Find a problem that matters to you so much that you can go after with such intensity of focus and passion that you look like a rambunctious dog chasing after a tennis ball, unable to even think about anything else for months at a time.
Too many people are putting their lives into building something they just aren’t that passionate about and that doesn’t actually make the world a better place.
Both Max Marmer in the 2012 Harvard Business Review article “Transformational Entrepreneurship” and C.Z. Nnaemeka in 2013 MIT Entrepreneurship Review article “The Unexotic Underclass” have lamented the lack of startups striving to solve the big problems. Don’t build a silly app that takes sepia-toned photos of cats or an app for sending photos that disappear after 10 seconds. If you’re going to go through the hell of building a startup, you might as well come out the other side having built something that actually made a difference in the world and solved a big problem. Yes, you can start hacking at solving a big problem by solving little problems… but always keep the end goal in mind.
Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston shared in his 2013 MIT Commencement address, “The happiest and most successful people I know don’t just love what they do, they’re obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through whatever gets in the way.”
Fortunately, it’s actually a lot easier to work intensely on solving a problem you are really passionate about. Taking the time to find out what problems in the world you are passionate about solving is the key. In my view, life is just too short to build things that don’t make the world better.
Thomas Edison once explained his approach to innovation succinctly:
“I find out what the world needs. Then, I go ahead and invent it.”
The most successful businesses tend to be born out of that sweet spot where what the world needs intersects with what you are deeply passionate about. If you don’t know what your personal mission is—what change you want to create in the world—start there. You may want to read the section How to Make Dreams Real.
The Easiest Way to Decide What Type of Business to Build
Big Problems = Big Opportunities
“I don’t skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going.” –Wayne Gretzky
If you want to build a really big business you have to solve a really big problem. Here are some areas that contain both big problems and big opportunities. Some of them are already pressing issues, others are just appearing on the horizon. These issues need courageous and inspired business leaders to build scalable solutions that can impact billions of people. If one of these areas aligns with what you care about, you could have the chance to make a big difference. Here are some areas that contain many of the biggest opportunities of 2015-2035.
Clean Water Access
Private Space Exploration
Contact Lens Smartphones
Challenge yourself to tink bigger and challenge yourself to build a company that matters in the world and solves major human problems. That’s how you become a billionaire while making major impact. And if you’re not familiar with the above topic areas, take the Singularity University Executive Program in Mountain View, CA, or go on The Great Courses and watch this future of science and technology course from Jeffrey Grossman. These were the two courses I took in Summer 2012 that greatly increased my understanding of the latest opportunities to build companies that are commercializing science and solving major human problems.
Build a Business That Actually Aligns With Your Life Purpose
Before you begin a new business or find a new problem to solve, take the time to write down your life purpose. Think about the change you seek to create in the world, and then start a company to make that change real. Ask yourself these three questions:
What are the big problems I see in the world?
Which one am I most passionate about solving?
How can I create a business that solves that problem, creates value some people are willing to pay for, and makes the world better?
Don’t make the mistake of building a company if you’re not deeply passionate about the problem you are trying to solve. Too many startups try to solve problems they’re not passionate about solving—and they burn out because they don’t have the source of inspiration and energy to carry them through the tough times. Knowing that your business mission is aligned with your personal life mission can help immeasurably to keep you on course and give you the resilience to weather the storms that are sure to come. Once you know who you want to become, you can direct your life rather than letting outside factors control you. Here’s my life purpose:
To build and invest in companies which use technology and design to solve major human challenges.
Finding this core motivation at age 18 has been critical to getting me through the difficult and challenging times. It’s helped me to find the strength from within to perservere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. In line with my life mission, I’m now building a company called Connect to make it easier for people to communicate with each other around the world. We hope to become the leader in social mapping, and we know we have a lot of hard work ahead. What you do, don’t make the mistake of building a company if you’re not deeply passionate about the problem you are trying to solve. Too many startups build crappy applications that don’t make the world better or try to solve problems they’re just not passionate about solving—and they burn out because they don’t have the source of inspiration and energy to carry them through the tough times. Knowing that your business mission is aligned with your personal life mission can help immeasurably to keep you on course and give you the resilience to weather the storms that are sure to come.
If You Need To, Start Small . . . But Stay Aligned
If the scale of the problems I just listed intimidates you, start smaller. Pick a small problem that you feel ready to tackle—but don’t forget your overriding motivation and mission. If you can start with a small problem that is aligned with your greater mission, it can act as a confidence-builder and a stepping stone to the bigger problems you care about solving. Let who you are and what you believe in come out in all that you create. You’re trading your life in order to bring what your startup builds to the world. What you build is truly your gift to the world. Make your gift awesome.