High school reunion can tell you a lot about entrepreneurship

Published in UT San Diego, May 13, 2013

The entrepreneurial life. The high school class reunion. I have spent most of my life embracing one of those and a recent weekend at one of them.

I graduated from an elite, then all-boys private school in the Midwest in a class of 53 students. On the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, we returned to the scene of the crime to tell each other lies about the past.

While indeed there were some laughs about our younger stupidity, there was also a genuine reconnection. We had come to the willing suspension of disbelief. We looked at our tormentors or the people whose clique we could not join or the ones whose grades all started with A+, and we were all friends for 48 hours. Almost genuine friends.

So what does this tell us about entrepreneurship? Here are some thoughts.

1. The wheel is always spinning. Some lives were simple. One fellow left high school, bought a Honda motorcycle dealership and sold it 34 years later. Simple and happy. But entrepreneurial in its own way.

2. Another fellow, smart, Stanford, made a fortune doing tax deals, and then the tax code changed and he was forced into involuntary retirement. “I did half-billion dollar deals with multiple parties in multiple countries and now I am out of business.” Change the number of dollars, and it is the story of thousands, perhaps millions, of our fellow countrymen.

3. The classic story is still classic. One of my classmates was very smart and a bit reserved, perhaps even slightly odd in his own charming way. He was recently named the No. 1 best performing stock fund manager in the country. If you were sitting next to Warren Buffett in high school, would you know it?

4. One student was only in our class for two years — barely enough time for us to make an impression on him, or so we thought. But he made one on us. He became successful and recently gave the largest gift to the school in its entire history.

Think about your actions in your own company because you can never know the impact your words and deeds will have on someone else.

5. The best students did well in their careers, but note carefully, many of the worst students did really well also. High school does not define your life, and the entrepreneurial corollary is that it is OK to fail at your first venture, and even your second. The only requirement is to wake up and do it again and to press forward.

6. Revenge. In my thinking, it is one of the driving forces in the entrepreneurial life — the desire to show someone something, to remake a past perception, to correct the record book, and to stand up one last time and say to the music teacher who gave me a D in his class (and to all the people who define us in our early lives), “I am not the failure that your letter grade made me out to be. I will show you.”

It is not fame or fortune that energize the creative mind — it is revenge. Please remember a Mark Zuckerberg who was unlucky in love and wanted to show his girlfriend that she had made a terrible mistake in rejecting him. Well, I guess he showed her.

And so the weekend came to a close with a class song, a few hugs, promises to get together again which will never happen, and a deep awareness of the wonder of family and friends, of life and lives. The wheel is indeed always spinning. You can never know — and if you did, well, frankly, it would take the fun out of it.

Rule No. 233

You can never go home again — but you can visit.

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