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Life Entrepreneures

Excerpts from the Book

Life Entrepreneurs offers a framework for both personal development and entrepreneurial leadership development. A few passages from the book are presented here to give prospective readers a glimpse of the frameworks and approaches found in the book. To access brief excerpts from Life Entrepreneurs, please click on the links below:


The idea for this book came to us one warm spring afternoon in Virginia, as we sat on a picnic bench with an intriguing question: How can we create extraordinary lives?

....Under the hot Virginia sun, we discussed how our penchant for creating new ventures might fit into the context of our lives. Could we apply the entrepreneurial mindset of opportunity recognition, vision creation, innovation, and initiative to create a better life? Could we creatively design a life aligned with our values? Could we lead our lives in such a way that our work, life, and purpose would be not only balanced but integrated?

The questions were provocative and disquieting. We sensed that the answers carried significant implications for how we could live.

In pursuit of understanding, we reflected on our own experiences and conducted research in the fields of entrepreneurship, leadership, and personal development. Mostly, though, we listened to others. In the end, we went out and interviewed fifty-five business and social entrepreneurs, all of whom brought a certain amount of entrepreneurial flair to their lives as well as their work. Nearly all come from ordinary backgrounds, yet they have created extraordinary lives for themselves and those around them through a mix of drive and direction.... In the course of these interviews, we sought to learn about the people behind the enterprises: Who are they? What makes them tick? Who influenced them? Why and how did they make the decisions they did? What mistakes have they made? What have they learned? What advice do they have for others?

Their answers are important because they show how entrepreneurial principles can be applied to life. These are lessons that hold promise for all of us, not just those who have started an enterprise or hung out a shingle. In many ways, we consider this cohort of fifty-five to be pioneers of living in today's world—harbingers of what the future might hold in store.... When transcriptions of these interviews were compiled—altogether about a thousand pages of text—powerful themes were sounded, like a chorus of voices converging in unscripted harmony. Here are some of the major patterns we spotted:

  • All of the entrepreneurs we interviewed made a conscious decision to walk their own path and forge their own future—often going against prevailing expectations.
  • There was a direct correlation between the purposefulness and conviction with which they walk their path in life and the passion and joy they feel for their life and work.
  • Many of them don't think of themselves as dividing their time between "work" and "life." For many, these are integrated not compartmentalized, pursuits. They are creating, owning, and taking responsibility for every facet of their lives with an integrated approach.
  • Their dispositions toward risk were all over the map—ranging from those who were somewhat risk-averse to a few intrepid "risk junkies." But they were all willing to take measured risks in pursuit of a worthy project or goal. They saw risk as an inherent part of life and took steps to mitigate it through thoughtful planning and disciplined execution.
  • All of them have experienced failure and dealt with significant setbacks. Many have encountered life-changing episodes of tragedy, illness, loss, financial difficulty, and more.
  • Several found great value in stepping off the path to renew, recharge, and sometimes reinvent their lives, discovering that periods of activity and achievement must be counterbalanced with periods of rest and regrouping.
  • Their life path was usually a winding one, not linear. In most cases, it made much more sense looking backward. As they moved forward, they were both shaping the future and responding to it.
  • Most of them came to the conclusion that it's not all about them—far from it. They have cultivated healthy support systems, and many have become deeply connected, civic-minded leaders.

From these interviews and our research and experiences, we conclude that leading life in an entrepreneurial manner can be what tips our lives from ordinary to extraordinary.

*Excerpted from Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, Jossey-Bass, 2008).*

Chapter 1: Understanding Life Entrepreneurship

"Putting Life Back into Our Lives"

These days there are many people who... are rethinking what they want from life, seizing control of the tiller, and becoming captains of their fate.... What is going on here? Either we have a serious case of professional attention deficit disorder or we are not finding what we are looking for in the usual places. Of course, many of these employment changes are externally imposed. The pressures of a competitive global economy rife with outsourcing have led to widespread layoffs and diminished job security in many industries. So these trends are being driven externally by economic and social forces as well as internally by individual motivations and choices.

Today, there is a burgeoning interest in forging a new path in life that includes rewarding work that is also consistent with one's values. Here we arrive at a dilemma. On the one hand, people are looking for opportunity, challenge, and the chance to develop their talents, achieve success, and have an impact. On the other hand, they are looking for a happy home life, rewarding friendships, active lifestyle, close-knit community, and time to pursue other interests. In the meantime, we are being squeezed with practical obligations and financial pressures that sometimes present us with stark choices and painful trade-offs.

It is the life entrepreneur who is able to thread the needle, preserving quality of life while thriving in his chosen context. And it is the forward-thinking organization that attracts and retains talented workers by creating dynamic and intrapreneurial opportunities that can flex with the priorities and schedules of today's go-getters while maintaining (or even increasing) productivity.... We detect an urgency to all of this, but it is fair to assume that the world is not going to decelerate as we figure it all out.

*Excerpted from Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, Jossey-Bass, 2008).*

Chapter 1: Understanding Life Entrepreneurship

"Creating the Good Life"

Life entrepreneurship can help us realize what Aristotle called "the good life." He believed that in the good life we find happiness—not in the contemporary sense of a pleasurable (and often fleeting) feeling of contentment, but in the ancient sense of eudaimonia, meaning happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self. The good life is achieved by putting into practice what we believe, fulfilling our very nature, and attaining excellence as people and citizens—the very best of us.

Creating the good life is about pursuing our potential in a deliberate and purposeful way. According to psychologist Carl Rogers, "The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination." For increasing numbers of people, an entrepreneurial life is a promising path to the good life. Of course, not everyone will choose it, but it is an increasingly attractive choice, especially among rising generations. And it doesn't have to be a complicated endeavor.

Authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro define the good life simply as "Living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work, on purpose. . . . Designing the good life becomes, then, 'a simple matter' of finding and keeping adequate space for love, place, and work in your life. In other words, reaching for and holding on to what really matters in your life and letting go of the responsibilities and commitments that do not."

Still, creating the good life entails substantial risk. It can mean starting over and relinquishing degrees of financial and emotional security. It can mean shedding layers of a safe, stable, and predictable existence. It can mean the possibility of failure by conventional measures. It can mean disappointing people who expect us to continue along the same road. It is much easier to walk along prescribed paths than to blaze our own trail. But how much do we forgo when we retreat to safety and conformity?

A hunger for the good life lies deep within us all. But it requires an honest evaluation of who we are and how we are living. Some manage to avoid these hard questions for years, or even for a whole lifetime—diligently going with each year's flow without pausing to imagine other possible destinations. With the passing of years, our childhood dreams are pierced by reality. Our daily lives are filled with obligations and pressures. As we grow older, we drift away from "what could be" toward a life shaped not by personal vision or calling but by circumstance and compromise.

But occasionally we catch glimpses of what the future could hold in store—our own personal vision of the good life—and an inner restlessness is rekindled. That restlessness needs an outlet for all its stored energy. It needs a path for channeling it in a worthy direction.

*Excerpted from Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, Jossey-Bass, 2008).*

Chapter 3: Discovering Core Identity

"Discovering Core Identity"

Setting out on the path of the life entrepreneur, any of us may wander astray without a clear sense of who we are. The first step on the path is discovering what we call our core identity, our authentic essence. We can have all sorts of external amenities—career, wealth, power, personality, looks, approval, admiration, and more—but without a grounding in something deeper, the journey will leave us wanting. "If the foundation is weak," says the Chinese proverb, "the fortress will fall."

What does it mean to discover our core identity? How do we go about doing it? This is no small question. It may be the question of the ages.

Drawing on recent literature in the field, especially in psychology, as well as our interviews and personal experiences, we have concluded that one's core identity is informed by three external elements (personal history, current circumstances, and relationships) and three internal elements (needs, strengths, and passions). It is at the convergence of these elements that we find our values and purpose, the essence of our core identity....

To discover our core identity, we must explore how these elements manifest themselves in our lives. The importance of this is almost universally overlooked, despite the sages and leaders throughout history who have urged us to know ourselves deeply. Leadership expert Warren Bennis has said that "Letting the self emerge is the essential task of leaders." He cites a study of the advice that top executives would give to younger ones, in which three recommendations surfaced: first; take advantage of every opportunity; second, aggressively search for meaning; and third, know yourself. Authors Bill George and Peter Sims call it finding your "true north"—"the internal compass that guides you successfully through life. It represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point."

How can we achieve such self-awareness? The process is one of "dis-covering," or removing the layers of sediment that obstruct our view—layers of ego, pride, ambition, and expectations that so often bury our own identity. It is a process that requires not only reflection but also action. Knowing oneself is usually an outcome of an iterative process of introspection, action, change, and reflection.

*Excerpted from Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, Jossey-Bass, 2008).*

Chapter 8: Taking Action and Making a Difference

"The Courage to Try"

Often, what is most essential in creating an extraordinary life is what is needed to get started. We call this the courage to try: courage to discover who we really are and leave what is comfortable, safe, and known. Courage to act on our convictions. Courage to see our dreams played out against the backdrop of the world. Courage to fail. Courage simply to begin.

For Anita Sharpe, courage meant walking away from a prestigious job at the Wall Street Journal at the pinnacle of her career to pursue her calling and start a magazine and company focused on helping people pursue worthwhile work and lives. For Cory Booker, it was leaving behind a world of comfort and moving to a housing project in Newark to join the front lines of a battle against poverty. For Mary Cutrufello, it was about reviving her musical career after being sidelined for years by illness. For Karin Weber, it was reinventing her life at sixty and embracing all sorts of new adventures. These life entrepreneurs acted in spite of their fears. Indeed, without fear, courage is impossible.

We often confine our thinking about courage to fields of battle and acts of valor. But there is also a personal courage that requires a willingness to start taking action even in small ways that get us moving in the right direction.

*Excerpted from Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, Jossey-Bass, 2008).*

Chapter 8: Taking Action and Making a Difference

"Pervasive Service"

At our best, as life entrepreneurs we integrate the broader concept of service into everything we do through our relationships and actions. This approach is grounded in recognition that our lives have impact. Service is not something that is compartmentalized or relegated to an occasional good deed. Rather, it shows up in nearly every aspect of our lives. Service becomes an organizing principle of the entrepreneurial life, an aspiration that pervades our family lives, work lives, and whatever else we do. As Marian Wright Edelman shares with us, "Service is the very purpose of life. It is the rent we pay for living on the planet."

Of course, we live in a world of practicality, with families to support and bills to pay, but the rewards of service are many, and prioritizing it may not be as difficult as we think. When we approach it creatively and expansively, we devise countless opportunities to serve in enlightened ways. According to Benjamin Franklin, "The noblest question in the world is, What good may I do in it?" When we invoke that mindset, we stumble onto new ideas and exciting opportunities to make a contribution in the ways we live and the ways we act....

In The Cathedral Within, Billy Shore of Share Our Strength invokes the metaphor of cathedral-building to illuminate the essence of service, demonstrating that we can transform our lives by giving something back. He marvels that some of the world's greatest cathedrals took hundreds of years to build, with some people dedicating their entire lives to a project that was so large they knew they could never finish it in their lifetimes. Yet they persisted, inspired by a dream that would outlive them. Shore challenges us all to find a lasting and worthy cause to dedicate our lives to, as he has with his entrepreneurial humanitarian work, and in the process to construct our own cathedral within.

*Excerpted from Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, Jossey-Bass, 2008).*