Why Being Young & Naive Can Be A Great Thing

1/20/11

We did Zinch focus groups the other day at a local high school. Every time I talk to teenagers face to face, i’m reminded of how insanely challenging it is to get high school students to care about something, anything. There are always those high-achievers who have their whole life planned out, who find Zinch without us needing to tell them. But for most high school students, it’s a different story.

I often say — half serious — that had I known how hard starting up a company was, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out of Princeton to do it. Building a product that people truly care about; selling into colleges & universities; dealing with investor drama; getting high school students to use our site.

Building a startup (and keeping it breathing) is incredibly difficult.

I speak at a Princeton entrepreneurship class every semester and I get to meet young, bright, talented entrepreneurs (I was sitting in that chair 5 years ago). They often come up after class, full of energy, and tell me about some app or website they’re working on. It’s inspiring and I love every second of it.

They have no idea the path ahead. They have no idea what they’re in for. They have no idea what it it’ll take.

And that’s okay.

For if they did know how treacherous the journey, they’d step aside and watch from the bleachers like most. There are monster problems that need to be solved. Sometimes only the blindly ambitious will enter the race.

So many of the great American companies we have today were founded by young entrepreneurs: Google, Microsoft, Dell, Hershey, Fedex, HP, Oracle. Recent companies include Facebook, Mint, Tumblr, Etsy, AirBnB, Dropbox, Quora.

Being young and a little naive can be a beautiful thing. You have an unwavering — sometimes false — sense of optimism. Your mind is open; your hope is pure. The world is a blank canvas just waiting for you to paint your story. You don’t know what “normal” or “best practice” or “standard” even means. There are no limits. Your perception is distorted, but it’s your reality.

Many (if not most) of these young entrepreneurs will strike out early. But often… they’ll learn or accomplish something that’ll completely alter their life trajectory. Most probably won’t build the next Facebook, but it might be something that propels them into the fast lane for success.

The realities of startup life can easily leave one bruised, battered and hesitant to get back into the arena. But the thrill of the ride will often keep us coming back for more. I’m now 26 (yes, still very young) and I now have added responsibility (wife and son). But I hope that when I start my next company I can be as ballsy and near-reckless as I was 5 years ago. Being young, naive and fresh can be a great thing.

It’s much easier to swing for the fences when you have a full life ahead at bat. As Bob Dylan once said, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

For the “old” people reading this: Age is a mindset. Don’t let everything you’ve learned get in the way.

“The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.”
– Pearl S. Buck

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