Recently I was asked to speak to a Stanford class. Since I teach a course at Stanford, that request was not unusual. Often professors seek guest lectures from the faculty; I do it myself for my Fall Quarter Entrepreneurship course. However, this request was unusual in that the course is on “The Pursuit of Happiness and Health.” At Stanford? A graduate course attended by mostly MBA and PhD students? In the many years I spent as a student at Stanford in the 60s and early 70s, I never encountered a course like this. And probably the only reason I was asked was because a student who had attended my course last Fall is a Teaching Assistant in the class. Her question: Had I been happy throughout my entrepreneurial journey of many decades, with all its severe challenges and obvious moments of great stress and distress? And, if so, what lessons could I convey to her students? A rather daunting request.
I have never even bothered to define “happiness” before, or for that matter, to ponder the question overmuch. Perhaps that is because I was never truly “unhappy.” Yes, I have had many, many distraught moments in my life, especially as a business executive. But I weathered those moments, and in the integral of my life’s journey I have been happy and grateful. How to convey this in a way that speaks to these students, many just getting started with life’s journey and under the pressures of high financial and career expectations at this elite university?
Mindful of the mystique that entrepreneurs engender, especially in financial-success driven Silicon Valley, I decided to start the lecture with a simple graph: the valuation history of Catalytica, the company I co-founded, grew and sold. It shows an impressive hockey stick: an early, slightly sloping line that suddenly took off on a vertical axis towards a very satisfying end-value — the type of curve so typical of hundreds of business plans entrepreneurs show prospective investors. I even showed the vertical valuation axis: starting with an original investment of $30,000 from the three founders and ending with the sale of the company for almost $1 billion. At first, I did not show the horizontal time axis. I let the students “absorb” this impressive story of entrepreneurial success. Then I showed the time line: it took almost three decades! The upward swing occurred only in the final 4 years. The rest was a very gradual rising line that on the scale of the graph hid the long, tortuous, agonizing and, at points, despairing reality. It hid the struggles that truly tell the story, including the fact that to get to the end point we had to raise almost $300 million in financing, diluting the three founders to a very modest percentage. And it hid that we faced many moments where our lifeline was measured in months and we did not know if we would survive.
Was I happy along that long arduous trek? Yes. Why? Because my daily metric was not financial success. My daily metric was a deep underlying purpose, a purpose that transcended any and all of the vicissitudes that were thrown at us: the arrows, the sudden gulleys and walls, the storms, the misunderstandings and the disappointments that beset us over the years.
In my Stanford Fall course, I speak repeatedly of the power of the dream and the importance of passion as a core inner characteristic of the entrepreneurial leader. I use Catalytica as a case study, conveying the mission that helped galvanize and focus us: to use our scientific skills to create manufacturing technology that was efficient and environmentally sound, that would marry economics with environmental responsibility to create a significant company.
Yet it was not until asked to deliver this “happiness” lecture that I examined more deeply my own true personal purpose in founding and growing a company. While the concept of environmentally sound and economically viable technology definitely connected with me, and was also probably a deep personal driver for many of my colleagues, for me what made my heart really “sing” was a little simpler: the desire to use my love of science and engineering to create breakthrough innovation in a work environment of deep cooperation, trust and support, an environment where we would not only be allowed to maximize our gifts and skills, but also accept and recognize our shortcomings and flaws. A depth of innovation and a supportive environment that would make us eager to come to work every day.
Why is this relevant? Because I believe that the key to my happiness was the congruence between my deepest drives and my everyday environment. And through the ups and downs of a three-decade entrepreneurial journey, this deeper purpose informed my actions – often unconsciously – and insured that these actions were in harmony with my core values.
We hear a lot about “core values.” The term is bantered about in groups, for teams, and at companies which, through elaborate exercises, come up with value statements that can be written on plastic-encased 3 x 4 cards to be toted in pockets or posted on walls, websites or in an annual reports. But I have always wondered what it really meant, this set of core values we were expected to recite at the drop of a hat (or at least, when the topic came up, make others believe we could by nodding our heads in agreement). I finally realized that our values are not really a list, not even a set of articulated beliefs or a formulaic set of codes. Our values are our response to events, and our behavior in the face of what life throws at us. It is in this response that we show our humanity, our character, our timbre as leaders. It flows from deep inside, and is framed by our deepest purpose.
That is why pondering our deepest purpose is so important. My message: find your true inner purpose, articulate it, massage it, feel it. Then let it be the conscious template of all your actions.
It also means that to embody our values we need the capacity to match issues and actions to that purpose, and the capacity to let events be digested in the crucible of our inner being for sufficient time to frame our response. This needs quiet space; it needs moments of inner peace. And it is one reason why I include in my Stanford course an entire session on spiritual anchor and meditation.
Another revelation: For a long time I have felt a power in reflecting on what I would like to see in my epitaph. I have talked about this with my wife, expressing to her that when I die I would like my tombstone to have a very simple statement: He touched and he cared. As I look at the statement of deep purpose I shared above, it really comes down to two words: impact and harmony. I see now how parallel these two principles are to my proposed epitaph… And how embodying my values and my purpose in life have been inexorably linked to my happiness.