and do it exceptionally well.
  3. Get into the habit of working, not as a single “final push” to glory but as a way of life. It is not just getting into it, you have to sustain it, to commit to it. Understanding that the attainment of a skill or goal is only temporary means that you simply have to continue beating on your craft, It is a process and not a destination. So you have to love what you do so that putting in time, really becomes endless fun riddled with complex intriguing challenges.
  4. While priorities are important, you must not “stop living” in the name of being an entrepreneur. We are human first before being a founder and so should continue to exist in our capacity as human beings. This is especially important when you realise that the effort required to startup is not a once-off affair, it is an on-going concern which, if derived from all-out sacrifice, will mean that we stop living and simply exist for the idea or startup. Sustained “all-out” sacrifice is but the perfect recipe for founder depression, burnout, frustration and ultimately failure, we have to startup sustainably.

Let me explain these in a bit more detail…..

Being afraid of fear

Some wise entrepreneur told me that when it comes to building a company, the fear that we entertain really is about being afraid of our thoughts of the future. That it simply causes us to fear things that at present do not, and may never exist. I wasted a lot of time stuck in this go-or-no-go state which mostly was driven by said fear. When starting up we ask ourselves, what if we make an app that could do this and that, and then freak out when that “what if” breeds doubt, and that doubt turns into anxiety that magnifies our fears of failing, into apocalypse-causing let downs. He sat me down, drew this diagram in the sand and said to me. Envision the future, but live in the now, that for every what if not, ask “Yes…but what if?

Dont worry, be happy, even as a dropout.
Reminds me of ¹ the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr.

This might seem like the “feel good” opium that everyone is selling. The truth, however, is that we need to accept what we cannot change right now and focus on what we can. This acceptance isn’t and should not be defeat, it is losing a battle in order to win the war. What is strange is that we know this as human beings, yet we allow ourselves to be incapacitated by our fear of things that do not as yet exist, scaring ourselves into non-action. I decided to drop out of school and then spent 2 months paralysed by the fear of doing so, it was essentially 2 months of not acting on my goals.

Castles don’t just float in the sky.

Work on the foundation, slowly rise up to the fifth floor, whether or not you dropout.
Work on the foundation going up.

You cannot simply start by constructing the 5th floor of a building and suspend it in the air. You have to dig deep in order to grow it upward. We mostly startup with this expectation that in the next 6 months we will reach that tipping point where growth just miraculously happens, forgetting that, to build that 5 storey building, we have to dig deep foundations first, lest it all tumbles down and buries us with it. We have to make the foundations water-proof and stress test. It might be disheartening because we feel this urgent need to get to that first floor, to show the immediate results of our hard labour seeing as everyone else only counts the above ground level going up. The most successful companies I know, are built on foundations of pivots and failures which took time and great effort to lay brick by brick. We instead marvel at their now towering heights and assume that it was by sudden flight, which is never the case. Entrepreneurs need to be cognisant of this fact. It will take longer and feel twice as hard as they said it would on day one and that is okay.  In our haste to become successful, we try and skip over important issues that then shape our focus and drive. We cannot try and float the five floors, we simply have to focus on what has to be done in the formative stages, the laying of the foundation and the preparation for the launch before all else.

The hours really do matter.

We cannot try to defer the present in pursuit of the future. It just does not happen that way nor can we just delegate it. We have to go through the drowning motions of the present, that all-pain-no-joy phase where most of us quit and just go back to normalcy. It is over this time when we each have to work on our craft. When we learn by doing, when we focus on the basics and understand where the opportunity really is.Thomas Edison said that reason why most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work!

Opportunity, dressed like work., what dropouts should learn and understand.
Opportunity dressed in overalls and looking like work!

We have to put in the hours and learn how to see it, how to undress and redress it, and how to work smart and not hard about it. It doesn’t end there, we then have to habitualize putting in the hours. It is never a one-time intense exertion of oneself. It is putting in the hours every day of every week for however long a time period, until “putting in the hours” is the new normal. Motivational speakers talk about how it takes 10 000 hours to attain mastery in one skill, and how it takes 3 weeks to form a habit. These denote the minimum amount of time required to acquire said habits and skills, which is only half the battle. It takes much more to maintain, cultivate and inculcate the skills or habits into the way we live on a day to day basis, which should be our goal.

We are humans first then entrepreneurs.

No one was born and designated the title ‘entrepreneur.’ There was no heavens-parting proclamation that entitled us to just being that. So consequentially we all are students/fathers/mothers/professionals/insert-life-role-here AND then are entrepreneurs. So deciding to create value shouldn’t be an excuse for underperforming and/or not showing up in your other roles in life.  Being an entrepreneur isn’t a guilt free pass to mediocrity. It is asserting that you will perform your required roles in life, and then some. It demands that you be more, be better, faster, smarter than your former self. The honest truth is that the world doesn’t care that we have other roles, you cannot tell a customer that you failed to deliver the promised value because you had “work pressure” or ” complicated relationship issues.”  That doesn’t mean that we sacrifice all else for the startup either, nor should we attempt to “create time” by deprioritizing the rest of your lives. You cannot defer the now in the hope of a better future when that future is built by doing what has to be done today.

When to become a dropout

dropouts don't think its like finishing school

Yes, it is true that these successful startup demi-gods dropped out of school. They, however, did not do that in pursuit of a desire or a partially formed idea. It was at that critical inflection point where their present circumstances ( be it a job or school) became a prison, stifling the growth of what they had created. Only at that point did they break out and explode into success. This also means that, prior to their jailbreak, they used said prison as a resource. It was their market, their office, and it fulfilled some of their team functions. I mean is it not easier (and cheaper) to ask someone from the accounts department to help you out with your taxes, or for someone from legal to advise you on how to draft your own contracts as opposed to quitting, and then hiring a tax/legal consultant that you will have to pay for?  Leverage on the colleagues, information and resources you have access to until the value of breaking out far outweighs the cost of staying in employment or school.  Entrepreneurs simply have to do what they can where they are with what they have and make it work.

Entrepreneurship is the process of creating value and capturing part of that value. It is a process of constant reinvention, that requires one to learn the art of completion, of not quitting when it becomes hard and knowing when to adapt, of sticking to the vision and actively translating the present into the future that they want to exist in. All of which takes a great deal of patience, much more than they prescribed when they sold it as the “all-problem-solving” drug that we should all get incredibly high on.

In the end

Instead of dropping out, I ended up taking a gap year to understand how to sustainably start-up and why I needed to do so. To refocus and look back at why I had sort to startup in the first place. It is easy to lose sight of that vision after four years of pivoting and iterating and chasing grand ideas down many rabbit holes. I returned, having figured out what value I needed to derive from being in college ( and it wasn’t just about getting a degree.)  I think the hardest part about being a student entrepreneur is realizing that albeit the amazing company that you are building against insurmountable odds, you still have to be a student, you have to show up for lectures at 8am after a 48-hour hackathon, and squeeze team meetings and work in-between tests, assignments, and presentations. You have to show up for everything else, and then be this relentless visionary out to change the world. I had to self-audit and manage time to the last 5 minutes, accepting that I cannot change the world right now, nor can I do so overnight, and instead, focus on learning all the simple fundamentals that I had rushed over in my first ( second and third) attempts at starting up.

Takunda Chingonzoh Written by:

Takunda Chingonzoh is the founder of The TechVillage, which is a collaborative working space for early stage entrepreneurs.

6 Comments

  1. takudzwa matandaware
    April 5, 2016
    Reply

    powerful.thank you for sharing that valuable information and experience with us..

  2. October 12, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing…you just changed my way of thinking with your writing.

  3. November 22, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks. You took a great decision not to drop out. Whatever is prepared for you in future will benefit from you not dropping out. On the other hand fare thee well from the club of of drop outs (succesful ones)

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