One of the central propositions of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence. This means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals — independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”) — rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). But can this hold true for entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs don’t only work for their companies, they are their companies. They are the minds, hearts, hands, essence and vision that define and shape the company. If they didn’t define themselves this way, the company wouldn't exist in the first place. This internal attachment is so profound that makes this psychological and mental existential disengagement practically impossible for founders.
This brings several issues on the table such as the notion of the Absurd. Absurd, contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. In the case of the entrepreneur the struggle is double as she has to give meaning to her own existence and -as a consequence- to her company. She has to give meaning to her actions but also value to the product. It is the equivalent of having to pitch why you exist every time you meet someone and then persuade him that your life is worth living. Who does this shit? This is difficult to clearly articulate for one’s company, let alone achieving for one’s own existence. Having those two closely knitted entities influencing each other constantly, the entrepreneur faces a deep existential angst on a double level.
And referring to the existential angst, sometimes called dread, anxiety, or anguish let’s give it a go: existential angst is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. Oh boy, don’t get me started with the responsibilities of the entrepreneur. The archetypal example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it, but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. Where cliff: put the word startup. However, the unknown, absurd situation where you are afraid of entering it’s something that the entrepreneur ends up craving for.
Moreover, entrepreneurs usually face despair, defined as a loss of hope. More specifically, despair is a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one’s self or identity. What sets the existentialist notion of despair apart from the conventional definition is that existentialist despair is a state one is in even when he isn't overtly in despair. So long as a person’s identity depends on qualities that can crumble, he is in perpetual despair. Entrepreneurs are defined by what they do: this takes up most of their time, devotion, emotional and mental resources. And -especially in the first steps of the company- the foundational elements of this identification are flaky, utterly questionable and easily shatterable.
As Kierkegaard defines it in Either/Or: “Let each one learn what he can; both of us can learn that a person’s unhappiness never lies in his lack of control over external conditions, since this would only make him completely unhappy.’’ There are so many unknown conditions, pitfalls, challenges and risks every single day in the life of an entrepreneur that the if we follow this existential logic, despair should be the only state. It’s also the long hours, instability and soul-grinding lows that puts the founder in a constant existential crisis with no relief in sight.
But there’s something different here, I can even say irrational, about the behaviours of entrepreneurs: we actually don’t get desperate. And even if we do, we resiliently come back. Entrepreneurs have optimism in their DNA. Such absurd creatures.
I’ll finish with a quote by Stanley Kubrick:
‘’The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism — and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man.
But, if he’s reasonably strong — and lucky — he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.’’
To all the romantic, nihilist, entrepreneurial hybrids out there: as entrepreneurs, we set out on our journey with a certainty of darkness, ups and downs, challenges and successes. But however vast this darkness, we must too supply our own light. Or at least try to find it.
Onwards and upwards.