About a year ago, I was struggling. I was the CEO of a technology startup. We were going through some tough times, but we were okay. I wasn’t.
Looking back, I realized that my struggle was that while I was interested in what we were doing, it simply wasn’t meaningful to me. Being a CEO is a tough job. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I became one. I’m not afraid of tough jobs. In fact, I run marathons because I believe the struggle is often the point of the journey. But it has to be meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just struggle for the sake of struggle.
I’ve spent the last several months thinking about what I want to do next. I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve considered a lot of different things. Nothing felt right. Until recently.
Over the past two months, i took the time to answer the question, what is meaningful to me? It wasn’t easy. I didn’t do it in one sitting. I refined it over time. I imagine I’ll continue to refine it over the rest of my life. But today, I have a list of 13 values or virtues that I believe shape who I am today.
Five of them might be universal: gratitude, self-compassion, curiosity, authenticity, and growth or challenge. Over the past four years, I’ve deliberately focused on cultivating these traits. For some, like curiosity and authenticity, they’ve always been a big part of my life. But for others, like gratitude and self-compassion, they were brand new. Those last two were particularly helpful, in coming to grips with anxiety in general, and social anxiety specifically.
Four of them, are elements, that as long as I maintain some control over my life, they will always be a part of, they include: adventure, freedom, altruism, and big ideas. Now everyone, and particularly Americans, will say they value freedom. But freedom ranks so high on my list, that I’m willing to give up the benefits of say getting a job in order to preserve my freedom. I struggle with the concept of marriage and being a parent, because I value freedom so much. Understanding this, has made it far easier for me to accept that the “traditional” path might not be the right one for me.
The last four are more practical. At the end of the day, you have to get stuff done and this set represents how I want to get stuff done. They include: simplicity, teamwork, ownership, and grit.
And so now, you might ask, so what? What does this have to do with product?
I’ve worked on a lot of different products. I worked with a Science editor on creating a visual map of cellular pathways. I’ve worked on a continuing medical education product. I’ve worked on a search engine, a shopping site, a community platform, a recruiting service. And I was deeply interested in each and every one of them.
But if I’ve learned anything, it is interesting isn’t enough. When things get hard, when things go wrong, if you are merely interested, you lose interest. There’s nothing that motivates you to keep pushing through. It’s not about interesting. It’s about meaningful.
Building products is hard. Building products that people will actually use is really hard. I spent the past few months terrified that I might not find something that interested me enough to take action. Everything seemed exhausting. Nothing seemed quite worth it. I have a whole new appreciation for just how hard it is.
But then I focused on my values. I looked for my meaning. And today, if I ask myself, would I be happy spending my entire life building products that helped people be more grateful, or more curious, or more adventurous, the answer is absolutely yes. I can’t wait to get started.
Have you taken the time to identify what’s meaningful to you? It’s not easy. But I can tell you, it’s absolutely worth it.