Notes on Everyday Entrepreneurs

Success might not even look like it at first glance.

Real success lives right under your nose. Currently I’m sitting at a cafe full of digital nomads. I’m not that impressed with them and their bluetooth headsets, apparently still a thing.

But I’m fascinated by the waitress. She had to bring her kids to work today. So she’s running food and drinks out to a dozen patrons, and also telling her five-year-old to stay off the table tops.

I’m witnessing something here. Let’s call it everyday entrepreneurship. The waitress isn’t promoting a startup. She’s not orchestrating any online seminars or fyre festivals. She’s just doing her job well, and under extraordinary circumstances. You might even say she’s crushing it.

We need to tweak our attitudes about what counts as entrepreneurship. It’s not about how many email subscribers you can get, what time you wake up, or your very cool spin on networking.

A lot of people don’t necessarily love their jobs. That doesn’t mean we need to quit and start our own company. We can innovate right where we are, in ways that improve our lives, even if they don’t look that sexy or sleek.

One of my uncles manages rental properties. Last month, he told me a story about one of his tenants, a PhD student who gives him a lot of advice on how to live. Well, my uncle recently got a peek inside this guy’s apartment last month while arranging pest control.

Almost every surface of the apartment was covered in takeout containers, some of them weeks old.

And he wondered why he had a bug problem.

Bags of trash lay scattered everywhere, along with about ten pairs of boxers and a handful of balled up socks.

Finally, my uncle found the fliers for his upcoming seminar, and pamphlets for his online course on productivity hacks.

He was a life coach. A self-dubbed entrepreneur.

It’s a typical revelation. If someone’s bragging about their income, their followers, or anything else, it always makes me suspicious about how many takeout containers they’re hiding in their car.

I’m always impressed by how my students step up and innovate in difficult situations. Consider Samantha’s chemistry professor, who never shared a syllabus. He gave rambling, self-indulgent lectures. He spent parts of class showing YouTube videos. You know, to prove that he really gets millennials. Other days, he was all business.

He gave unfair quizzes and then belittled students when they complained. He lectured them about persistence and hard work. He stressed the importance of attendance. Of paying attention. Mindfulness.

Samantha also had me as an instructor last semester, and after class she asked for advice. “How do I deal with this guy?”

We basically agreed that she’d have to stroke his ego and ask for “extra help,” meaning she’d have to convince this professor to actually do his job, while framing it as going above and beyond.

Samantha squeaked through with a C, good enough to maintain her scholarships. It wasn’t just difficult, but also involved a lot of restraint and emotional management on her part, stomaching her professor’s condescending attitude.

She had to tolerate meetings where he interrupted her and talked down to her. For the entire semester, she played to the script he’d assigned her — college party girl who needed extra help.

All of this on top of being a single parent.

Samantha’s professor had no idea what was really going on. He wasn’t helping her. She just made it look that way, to enable a situation where she could pass. There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, Samantha had to tolerate her professor’s life coaching, even though her habits weren’t the problem. This attitude pervades the self-hep universe, but also the halls of higher education. We’re awash in blanket prescriptions for success that ignore people’s actual circumstances.

You might be doing a lot better than you think, given your situation. The average student at my school works at least 20–30 hours a week. A lot of them have a kid. Or they’re taking care of a sick family member. They deal with way more than we can even imagine.

When you think about all that, a C average starts to look pretty impressive.

As Samantha learned, just managing a shitty situation and shooting for a C is all you can do sometimes, and it’s enough.

Samantha learned even more than she bargained for from that chemistry class. All she wanted was a passing grade, but she also got a crash course in conflict resolution. She had to do way more than what a college student should have to, but she did it — for a C. That average grade was hard won, and helped her in the bigger goal of graduating.

Between a rock and a hard place, she found a crevice and squiggled through. Like an octopus. If there’s one thing we can learn from everyday entrepreneurs, it’s that.

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