I grew up in a middleclass family in Rhode Island. Making it to Stanford University from our local public high school was a big deal. Before I headed west, my favorite teacher told me to dream big and also to give engineering a try. I tried it, I loved it, and four years later I graduated with an engineering degree, determined to change the world. As if I needed more inspiration, our commencement speaker was Steve Jobs, who gave our class that famous advice about not settling until you find your passion.
The trouble is no one tells you how to find your passion. For the first few years, I tried corporate America. When that felt hollow, I joined a nonprofit doing volunteer projects in rural India. I returned Stateside after six months, more lost than when I left. I took a job as marketing director of a tiny jewelry business—jewelry making is engineering at a micro level, so I wondered if that might be my passion. It wasn’t.
One Saturday a few months into the jewelry-making job, I got together with friends for an “Idea Brunch”—cooking pancakes and pitching each other on crazy ideas for passion projects. Christy, a friend and engineering classmate from Stanford, said: “Why is it that Legos are for boys, and dolls are for girls? What about engineering toys for little girls?”
I knew in that instant, sitting there listening to her, that this was what Steve Jobs meant when he talked to about passion. I found Christy afterward, and she agreed to team up and try to make her idea a reality. It wasn’t until college that I discovered engineering, and my only regret was not being exposed to it earlier. I wanted to create something that would help girls discover their passion for engineering. GoldieBlox would offer toy sets for girls, based around the adventures of a young female engineer, Goldie.
Suddenly, I was scared. I knew, deep down, that I had just found what I had been searching for. But what if I failed? This was the first time that I knew what I wanted to do, but what if you find your calling, and you go for it, but you aren’t successful. What are you supposed to do?
My other big fear was money. I couldn’t grasp the idea of working without receiving a paycheck. Ever since I was old enough to work, I had worked, and made money. Even though I spent months saving and budgeting, it was hard for me to accept that while starting up GoldieBlox I wouldn’t be compensated for doing it.
Also, to get the company off the ground, I needed feedback from experts, but I didn’t know any. So I sketched all my ideas in a notebook and brainstormed with friends of friends and with former coworkers, with anyone who knew anyone who might be able to help. The first person I showed my sketches to was my friend’s boyfriend, who had a background in engineering and design. He spent a full hour telling me how hard it is to manufacture a physical product, how long it took for Lego to perfect its bricks, how it was impossible to do what I was talking about. While what he said was dispiriting, honestly my initial reaction was how helpful it was: the feedback was right on. In the back of my head, I thought, “This is helpful, and I’m not going to let this guy stop me.”
That first meeting launched me into getting more meetings with more experts. This is the trick I learned: mine your personal network for anyone who may know somebody who knows anything on the subject. Then go meet that person, and after you’ve talked, ask, “Do you know anyone else that might be able to help me?” So after that cup of coffee, you’ll have five new people you can talk to. Then talk to those five people, and each of them will introduce you to five more new people. This is how I did it.
After about nine months, my desire to start GoldieBlox became all-consuming. Every day at my jewelry job, I was looking for any excuse to sneak out. I’d spend my lunch break walking through a toy store. If my boss didn’t come into work, I’d think, “Yes! More time to do research online.” Finally, I marked a departure date in the calendar. Christy wasn’t able to commit to leaving her job, but I couldn’t wait any longer.
I was obsessed. I felt this idea was a life calling. Ultimately, I told myself, even if I tried my hardest and it didn’t work out, I would never feel ashamed or regret trying.
The scariest part turned out to be preparing to tell my boss I was leaving. I didn’t want to upset people I liked and respected. And funnily enough, telling him turned out to be easy. He understood and fully supported me. Sometimes you build stuff up in your head to be this huge deal, but it’s not. And then you move on, and a month later, you look back and think, “Wow, why was I so scared about that?”
Excerpted from WHEN TO JUMP: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want by Mike Lewis, published January 9th 2018 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Mike Lewis. All rights reserved.