What Michelangelo taught me about being an entrepreneur

On my first visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, the Accademia Gallery in Florence, I had a revelation. There, at the end of the Galleria dei Prigioni, the Hall of Prisoners, stood Michaelangelo’s David, of course, but it was the statues at either side of me that captured my attention. Rough hewn, unfinished, the […]

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On my first visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, the Accademia Gallery in Florence, I had a revelation. There, at the end of the Galleria dei Prigioni, the Hall of Prisoners, stood Michaelangelo’s David, of course, but it was the statues at either side of me that captured my attention. Rough hewn, unfinished, the collection is named for four pieces, prisoners designed as part of the tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere. Today, all the figures in that Galleria remain prisoners, forever entombed in marble. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” Michelangelo famously said of his craft. Those angels will never be set free.

What I saw, what they stand for, is a testament to an artist who obsessively agonized over his work for years until he was able to set himself free. It reminded me, in a small way, of my own work — of what we all strive to accomplish in the short time we are given. If we’re lucky, we’ll create our own Davids. Masterpieces that we are remembered for long after we’re gone. What people don’t often see, and rarely remember, are all the unfinished works. The blood, sweat, and tears we pour into our creations. The agonies we endure behind the scenes. The early mornings and sleepless nights, the lost hours, missed dinners, and thankless toil of time devoted to achieving perfection. To creating a spark of brilliance that will illuminate our lives.

It isn’t easy to build something bigger than yourself

Creating a masterpiece is hard work. It requires dedication, conviction, and endless faith. It doesn’t matter if that masterpiece is a statue, a novel, a theorem, a product…. Each of us has their own inner artist, devoted to the creation of something bigger than themselves. Something that leaves a mark behind, a reminder to the world that Yes, I was here.

I’m not much of a sculptor. Given a slab of marble and a chisel, I wouldn’t know where to start! I wouldn’t be able to see the angel it contained, and I certainly couldn’t set him free. However I do recognize that passion, the single-minded devotion to a task that others can’t comprehend. I’m familiar with the pain of creation, the force of will it requires to bring something to life. It takes brute strength to free an angel.

I’ve learned a lot over my years as an entrepreneur. With two businesses behind me, and my latest venture Qyral just launching, I’ve had the time and experience to learn what works for me and what doesn’t. My most important lesson was finding my passion. If you can’t see the angel inside the marble, if you don’t have something greater to motivate you, you’ll soon burn out. For me, it’s about giving back and helping others. I want to build a successful company, of course, but “success” is defined by more than just making money. It’s about enabling others to thrive.

“Growth happens at the edge of discomfort.” In my career, I’ve learned how true that is. In the past, when things got tough, I would self-sabotage. The nearer I was to achieving my goals, the more I’d let fear hold me back. Learning to develop a resilient mindset, stretch my capabilities, and power through doubt has been an important lesson. These days, I welcome the feeling of discomfort that comes with knowing the end is in sight. It motivates me to keep going.

It’s easy to get sidetracked

Staying on track when you’ve got so much to do can be difficult. Nothing worth building can be completed overnight, but it isn’t always easy to see the end goal when it’s so far away. It’s easier to get caught up in small details and become sidetracked, or even stop progressing completely. It’s like the waiting place in the Dr. Seuss poem, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

You can get so confused

that you’ll start in to race

down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace

and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,

headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…

NO!

That’s not for you!

Somehow you’ll escape

all that waiting and staying

You’ll find the bright places

where Boom Bands are playing.

I’ve found myself in the waiting place more than once. Waiting for samples to arrive, a report to be completed, a site to be built… In business, there’s always somebody who hasn’t signed off on something, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting for them. Building a business isn’t a linear progression through a neat series of tasks. It’s like untangling a gigantic knot, and there’s always another thread to be worked loose. Learning to prioritize my time, stop waiting on others, and focus on completing high-value work, was a critical early lesson on my path to success.

Find the best use for your skills

Part of escaping the waiting place is learning to specialize. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and trying to do everything can ultimately cost you time and money. Building a startup from scratch, I had to wear many hats — graphic designer, web developer, sales manager, picker/packer, and even cleaner. If a job needed doing, I did it. After a while, however, I started to see that my cost-saving efforts were ultimately costing me more.

Why was I packing boxes for a single order, when I could be closing deals to bring in another dozen? I wasn’t doing my employees a favor by rolling up my sleeves and joining them, I was hurting their chances of remaining in steady employment. I hired specialists all the time, but it took longer for me to realize that I needed to become one myself. Approaching my skill set with open and critical eyes allowed me to honestly review my talents and find the areas of my business where I added the most value.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is to follow the 1-touch rule. Take the shortest path to completing everything you have to do. For me, that means making time each day to address particular tasks. Rather than letting emails interrupt me to read them as they come in, I set aside an hour or two to deal with them all at once. That way an unanswered question isn’t hanging over my head until I get around to responding to it.

Remember to make time for yourself

I block out my time in other ways as well. We all have an image in our heads of the starving artist, toiling away by candlelight, oblivious to the rest of the world and working endlessly on their craft. It’s a romantic notion, but not a realistic one. Even Michelangelo downed tools occasionally, as the unfinished works in the Galleria dei Prigioni attest. You need to make time for yourself, even if it’s only an hour or two a day.

I’m a big advocate of early rising. The 5 AM Club, by Robin Sharma, had a strong impact on my work/life balance. As a mom with a toddler and a new baby as well as a business to run, I don’t get much time to myself during the day! But I do make a couple of hours for myself each morning. I get up at 4:45 a.m., wake up with high-endurance exercise, then journal, reflect, and plan my day. I can read or listen to an audiobook, finish a couple of chores, and enjoy a leisurely start — all before 6:30 a.m.! 

That might not be the right routine for everyone, but carving out time for yourself is vital to your physical and mental health. My mornings keep me motivated and inspire me to make the most of each day.

Define your own success

Whatever you’re working on, whatever goal you want to achieve, it’s ultimately you who determines the outcome. Building something bigger than yourself takes focus and commitment, and you’ll soon lose heart if you’re marching to the beat of someone else’s drum. You have to define your own success. What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish? When will you be satisfied in your mind that the job is done? For me, that goal is about empowering others. My business can make all the money in the world, but I still won’t have achieved my goal until I’ve lifted others alongside me.

For that reason, I find comparisons with others to be fruitless. Plenty of people will tell you what they think success looks like, but you need to look inside yourself to decide if their definition really speaks to you. We all walk our own paths, and along the way we’ll all leave some pieces unfinished as our motivations and visions change. It’s a rare thing for others to notice the agonies that take place behind the scenes. Even rarer for them to be appreciated. That’s why it’s so important to decide for yourself what matters most, and strive for it no matter what.

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