Entrepreneurship and Eudaimonia: The Pursuit Of Lasting Happiness
Entrepreneurs who wish to find real, lasting happiness need to pursue what the Greeks called "eudaimonia."
There comes a moment in everyone's lives when the reality of adulthood sets in. When we're young, we think that milestones equate to maturity. Still, the wise know that is not the case — earning your driver's license, moving out of your parents' house, getting married, or even having a child aren't magical events that signal passage into adulthood.
I believe that real adulthood arrives unannounced and without fanfare. Its arrival is marked not by a social milestone but by the slow realization of what matters in life.
I've spent the last decade of my life as an entrepreneur dedicated to working with small businesses and have written extensively about the entrepreneurial journey. During that time, I've had smashing successes, devastating personal failures and everything in between. Nearly every moment of the roller coaster ride I've been on has been preserved through my writing and television work, and it's fascinating for me to reflect on the changes I've experienced.
Without a doubt, the most popular and impactful piece I've ever written debuted in 2016 and discussed the topic of depression amongst entrepreneurs. Four years on, that article has been read by over four million people, many of whom have reached out to me for personal advice. The experience has been both humbling and eye-opening.
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Since writing the article, I've sold a business, had several successful investments and a few scorching failures. Today I spend my time leading a mission-based lender, serving as an advisor to select companies, writing and teaching at Arizona State University. I've also learned many hard lessons, which in turn have changed my perspective on life, happiness and success.
I believe that this relatively recent shift in perspective signaled the moment that I indeed became an adult. That realization, coupled with the ongoing tumult that we're currently experiencing on a societal level, is why I felt it was an appropriate time to expand on the concepts I shared so long ago.
Today, rather than try to "win" the struggle with depression and anxiety, I encourage the entrepreneurs I advise to instead strive for eudaimonia.
For those not familiar with the term, eudaimonia is an ancient philosophical concept that the Stoics defined as "living in agreement with nature." Modern audiences, however, will better recognize the idea as true, sustainable happiness regardless of circumstance.
Understanding the concept of eudaimonia and what it means in practice is the key to overcoming the challenges and anxieties we face now and in the future.
Friedrich Nietzsche coined the term "amor fati," which translates to "a love of one's fate." However, the concept of accepting what is beyond your control far predates Nietzsche, likely originating with Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
Regardless of your spiritual belief, there is no denying that what will happen will happen. We might try to ascribe meaning or agency to the things that befall us, but in all reality, the only thing we can control is our reaction to these events. Nothing that happens to us is objectively good or bad in and of itself. Instead, our response determines the impact these things have on our lives.
Amor fati is a concept that has deep personal meaning for me. In early 2020, I experienced the first massive failure of my career. A combination of factors, including Covid-19, led to the closure of an on-demand logistics concept I was attempting to introduce into North America. I had invested heavily in the business, both financially and in terms of my efforts. The closure was a severe blow to my wallet as well as my ego.
The experience wasn't a pleasant one, and I certainly took time to lick my wounds and regroup. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that it was a phenomenal learning experience. The pain I endured taught me essential business lessons and forced me to become a better husband, father and leader. Today, I consider it akin to earning an incredibly expensive MBA.
Many are shocked that I can look back on such a traumatic event as neutral and even find value in the experience. However, I've come to learn that such a view is essential to achieving eudaimonia. I couldn't have avoided the situation, and although it was painful, I still had the choice to crumble under pressure or find joy in the circumstances I faced. This might look like a feat of supreme resilience on the surface, but I don't view it that way. Instead, I see it as a choice that I had the agency to make.
Many entrepreneurs will face ongoing challenges, and many won't have the safety net I had. Still, regardless of circumstance, we must all ask ourselves: How will I respond? Things will happen to us. Some will benefit us, while others will pose setbacks. Our only option is to react, and that reaction is up to us.
Exchange lesser, lower things for higher ideals
The brutal truth of eudaimonia is that the things that we think make us happy — an easy path, wealth, commercial success — don't make us happy. Ask anyone who has sold their company or come into money; it makes life more comfortable, but it doesn't lead to a real change in happiness.
Real happiness comes from self-discovery, gradual improvement and a sense of purpose. I realize this is a small consolation for someone facing a business closure or the loss of a home due to the pandemic. Those are uncomfortable and painful things, but it doesn't change the fact that the only aspect of the situation under your control is your reaction.
Remember, eudaimonia is not the same as euphoria. We're talking about adopting a long-term approach to real happiness, not short-term comfort. The path ahead will be uncomfortable and challenging for most of us, but if we keep our minds fixed on finding the joy in our situation, we will benefit in the long run.
It's so easy to lose perspective, especially when we're scared or feeling depressed. The maxim that we must remind ourselves of is "this too shall pass." We can and will find joy in squeezing every bit of learning we can from our situations. Wisdom, courage, temperance and justice do not come quickly or cheaply. Instead, they are earned through blood, sweat, perseverance.
"The Choice of Hercules"
Perhaps the best examples of the lasting and inherent value of striving for eudaimonia comes from "The Choice of Hercules." In the parable, the Greek hero Hercules is approached by two women while traveling along a deserted road.
The first woman, beautiful and flashy, is named Kakia and claims that her friends call her "Eudaimonia" (happiness). She promises Hercules a path both easy and pleasant and a destination where he will benefit from others' labors. The other woman, humble and strong, is named Arête, and the path she offers is long and arduous. If Hercules takes her path, he will be tested by hardship every step of the way. Explaining her reasoning, Arête states, "Nothing really good or admirable is granted by the gods to men without pain and labor."
Of course, Hercules chooses the path of Arête and rejects the false promises of Kakia/Eudaimonia. He realizes that the real way to eudaimonia (happiness) comes through hardship and the individual recognition of doing the right thing.
When faced with hardship, each of us has to make choices like Hercules. Making the right choice isn't easy, and it won't pay off immediately. However, once you realize that the pursuit of lasting pleasure, eudaimonia, is the only kind worth pursuing, you will not only be better off in the long run; you will also have finally graduated to adulthood.
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