The Entrepreneurial Storm
On Method and Madness, Calling and Compulsion in Startups and Life
[A] writer's works, like the water in an artesian well, mount to a height which is in proportion to the depth to which suffering has penetrated his soul. —Marcel Proust
Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. —Albert Camus
Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts. —Seneca
Above: A portrait of a founder on days that end in y.
Everyone knows that founding a company—going from -1 to 0, let alone Zero to One—takes a particular sort of person.
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Alchemically, the proper recipe might include equal parts superhuman willpower and immense resiliency alongside some spoonfuls of naïveté, a wee bit of delusion, and a hefty helping of hope.
Take it from someone who has tried and failed—How to Kill a Startup: A Short, Ten Step Guide.
Though I’m neither founder nor alchemist, I can string sentences together. As writer, I’m in the business of showing, not telling (at least that’s what I tell myself!).1 To that end, a visceral description might be more appropriate than mere laundry list of characteristics.
A quote from Napster founder and former Facebook President Sean Parker fits the bill: Running a start-up is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.
Parker’s description does a good job articulating the gruesome nature of a scaling a startup. It’s more often wailing and gnashing of (bloody) teeth, than sunshine and unicorns.
Serial founder, funder, and Chief Twit Elon Musk elaborated on this in a memorable, though heart-wrenching, interview:
To add salt to the wound and context to the blood, Nvidia’s cofounder and CEO, Jensen Huang echoed these sentiments in a slightly different way:
Both excerpts—from two titans of startupland—are so searingly honest that they bear repeating.
First Musk, who has an estimated net worth of $202 billion:
My mind is a storm. I don’t think most people would want to be me. They may think they would want to be me, but they don’t, they don’t know, they don’t understand.
In another interview, Musk went on:
My mind often feels…like a very wild storm…I’m a fountain of ideas. I mean I have more ideas than I could possibly execute…These demons of the mind…are, for the most part, harnessed to productive ends. That doesn’t mean, once in a while they, you know, go wrong.
Next Huang, who has an estimated net worth of $35 billion:
I wouldn’t do it…Building Nvidia turned out to have been a million times harder than I expected it to be—than any of us expected it to be. If we realized the pain and suffering [involved] and just how vulnerable you’re going to feel, the challenges that you’re going to endure, the embarrassment and the shame, and the list of all the things that go wrong—I don’t think anybody would start a company. Nobody in their right mind would do it.
Both are fabulously successful—masters of their respective universes—and yet almost painfully tormented.
Well—though prominent—these two men are human beings, just like you and I.
With existence comes emotions; with emotions, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In fact, the more I rewatched these conversations and reflected on these sentiments, the more similarities I could draw between the plight of founders and my personal struggle with Tourette and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
If you really think about it, Elon’s description, Huang’s response, and Parker’s quote could apply to any neurological or mental illness, except for the fact that you never really “like”—let alone get used to—the sound of your own cerebral cacophony.
To have Tourette is to live a life of controlled entropy. It is a careening, a hurtling through life, a mad dash not only to function, but also to keep neurological frenzy at bay.
It is a volatile sanity, an outlandish existence, a rush of frantic energy that can neither be controlled nor properly harnessed. It is a flubbing and fat fingering through life; one of harried chaos and of jostlings that constantly threaten to interrupt thoughts, words, movements, and existence, itself.
It feels like life lived at the precipice, the intersection of control and chaos; that subconscious, instinctual realization when you know you’ve arrived at the proverbial edge.
It is the skier careening downhill, narrowly missing a tree or ridge.
It is the child unsteadily learning to ride a bicycle, knowing that a crash and a bloodied knee are imminent.
It is the duckling projecting an image of serenity while pedaling furiously under the water’s surface.
It is the soldier, prone in his foxhole, trembling as bullets zip and whiz all around him.
Like Huang with Nvidia, if given the chance, I would never have received the diagnosis at age nine. That said, I believe that I am a better, stronger, kinder, more empathetic man for having lived with it.
I suppose this is why I love working alongside founders: because my experience is so similar to theirs.
Each of the following statements applies not only to founding a company, but also living with Tourette:
It’s so damn hard.
People will judge, laugh at, dismiss you from afar and up close.
It requires enormous energy to keep going.
There’s never a dull moment as no two days are ever alike.
It waxes and wanes.
Little Fires Everywhere could be the title of a memoir.
People don’t understand until they’ve done it or been in your shoes.
There’s a frenetic excitement about you that you just can’t help.
People underestimate you at their own peril.
You are teeming with energy.
The actual work is rarely exciting. In fact, it tends to be humdrum if not downright painful.
You have to act with speed when presented with challenges and opportunities.
It’s more compulsion than calling.
The most significant part of the associated trauma is the feeling of helplessness.
No matter how proactive you try to be, you are more often reactive to different stimuli.
There is so much you can’t control and so little you can.
It can’t be cured. Once you have it, you can only attempt to manage or treat it.
While to some the above might seem awful, it brings to mind one of my favorite stories in the Bible: David and Goliath.
The beautiful thing about the story is that, against all odds, David wins.
This clear, unequivocal message of hope proves that with the right tools, a bit of courage, some luck, and proper execution, the scrappy startup can beat the gargantuan corporation and the David of Healing can overcome the Goliath of Illness.
When faced with your own inevitable storms, heed the words of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo:
Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes. You must look into that storm and shout…Do your worst, for I will do mine!
To paraphrase 2 Timothy 4:7, I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race, I will keep the faith.
Per my about page, White Noise is a work of experimentation. I view it as a sort of thinking aloud, a stress testing of my nascent ideas. Through it, I hope to sharpen my opinions against the whetstone of other people’s feedback, commentary, and input.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas or musings mentioned above or have any books, papers, or links that you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of White Noise, please reach out to me by replying to this email or following me on
With sincere gratitude,
Pun very much intended.