August 8, 2019

Creating Wealth: An Altruistic Paradox

By: Gary Schoeniger
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


Learn How to Think (and Act) Like an Entrepreneur

Part 5/8

We’ve all heard it said that “it takes money to make money.” And yet among the most intriguing attributes of the underdog entrepreneur is their ability to start where they are and use whatever they have in order to succeed. 

At the same time, access to capital is often cited as the biggest hurdle for aspiring entrepreneurs. And many entrepreneurship education initiatives encourage participants to focus much of their efforts on the pursuit of outside investment in order to get their businesses off the ground. 

Yet the vast majority of businesses do not start this way. The truth is, even large established companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Waste Management, and Walmart were started by inexperienced entrepreneurs with a few thousand dollars cobbled together from credit cards, second mortgages, and the contributions of family, and friends. Yet somehow these scrappy underdogs manage to transform their ideas into sustainable endeavors. 

The question is, how? How do they manage to overcome the barriers that the lack of resources presents? While a burning desire to create wealth is certainly a motivating factor that drives many entrepreneurs, when we look beneath the surface, there are other subtle factors that contribute to their ability to succeed. 

As I’ve said in previous posts, much of the logic and the methods that enable entrepreneurs to succeed can be explained not by their unique personalities or hereditary traits, but by the compelling nature of the goals they pursue. 

When it comes to understanding the mindset and the methods of these underdog entrepreneurs, what many fail to recognize is that a compelling goal creates a powerful incentive to invest rather than spend whatever discretionary resources —time, effort, or money—they might have. Rather than focus on outside investment, the underdogs start where they are and use whatever they have to move towards their goals. After all, with a compelling goal in mind, it becomes much easier to focus our time and energy and to leverage whatever resources we might have. 

By contrast, in the absence of a compelling goal, we are much more likely to spend our discretionary time, effort, and money on recreational activities or material things that may bring short-term satisfaction, yet do not contribute to long term growth or lasting change. And, in many ways, this tendency to spend rather than invest actually undermines our ability to create true wealth. In this way, the choices we make (or don’t make) can have a profound impact on our lives. 

What many also fail to recognize is that entrepreneurship, at its essence, is the pursuit of opportunities to create value for others rather than simply creating wealth for ourselves. And, with their focus on creating value for others, the underdog entrepreneurs empower themselves. This is a deceptively powerful concept that is easy to overlook. 

It is the act of creating value for others that gives a goal its motivational potency.  When our work becomes purpose-driven (rather than profit-driven) we are more likely to become optimally engaged. The pursuit of opportunities to create value for others cultivates curiosity and creativity, increases resilience, life satisfaction, and well-being. It also creates a powerful incentive to learn. And the more useful we become, the better off we are likely to be, not only in financial terms but in our sense of well-being.

The Altruistic Paradox

In many ways, entrepreneurship presents an altruistic paradox whereby the pursuit of opportunities to create value for others empowers the individual. Making money is important, yet when profit becomes our primary motive, we not only undermine our sense of intrinsic motivation and therefore weaken our resolve, but the self-centered nature of profit-driven logic is also likely to lead us astray. Nor is it likely lead to the meaning and prosperity that we ultimately seek. 

The act of creating value for others satisfies our most basic psychological needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness. While we all want to earn more money, we are all driven by the need to be engaged in work that matters, to become competent, to make our own choices, and to contribute to the greater good. And by doing so, we tap into the most potent form of human motivation. In short, value creation not only generates economic vitality but also increased motivation, engagement, and psychological well-being, which is perhaps the truest definition of wealth. 

As Holocaust survivor and famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning,

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Our ability to create wealth is directly tied to our ability to create value. And while you might need money to open a business with a known product or service, you don’t need money to figure out how to make yourself useful to others. You simply need to pay attention to what other people need. That is the underlying logic that empowers underdog entrepreneurs to succeed.