Life is 10% How You Make It and 90% How you Take It

Posted on Jul 19, 2010 | 112 comments


Startups are hard.  When you read the press you only read the glamorous bits.  You read about Mark Zuckerberg or the guys at FourSquare, Twitter or Zynga.  But that’s a bit like reading about your state lottery winner and feeling bummed out because you haven’t won despite years of trying.  The reality is that most of you will never hit it BIG yet you’ll lead fulfilled and productive lives.  Whether you choose to be happy or not is up to you.  Will you choose the dopeness or the wackness? (if you don’t have the reference and want it you can click the image above)

Life is hard.  It’s hard for everybody.  We all imagine that somebody else has it figured out yet when you meet the people who you think actually do have it all you find out that life is hard for everybody.

I point that out because one of my favorite quotes in the world (and one I often repeat) is that “life is 10% how you make it and 90% how you take it.”  It’s not a recommendation that you don’t have to put in effort to make your life better.  It’s an acknowledgement that whatever the outcomes in your life you can choose to be happy or choose to be miserable.**

If you want some tips on small changes to make your daily routine more happy check out this post, “Ten Tips for Being Happier.

I have a friend who I estimate is worth about $500 million.  I have another friend who’s a billionaire.  We all used to spend a lot of time together.  I always regretted that the former lived this crazy life where he saw his kids less than I thought was right because he was always on an airplane in search of his next deal.  He was a bit of a deal junkie.  Yet what I think drove him more than anything was a sense that he was “behind” our other friend.

I live in complete bliss knowing that I likely won’t ever come even close to that level.  It’s sort of liberating not feeling the need to even try.  But I have a wonderful family, a job I enjoy and a life for which I’m grateful.  My life isn’t perfect – there’s always something that I know I should be doing to make it better.  But I choose happiness.  And my main point is that I truly believe that happiness is just that – a choice.

Anyone who has ever been in the room when Tony Robbins is speaking will know what I mean.  You really can’t help but become pumped up when he’s on stage.  I saw him speak at the Twitter conference last year in LA organized by the Parnassus Group.  He emphasized to the audience this point about choosing to be happy.  He said that if you smile more, hold your posture better, mentally FEEL more energized and choose to think happy thoughts you will actually be happier.  He took an entire audience of cynical tech people and brought our energy levels up 10 notches.  Maybe 100.  It was awesome.

I’ve always been blessed with the ability to see the glass as half full and I struggle with people who constantly see the wackness in everything.  It’s tiring.  I do have patience for people who need a bit of reminding but not for people who are perpetually negative.  I choose not to work with people like that.  I’ve always advised teams not to hire bad seeds on their teams.  Bad seeds affect everybody and bring the group’s spirit’s down.  I’d far rather have somebody who performs at 90% but has a great attitude than somebody who’s a 100% performer but negative.

Why is this all top of mind?  I have a close family member with Parkinson’s disease.  It’s a constant struggle to get him to focus on all of the positive things in his life.  Every phone call turns into complaints about how he doesn’t feel well.  I have sympathy.  But he’s in his 70′s and has had a wonderful life.  He still has the ability to walk and he doesn’t shake too badly.  He was diagnosed in his mid 60′s.  I keep thinking what Michael J. Fox wouldn’t have done for 30 extra year’s of normalcy.  And somehow Michael J. Fox gets his chin up and accomplishes things.  So did Christopher Reeves.  And Bethany Hamilton (the teenage surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack) - how many people would have her positive attitude and keep surfing?  How many would lead a life of “poor me?”

My wife reads a blog every day that she loves (and highly recommends to everybody) called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  She loves it and always has such great stories to tell me about the blog in the evenings when we talk about life.  Like how most people derive as much (if not more) happiness from planning fun things than from the actual act of doing them.  It’s like travel – you get so excited to plan everything out and you love to show pictures of what you did afterward, but many people struggle to “get into the moment.”  That’s OK as long as you find enjoyment in the before and/or after.

She also talks about how temporary the positive feelings are from great physical possessions that you acquire like a new car.  Happiness from getting things is ephemeral.  So happiness has to be a state of mind.  You need to constantly remind yourself to be happy whatever your life’s circumstances.  I know that some people will think, “sure, that’s because he’s a VC and lives a charmed life.”  My life is no different than most people’s.  I’ve had many setbacks in life – probably more than many of you.

And I couldn’t help but noticing the adversity in this article on NY Times interviewing Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures:

“Before the sale [of Geocities], we were completely broke. We had to move out of  New York City because we just couldn’t afford to live in the city. We had three kids, and I was barely scraping by to pay the mortgage.

So you were essentially broke?
Yes, completely. Right before the Geocities sale went through, my wife went to the cash machine to buy groceries for the week and there wasn’t any money in our bank account. I told her to put groceries on the credit card because I knew we were going to sell Geocities the following week. But before that happened, we were living hand to mouth.”

According to the math from the post that would make Fred 38 when they sold Geocities – 38 when he was living “hand to mouth.”  Perhaps that’s why to this day he still seems to have such good empathy with startup teams.  When you’ve been through the struggle you appreciate it that much more in others.

I was in my late thirties before I had my first big exits also so I feel like I somehow also still have the mindset of somebody who hasn’t acquired a little bit of wealth.  Yet I live in LA where there’s ALWAYS somebody around you who has more.  You can never compare yourself by that yardstick or I promise you’ll never be happy.

So remember whatever adversity you’re facing, many of the people you admire today have struggled too.  We didn’t all have it easy.  We weren’t all born with a silver spoon in our mouths.  We didn’t all hit it big by 30.

You can choose to be defeatist or to pull your socks up and try again – harder this time.  Enjoy the journey and not just the destination otherwise even when you arrive you may not find the happiness you were looking for, as I suspect my $500 million friend has not (luckily for me he doesn’t read blogs! ;-)).  Read the book “The Alchemist” if you want a reminder about enjoying the journey. Or read the magnificent book “Eat, Pray, Love” and follow the Italian mentality of  “Il Bel Far Niente (The Joy of Doing Nothing)”.

And remember, whatever adversity you’re facing – enjoy the journey.  Life is 10% how you make it, 90% how you take it.

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** Postscript Note: I have always believed that there are carve-outs to this rule for people with mental illnesses who don’t completely control their minds.  I believe that the chemicals in some people’s brains are hard-wired for unhappiness and that people fall on a scale of depression from severe to mild.  Medicine can help – I’ve seen in first hand in people with whom I’m close.  I’m not trying to be a blog about medicine or depression – I just wanted to acknowledge that for some people the advice in this post will be easier than it will be for others.

  • Mitul

    Thanks for your post!

  • Murat

    Highly recommend Siddhartha by Herman Hesse :)

  • http://GeekAtSea.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=display_name&utm_campaign=disqus_display Kirill Zubovsky

    Mark, great post, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. @grmeyer once recommended that I read a book called “The Magicians”, and besides just being a really great book, it comes with a very vivid reminder on the topic. If you have time, I’d highly recommend.

  • Shadowlayer

    I liked most of your post Mark, but other parts I didn’t

    I really hated when you started with the happiness stuff, coelho and his cheap discourse disguised as psychology

    I had a team member who was all about being happy and uppity or whatever, and what happened when we had just a minor inconvenience with our plan? he quitted on us, arguing all that BS about toxic people, happiness and crap, and that he couldnt deal with the situation

    But the cynic guy who liked to make bad downer jokes? he stood with us until we delivered, he never even talked about leaving, and always got his part of the job done on schedule

    If you need to fake your happiness then you have a problem, a serious one, and you shouldnt hear the advice of complete hacks like coelho but go to an actual psychotherapist. I’m not joking there, whatever is causing the problem is going to keep piling on for years

    I totally agree with you that most people dont make it big, that most should be thankful of having a lucky strike in their early 40s rather than bitch about not being like Zuck

    I agree that the glass is half full, but then again I’m not blind, and I can tell when its half empty

    That parkinson example, while I agree that at 70 the guy had already lived his life the fact of the matter is that having a mental illness like parkinson can be worst than cancer, because you know you are going to slip away very slowly, and that there isnt a cure

    The only thing worse than parkinson its alzheimer, 

  • Ahmed J

    Hi Mark, Your posts are very inspirational and believe me if I happen to succeed one day and make it BIG, your guidance will have an integral role. Cheers

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Z56SRJVMFZCAREF4T62L7VJAHA Anonymousse

    I think your carve-out should apply to your relative with Parkinson’s disease.  Neurological disorders affect mental health.  All serious and long-term illnesses affect mental health.  I have an illness so now I can tell you that you don’t know what it is like and don’t understand some things until you get one of those illnesses.  One example being, what you see is not the same as what the disease feels like.  You see that he can walk and doesn’t shake that much, but that doesn’t mean that he feels better than Michael J. Fox or the other people you mentioned.  Pain and discomfort are not visible.

    Also, your relationship with your relative is not the same as with the celebrities.  You don’t know whether the celebrities have someone or some people who they complain to.  And are they complaints or just saying what it feels like?  It’s possible to appreciate all the positive things while also acknowledging that some diseases are f–king painful or uncomfortable.  When someone has a cold, people don’t mind asking how they are doing and hearing that they feel terrible.  It’s no big deal to hear this response.  When someone has a serious disease, then people can’t handle asking how they are doing and hearing that it’s feels terrible.  The latter is orders of magnitude worse in severity and duration.  This is what I wonder, why people don’t mind hearing someone say they feel terrible when they just have a tiny cold for 2 days but don’t want to hear someone say they feel terrible when they actually do.

    What you see from celebrities is filtered through the media.  What they do and say in public also may not be the same as how they behave in private.  They make for nice stories and inspiration for healthy strangers, deleting all the tough parts.

  • Melinda Kim

    I just stumbled upon this post now and what great timing!  Quite my job last year and I’m in the midst of my first start up.  Money is tight but I’m loving every minute of this adventure.  Must admit though, I had a tough week last week and this post reminded me to keep pushing and looking to a new tomorrow. :-))  Thanks a bundle.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    I read this now as I saw a link off your LinkedIn profile.
    Lovely. Thanks Mark. 

  • Stevenjowens

    I like to phrase this:  “You can’t _make_ yourself be happy, but you can certainly make yourself miserable.”  It’s not about _choosing_ to be happy, it’s about choosing not to be miserable and letting the natural joy of life happen.

  • Maria

    Great post – I read it at a time I really needed it – thanks for posting!

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