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Before I found success as an entrepreneur, I was an entry-level programmer in dire straits. I had just been through a bad breakup and undergone a surgery that promised a prolonged and painful recovery. I had nowhere to live and not enough money to remedy that situation. I was living off little more than scraps and sleeping in parks and shelters.
After nearly a month, my family sent me some money to help me find a place to stay. They couldn’t spare much, but it was enough to afford a room at a halfway house and three meals a day — as long as those meals were ramen. Because I couldn’t afford bus fare, I would walk miles to get to my job and back, despite that I was supposed to forgo this kind of physical exertion as I continued to recover from surgery.
Suffice it to say, things were not good. My family would have welcomed me back home with open arms, but I had made a commitment to myself to see it through, so that’s what I did. For six months, I locked myself in the office of my new job, working as many as 12 hours a day. I read every Google whitepaper I could find, mastering everything from Pagerank to latent semantic indexing.
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I had one goal in mind: to make our company the No. 1 result on Google. After months of hard work, I did it. The owner started getting calls from Fortune 100 companies asking how we got placed above them. Sales took off, and I was quickly promoted. In less than a year, I went from being homeless and walking to work every day to signing the lease on a two-bedroom apartment and buying myself a brand-new car.
I’m not talking about this to toot my own horn, but rather to point to a crucial (yet often overlooked) element that exists within virtually every successful entrepreneur: living with intention and a belief in their own free will. Recent psychological studies have found that staying focused on the pursuit of a particular goal can actually rewire your brain, making the achievement of that goal an integral part of your identity. In other words, the intentional pursuit of a particular objective has the power to change your mindset and further motivate you to reach it.
It’s basic quantum physics. There really are only two mindsets for viewing the world: either we see it deterministically (we are victims of circumstance and atoms bouncing around), or we view it intentionally (we can direct our destiny and have free will). I choose to believe — and live by — the latter view. We are in control as long as we pursue opportunities with steadfast intentionality.
Taking the reins
At that critical juncture early on in my career, I chose to leverage my pain, both physical and emotional, and show the world what I was made of. My approach hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, even if my pain is (thankfully) less than before. What I knew to be true then is true now: you can’t control what happens to you all the time, but you can always choose how to act.
Many factors can go into success or failure, and circumstances beyond our control can sometimes play a much greater role than we might like. But it’s ultimately how you view the world and yourself— rather than the events that happen to you — that dictates your success. For this reason, living with intention is tantamount to success, because it means that you act according to your own plan for your life instead of simply reacting to events.
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So how can you put a proactive, intentional lifestyle into action? What do you need to do to create a life that’s geared toward achieving your goals every step of the way? Here are four strategies for more intentional living that any enterprising entrepreneur can put into action.
1. Work to leverage negative events for your benefit
Anger and frustration can be immensely helpful tools for success, but only if they’re repurposed into something productive. This can be easier said than done. It may require a lot of practice, patience, self-talk, and mindfulness to get to a point where you can turn every negative event into a positive learning experience. So start small and work your way up.
Take the experience of author Rosanna Casper as an example of a good place to start. When driving her kids to school, she would often become frustrated with other drivers in the car line, ruining the calm she had managed to carefully cultivate earlier in the morning. Rather than continue letting it ruin her morning — and knowing she couldn’t do much to change the other drivers’ behaviors — she made the conscious effort to change how she reacted to it.
She decided instead to say to herself, “This is the nature of school pickup lines, so I’d better download a couple of great audiobooks to keep me company while I wait.” She chose, in other words, to go from victim to survivor. This is a simple but effective jumping-off point for living a life focused on solving problems rather than resigning yourself to them.
2. Figure out where you want to be at different intervals in your future
It may have become a cliché to ask someone where they see themselves in five years, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable exercise. If anything, it doesn’t go far enough.
Recently, I made the decision to seriously commit to a plan for retirement. Before, I’d been keeping all my focus on growing my businesses, hoping that one of them would eventually sell and take care of my retirement for me. I realized, however, that this ultimately left too much up to chance. So I decided to be more intentional and chart a specific path for where I wanted to be in 25 years, and adjusted my monthly savings and investment amounts accordingly.
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You might feel like you don’t need to plan for retirement quite yet — I didn’t either, until I became a father of young children — but to be a successful entrepreneur, it’s still crucial to know where you want to be in five, 10 and even 20 years. Take the time to define what success means for you and plan for what that success will look like at suitable intervals.
3. Create a step-by-step action plan to make good on those hopes
Knowing where you want to be and actually getting there are different things, so put a plan into action to reach where you want to be at your next planned interval. When you hit that point in your future, reevaluate your plan to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.
If you’re struggling to keep on track, feel free to take a page from other entrepreneurs and professionals and enlist one or more accountability partners to help. Mentors, colleagues and trusted friends are great people to tap into. Reach out to former bosses and even classmates, either directly or by researching them on LinkedIn.
You’ll be surprised to find how far some of them have come: the “new guy” at a previous company you worked at could now be a senior employee or executive at a hot startup that just IPO’ed or a Fortune 500 company, and would love to mentor you. There are also dozens of services dedicated to establishing a mentor, and you can also find them by joining entrepreneur groups. And always with mentors and accountability partners, make sure you have a regular schedule to check in with them, pick their brains, and take their counsel into careful consideration (and not just only use their names for fundraising decks).
4. Cultivate a healthier way of thinking
Intentionality and goal-setting can actually rewire your brain to make you work harder toward success, but that’s not the only thinking you should change if you want to become a successful entrepreneur. You also need to cultivate a mindset that truly believes in free will.
Why is this so important for living intentionally? If you believe yourself to be merely a victim of circumstance rather than an active player in your life, then you’ll end up thinking there’s little point in working to live an intentional life and set goals for yourself. Read books that support the existence of free will in the world, and take heart in the fact that not every particle is quite so predictable as science once believed.
A successful entrepreneur is, by definition, a person who lives with intentionality. How else could you hope to build your vision from the ground up? That intentionality shouldn’t be limited to your business objectives, however. By creating a healthier mindset within yourself and applying it to your whole life and your priorities, you can not only increase your chances of financial success, but also become a happier, healthier person along the way.