Student Life

I’m Terrified of Being Normal

By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan

Last week, “Why I Didn’t Get A Real Job” received quite a bit of buzz around startup circles. It started with Hacker News, where it shot up into the Top 20 and proceeded to spread across the Twitterverse. By mid-week, some widely-followed organizations like Startup America and StartupDigest had picked it up and sent it around. By Sunday, even AOL co-founder Steve Case had tweeted it out.

What I really enjoyed about this was seeing something I created make an impact on so many people. Granted, this was just an article and not a life-changing product, but I really hope to replicate that effect when Fetchnotes is released. When it comes down to it, writing is similar to entrepreneurship in that you start with a blank document — and that intimidating blinking cursor — and set out to create something of value from scratch.

A few weeks ago, I watched Aaron Patzer’s presentation about how he built and sold it to Intuit for $170 million. Throughout the video, I wasn’t hung up on the giant acquisition figure. I was just in awe of how much it seemed like the room respected him and his accomplishments. He had 100 percent of their attention, and you could hear a pin drop whenever he paused. The reason? That audience wanted to do something extraordinary with their lives, and Aaron Patzer was living proof it can be done. Turning an idea into a $170 million company is nothing if not extraordinary.

It takes a really irrational type of person to think they can do that. It takes a borderline crazy person to actually set out to do it and then stick it out through the bad times in order to create the good. As I’m learning, it’s really freaking hard just to get a product out the door. But to make a product that positively impacts millions of people? Most founders can only dream of that kind of success, and they know the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them.

Still, they want to do something extraordinary. My friend Nathan Bashaw summarized the entrepreneurial drive better than anyone I know: “Entrepreneurship isn’t about money or fame or anything like that. It’s almost like a fear of being normal.” And I’m terrified of being normal.

If I grow up and work a normal 9-to-5 job, having a nice comfy lifestyle in a home with a white picket fence and my entire future laid out for me, I’ll probably have a mid-life crisis by age 30. Be it as a banker, janitor or whatever else, the prospect of living the American Dream circa 1950 scares me more than anything else in life. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying as a general “you suck” to anyone following a non-entrepreneurial path — the philosophy I’m discussing can be applied to any career. But for me, everything else just seems so boring.

One of the main reasons I’m busting my ass to be an entrepreneur is because I want to succeed at something that others have failed to accomplish — and that even more will never get the chance to try. That motivates me to drive 45 minutes to be with my team every day. It challenges me to funnel 100 percent of my brainpower into productive applications. I went to the amusement park Cedar Point recently and was running financial model projections on my iPhone while in line for crying out loud! I turned to my girlfriend after we got off of a roller coaster and exclaimed, “I just thought of an awesome new feature for Fetchnotes!” Needless to say she looked at me like I was the strangest person in the world. I’m up there.

Michael Arrington wrote a brilliant piece for TechCrunch last year relating entrepreneurs to pirates. In it he argued that entrepreneurs choose to put everything on the line because the utility isn’t in the payoff, it’s in the adventure itself. Here’s a snippet:

Why did some people way back in the 17th century, or whenever, become pirates? The likely payoff was abysmal, I imagine. There’s a very small chance you’d make a fortune from some prize, and a very large chance you’d drown, or be hung, or shot, or whatever. And living on a small ship with a hundred other guys must have sucked, even for the captain.

But in my fantasy pirate world these guys just had really screwed up risk aversion algorithms. Unlike most of the other people they actually lusted after that risk. The potential for riches was just an argument for the venture. But the real payoff was the pirate life itself.

I don’t care that I’m in way over my head and have no idea how to be a good CEO. Or that it might be totally blind optimism that I can build and launch a successful company as a college junior, with a year’s worth of “real” prior work experience. Why? The alternative for me is getting up every morning to build someone else’s vision.

That’s why I wrote my last post. It’s not because I’m contemptuous of Corporate America or people who get internships and jobs. Some of my most valued advisors come from that world and that’s where many of my peers will build a successful, fulfilling career. Besides, my last job (at a startup itself) laid the foundation for me to launch my own venture. Had I not worked there for a year, I still wouldn’t know how to talk to people on the phone. My point was that you don’t need to wait. When you feel you’re ready to take a leap of faith, don’t wait for society to tell you it’s your turn.

Just jump. Otherwise you could end up being normal.

Alex Schiff is a co-founder of The New Student Union



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


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