— by Jeff Haanen
What really motivates us as entrepreneurs?
I ask the question because in the past 6 months, I’ve started to notice some disconcerting cracks in my own character. In 2018, as an entrepreneur, father and husband, externally, things have thrived. Internally, however, I’ve struggled.
I’ve noticed my patience has gotten shorter with my kids. I haven’t been the kind of husband I want to be. My ability to deal with stress almost seems to be diminishing. I’ve felt spiritually fragile. As I’ve tried to understand what’s happening inside of me, I’ve come back to the question: what is really motivating me to build, grow, and achieve? What is driving me?
In 2013, I started Denver Institute for Faith & Work. It was exhilarating. We pitched the idea to a handful of donors. They started giving and we took off. Beginning in January of 2014, we hosted over 600 people at 6 events over 7 months. More donors came, and we eventually hired a communications director and event director. In 2016, we launched the 5280 Fellowship, our flagship program for emerging leaders in theology, work and culture. Recently, we launched a new online learning platform called Scatter. For a few years, everything looked up and to the right.
Last year, however, I hit a wall. I was doing too much. I was connected in too many spots. I felt exhausted. The this-is-cool thing wore off, and I thought of tossing in the towel. So we restructured. I gave more responsibility to my COO who now leads our internal operations. We built more systems to stabilize, and bring about trust and accountability.
Yet even with the changes, I’ve realized that something inside of me is driving me – something that I wish would quiet down. There’s a good desire in me to build, create, make a positive impact on my city. But there’s also something that’s unhealthy that is bubbling under the surface.
What is it? What really motivates me? What really motivates us as entrepreneurs?
At a recent gathering of the Entrepreneur’s Forum at Denver Institute for Faith & Work (DIFW), the organization I founded, I asked that question to a room of 60 founders and early stage entrepreneurs. Stories emerged.
One founder in Denver built a recruiting company. He told me many of the CEOs he works for come home to their families with significant stress, principally because of staffing issues. In a tight labor market like Denver, entry-level employees are tough to come by – and tough to keep. Sometimes they don’t show up, can’t get to work, or they have some kind of personal issue. And at the end of the day, the company can’t fulfill orders due to personnel problems, and it’s the CEOs responsibility.
And so one day I asked my friend, “Why don’t they simply invest more in their frontline employees? Wouldn’t this help to retain their labor and help fix their biggest headache?”
My friend shared with me over coffee that every single CEO says they would invest 10% of their salary if they could solve their staffing issues. But when the time comes, the vast majority don’t. Why?
“Because when you start making over $1 million dollars a year,” my friend at the recruiting company said, “and you drop below that mark, you feel like you’re failing. And so they protect their salary even if it’s causing them and those around them pain.”
They feel like they’re failing. Though I couldn’t identify with making over $1 million a year, I could identify with the feeling of failure – no matter what had happened in my organization last month. Oddly enough, after I publish a big article or pull off a big event for business leaders, this is precisely the time in the year when I feel like I’m failing the most!
After the big deal is done, so many of founders I know feel like they’re failing deeply. Why is this? Where does the feeling of failure come from?
What is really driving so much of our entrepreneurship? I believe that its fundamentally about our identity. Too many of us are trying to prove our worth in a world that seems empty of it.
At one of the early small groups at DIFW’s Entrepreneur’s Forum, over lunch we shared about how we see ourselves. One day, the topic of our fathers came up. A full three quarters of us had really significant issues with our dads and significant pain we’ve taken into adulthood. We realized in our conversation that there’s a part of us that’s longing to be recognized. Because it wasn’t there early in life, there’s something inside of us that keeps driving us. To go, create, achieve. To prove our worth. We simply want somebody to notice out of an internal voice that incessantly says, “It’s never enough.”
No success is ever enough to fill the void within.
Culturally, I believe we’re in a weird spot with entrepreneurship. We have a hero complex we’ve built around entrepreneurs. They’re the formable founders who fuel the economy, suffer the pains of a startup, and finally “make it” and either sell or IPO. They sacrifice their bodies, their minds, their time – everything – for the sake of their startup.
Whenever I hear those stories, I must confess, they sound like a savior story. Both the founder – and their fans – are really longing for salvation.
I’ve come to believe that Christianity can offer all entrepreneurs – including myself - the only, final healthy motive for building a business. That foundation is this: in Christ, your identity is already spoken for. It cannot change. It is never at risk. Your success or your failures can’t touch it.
Recently a video of 10-year-old Ivey Zezulka made its way around the internet. It was of a girl who just realized she was going to be adopted. Her adoptive parents gave her a package. When she opened the package, she read a picture frame and said, “I’m going to be adopted?” And when she said this she covered her mouth and began to cry. And so did I.
Why? Because not only do kids in the foster system struggle with deep, internal narratives of who will really accept me – but I do, too. When I am completely exposed and internally sense that I’m a failure who will never really amount to much, where do I turn?
This is the critical difference that Christianity can offer entrepreneurs that no other religion or worldview can offer.
Jesus says to entrepreneurs, “You are mine. All the work has been done through my death and resurrection. You can add nothing to it and take nothing from it. Now be free. To work. To create. To build a business. To fail. No matter what, you no longer need to prove yourself. You are now a part of the family. Your identity is spoken for. You are mine. You are home.”
The freedom for the faith-driven entrepreneur is that in Christ, all the work is finally finished. Our work, then, is simply to listen, obey, and to tend the vine given to us. And when it grows, to marvel at the handiwork of the Gardener.