Lettuce Pickers

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Fredo Pareto. 

On Humanity 

The internet disagrees on who said this, but whether it was the Dalai Lama or former World Vision director Jim Brown, I really don't care. Either way, it's easily one of the most profound treatises on modern life that I've ever read. 
Context: someone asked the author what he thought about humanity, and he replied: 
Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices his money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived. 
Note: I'm an entrepreneur. So I'm writing this for entrepreneurs, although I imagine my point could easily apply to any number of professions. 

Entrepreneurs, think about your own life. 

Recall a time when money was scarce (you might still be there). Now think about all of the things you've sacrificed to build your company. Among them is probably a number of things that, in the long-run, you'll one day realize you should never have sacrificed. Maybe it's your health, or maybe it's your intimate relationships. Maybe it's your urge to be creative--and time spent actually creating--that got you started as an entrepreneur in the first place. 
The force of this treatise is to call out imbalance. Whatever your values are, if you think that you can simply put them on pause for a time and later resume exactly where you left off, you're wrong. 
As the quote says, for example, when you put your health on pause, the cost required to recover it snowballs each day you ignore it. 
So, this concept of virtue that praises entrepreneurs for sacrifice is actually harmful, in the same way that suggesting it virtuous to not eat for months, to save money, is harmful. It's not harmful in any case; it's only harmful if it's unqualified. 

Who Entrepreneurs Learn From? 

The truth is that new entrepreneurs rely on seasoned entrepreneurs (as well as other non-entrepreneurs who sometimes assume the role of speaking for seasoned entrepreneurs; I'm sure you know who I am talking about) to teach them how building a company could be done, and, how it should be done. 
If seasoned entrepreneurs had more control over the stories other people told about them, then I am willing to bet that these people would take more of an active role in steering new entrepreneurs clear of the same mistakes they made when they were new, mistakes like deluding yourself into thinking that imbalance and ignoring your values for a time are okay. 
To illustrate what I see actually happening during the indoctrination of new entrepreneurs, let me talk about lettuce for a minute. 


In the US, most of the lettuce we eat is supplied by massive agri-businesses and picked by poor, unskilled laborers. The irony of lettuce is that many poor people, including those toiling to pick it, cannot afford to eat it. This is generally true of most fresh produce. 
It's not that a lettuce picker could not, for example, take his week's wages down to the nearest grocery store and afford to buy a bag of lettuce. Assuming there is a nearby grocery store within commuting distance (although there often is not in many parts of the country where poor people live), he probably could afford to buy a bag of lettuce. 
But the reason he does not--and, why it would arguably be economically irrational for him to--is that his small handful of dollars can buy so few calories in the fresh produce section. Picking lettuce by hand under the hot sun, bent at the waist for eight hours a day, everyday, is hard work (I know because both of my grandfathers were farmers). There is a minimum number of calories this lettuce picker needs just to fuel his daily labor, and he probably has less of a chance securing those in the fresh produce section. 
Plus, I doubt many lettuce pickers have access to a refrigerator to preserve, say, a week's worth of fresh produce in between trips to the grocery store. 
I could probably continue to speculate why lettuce pickers don't eat lettuce, but I believe I have made my point: lettuce, which is the primary ingredient in salad, is a food for people more affluent than lettuce pickers. 
This is why it makes little sense for lettuce pickers to take advice from people who have never picked lettuce. It's not that people who have never picked lettuce have nothing good to offer; it's that they do not understand the practical challenges of working your way out of the fields. 
Perhaps there are some people who used to pick lettuce who can now afford to eat salad. If a lettuce picker has any ambition of upward mobility or accumulating wealth, this former lettuce picker would be the ideal person to seek advice from. The second best source of advice would probably be other lettuce pickers with similar ambitions. What are their ambitions, and how do they compare to yours? What have they tried and failed? What have they gotten right? What has worked for them, and what did not? What lessons have they learned? 
In any community of similarly stationed people of ambition, there is power in sharing lessons learned, positive affirmation of little victories, and identifying heroes who share your values and stand as proof that improving your station in some particular way is actually possible. 
There is no power, however, in selecting heroes who have never picked lettuce. 

What The Triangle Startup Ecosystem Needs (and Doesn't)? 

In my opinion, what the Triangle startup ecosystem needs more of is not advice from people who have never been entrepreneurs. Nor does the ecosystem need gatekeepers and spokespersons who have never been entrepreneurs. 

Yes, there is a place in the ecosystem for non-entrepreneurs. Universities, accelerators, incubators, investors, etc.--we appreciate your contributions, but we think it wise that entrepreneurs be their own spokespersons, and we think it wise that all efforts to "build up the ecosystem," be aimed at engendering more entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur relationships. 

(Gut check: when was the last time you gave a Triangle entrepreneur a public affirmation or actually signed up to be his/her customer?) 
Many people have suggested that what needs to happen to get the Triangle to where we want it to be is something like this: 
  1. Some number of entrepreneurs need to exit for some amount of money. 
  2. Some percentage of those nouveau riche entrepreneurs need to start investing in other entrepreneurs. 
  3. And this cycle needs to snowball over time. 
If you think this, then you're wrong. 
Yes, insofar as this happens, it might measurably improve the ecosystem. But nine out of ten entrepreneurs would likely never benefit from this (I made that number up, by the way, but it's probably about right). Regardless of how much startup capital investors have to give, most entrepreneurs who seek it will not get it, and many of those who get it will squander it. 
Plus—and this is just my opinion—wouldn't it be cool if we built a unique ecosystem known for its entrepreneurs who know how to get to cash flow-positive faster than anyone else? Think about how much more likely investors would be to want to invest here if our battle-cry weren't, "if only we had access to capital?" 
So what I mean is that if you think that more investment in startups here is necessary, you're wrong. It's possible that it's sufficient, but my analysis says to doubt even that. The only thing necessary to build the startup ecosystem we want is entrepreneurs who can build it. 

Going Far > Going Fast 

I began with one attribution-less quote, and I'll end with another: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Other than that some African said this, I can't give you any context for this one. 
But what I can tell you is how it's been true in my own career as an entrepreneur. Every good thing I've ever accomplished as an entrepreneur has resulted from my own investment in my relationships with other entrepreneurs. Everything else—the disasters, the stress, the distractions—resulted from me failing to keep this a priority.