I love entrepreneurs: meeting them, working with them – just being around them is infectious. There’s a sense of drive and tenacity that’s addictive and fun to be around. Young entrepreneurs in particular are energizing to talk to. You get a distinct sense that they’re on the cusp of something great and that the possibilities are limitless. Like a child on a ski slope, experience has yet to drain them of their confidence, so they have no fear or sense of limits.
But all too often that entrepreneurial spirit gets dampened, and I believe part of the reason is that entrepreneurs and young professionals are given terrible advice. Don’t let them see you sweat, dress the part, polish every aspect of your pitch, and give well-rehearsed answers. To me, nothing could be more boring or less entrepreneurial.
It drives me crazy to see young entrepreneurs trying to act like seasoned executives to such an extent that their passion gets lost. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in a suit and tie. His demeanor was somber and his answers carefully practiced. I’m not saying he should have worn his signature hoodie to Capitol Hill, but his level of discomfort was glaringly obvious. He was on the defensive, and understandably so, but it was painful to see a great entrepreneur trapped like a prized lion. It would have been much better to watch Zuck as Zuck, telling an honest, humble, and inspiring story, mistakes and bloopers be damned.
Even older entrepreneurs can successfully maintain their sense of passion and excitement. Think of Virgin’s Richard Branson, who is now 67 years old, but I suspect will be unwaveringly exuberant for many years to come. He jumps out of airplanes, dresses in outrageous costumes, and encourages his employees to be themselves at work. My hunch is Branson has an internal voice reminding him to stay passionate and continue to break barriers. And if you’ve ever heard former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speak, you know that guy can’t contain his passion. It’s visceral: He sweats profusely and spits when he talks. At age 62, Ballmer hasn’t lost a bit of his youthful zeal.
I too have felt the pressure to conform to certain standards. I spent decades clean-cut and clean-shaven. Dress for the job you want, right? Recently I decided to try something new, so I quit shaving and grew my hair out. It started as a lesson for my son Lincoln, but it has evolved into much more than that. I no longer look like a CEO; apparently, I look like a recently deceased serial killer, but that’s a story for another day.
A person’s best weapon is passion. It’s what separates entrepreneurs from most everyone else, and it’s what will make people want to work with you and want to invest in you and your ventures. It’s ironic that we tell children and young adults to follow their passions, but then as soon as they step foot into a business setting, we tell them to temper it and “act the part.” I’d much rather see an entrepreneur who looks like no one else than one who “fits in.” Leave the fitting in to bankers, lawyers, and doctors. If you’re an entrepreneur, be an entrepreneur.