In our 30s we are supposed to have a midlife crisis. I’m turning 39 this Sunday and I’m still anxiously paying attention to upcoming symptoms. But as with many common phrases, society has hollowed this term out to no longer be descriptive at all. It brings up the image of a depressed bald guy driving a Porsche, much to the disdain of his immediate social circles. Today I wonder if it’s something else: a subtle insecurity regarding one’s identity, in which case I must come to terms with the reality that I’ve already experienced one.
In May 2019 I left the company that I founded. Interestingly, beyond that point, when asked at social gatherings what my profession was, I struggled. I had been a ‘PhD student’ for some time, and then I was an ‘entrepreneur’. And then my job title became ‘nothing’. And for two years now I’ve been ‘nothing’.
That doesn’t mean I feel useless or depressed. I love life and fully appreciate my freedom. I just don’t have a job title. And to society that is a problem. Society must be able to place you in a bucket, with a descriptive label. It deals poorly with those that are ‘nothing’. Enter nagging sensation that just doesn’t seem to go away.
I’m an investor in startups, yet I don’t identify as an ‘investor’; I think this is because the act of investing only takes a couple of seconds as you place your signature and it’s not something you do every day. There is a lot more to it, obviously, but that’s not captured in ‘investor’. I don’t want to be that.
I spend a lot of time with my family, which is a blessing. I’ve been trying out ‘stay-at-home dad’ a couple times in conversations (aren’t we all nowadays?), and that leads to positive conversations. Of course this only captures a small part of what I do, and hence, it still feels unfitting.
In a memorable conversation with friend CPB I had during a beautiful trail run we touched upon the subject. I took a lot from that. One conclusion, we figured, is that we need these simple concepts to connect to other people. When we say what (or is it who?) we are, people know how to connect and what they can expect from us. And if the answer is vague, things become unproductive.
With my birthday in sight, I’ve come to realise that the opposite is also true: when we are explicit about what we want to be, things can become very productive. You become what you aspire to be.
Some years ago, when I was still an ‘entrepreneur’, I was at AfrikaBurn. It was late in the evening and we were sitting around the camp fire, talking amongst friends about life & the universe. Then a lady, mid-50s, speaking English with a charming French accent, walked by. She had come to see our neighbours’ theatre show, which was supposed to take place at 10-ish, but as with all things AfrikaBurn: The -ish makes it very optional. It might be 11. Or 12. Or not at all. So she joined our camp fire talk and instead made a memory that will be with me forever.
Her story on how she ended up in South Africa was fascinating and involved the end of Apartheid, IBM and hope for a better future. But at some point in our conversation, she asked me that question again: ‘What do you do?’. ‘I’m an ‘entrepreneur’,’ I replied. Back then that captured the essence perfectly. She smiled, looked me in the eyes and gave me a response that told me she understood: ‘Ah, so, you create, get people together and make them happy working on your ideas.’ Now that’s a job title worth pursuing.
Before that conversation I never looked at it that way. That the actual job is to have fun together, as a team. There are downsides too, obviously. Adversity and failing in a multitude of ways, not in the least bit at the ‘making them happy’ part. But overall it makes sense: Let’s bring people together, create an environment where everyone can be at their best and be happy. And I miss doing that. So here goes:
Hi I’m Peter. I’m an ‘entrepreneur’. I have an idea worth building and soon it is going to happen. The reason I’m writing this down today of all days is because I just encountered the first bit of adversity. Being an entrepreneur, I will solve it, together with wonderful & bright people that I meet along the journey. I may fail and that can be a scary thought. But that comes with the job title, and it’s worth taking a leap because of the big reward: I get to create and bring people together. I hope I can make them happy, as we work towards something that I believe is worth doing.
I will post updates on this journey here. Stay tuned.