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

Posted on Jul 19, 2010 | 112 comments

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

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.


** 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.

  • stefanhadlin

    Thanks for a good and inspiring post! The journey is part of the goal so you must enjoy the journey too. What if you don't reach the goal you've set up, then you at least had a great time on the way towards it.

  • OSU_Matt

    Thank you for the response. I actually have made it through about 2 chapters of that book so far, and is the book I am reading when I get the free time. I will continue to read it and will be interested seeing your blogging about it. What you do here at this blog is truly amazing. Just a quick note, do you ever have reason to travel to Ohio? OSU's entrepreneurship club, Business Builders Club, likes to have amazing speakers, and you would be an awesome, inspiring example for all our members. I know its unlikely that you will be out here, but if you're ever in this area we would love to have you and show you a little about Columbus. Take care

  • Mark Essel

    This is the finest advice post I've read of yours.
    Thanks Mark.

    I learned this through personal experience. A lifetime ago (end of 2008), I was working full time at a job I loathed with a team I adore. My shift of interests stretches back to 2001, when I tried another engineering job, and decided to go back because the type of work wasn't the issue.

    For me it was not having any real social impact day in and day out, and a total lack of creative self direction. I couldn't choose the how or why with any of my projects. I did get to work on one wild protein database project but only because I pushed hard, but the venture backed company we did it for went under (Structural Bioinformatics in the LA area).

    Fast forward to November 2008, I finally got up and decided to quit. My wiser boss spun it into a leave of absence after a long talk the next day. After a few months of soul searching and passing on franchise deals (there's a way to leverage my 401k for one, but they're really glorified management deals) I decided founding a startup was the best fit for me. In order to get married I went back to my old job part time and although it feels different, my heart will never be in it. Building a business is what drives me.

    I'll do whatever is needed to survive while I work to build a company, and I'll remember to enjoy the ride with all the bumps in the road. I've already had a great time meeting incredible entrepreneurs and investors.

    If you don't mind chewing a little broken glass, it's always full.

  • Eric

    Great post on a subject that has been discussed for thousands of years. As Mark says your happiness depends on you and how you define it for yourself. And in the same vein I think we need to be honor others and not judge them for what brings them happiness. For me it is my family and the joy of living each day and for someone else it is something totally different. It is not up to me to judge them any better or worse for what drives their happiness or unhappiness. As Mark says we all have issues we face everyday and some handle better than others. For those that don't hopefully we can help provide the support (either collectively or individually) they need until they are able to learn how to figure it out.

  • bmagierski

    Great post Mark. I like Gretchen's work a lot (blogged about it here) and have been doing some reading on happiness over the past 6 months or so.

    Wealth is not a metric of happiness – you are absolutely correct, there is always somebody that has more or will have more soon. This could be said of any material object. You are also absolutely correct, that startups and entrepreneurship is not for everybody. What drives success and happiness is the passion (blogged about For Love or for Money here). Without passion, you may make money, but whether the money or the process drives any happiness is not likely.

    For me, my priorities in life are health, family, and career, in that order because without my health I'm not good for my family. My career happens to be in web/software entrepreneurship. I derive happiness from all three and they are in balance but prioritized. Properly balancing these priorities is a mindset and way of life, just as health and nutrition is order to stay fit.

  • Tiffany

    Mark – Great Post! Your thoughts are in line with the message from Think and Grow Rich. It's our mental attitude. I have a quote near my desk that states “The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our Attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. So it is with you. We are in charge of our Attitudes”. I am not sure who wrote the quotes. My great uncle sent it to me four years ago when I launched a startup.

  • Krisenkindt

    Hey Mark,
    great comment! I totally agree that happiness, or life for that matter, is mainly defined by what you make out of given chances and mishaps.

    Money, cars, expensive products… it all comes and goes. And in the end, it doesn't really matter what you have if you do not know how to use it, aka, how to be happy with what you got no matter what it is, and how to share it with people you love. Cause your loved ones will never prefer you with a big house than with a small, if you are happy in the small one and show it.

    My canadien friend always quotes this: “Life is not about arriving at the end, all pretty dressed and without any signs of damage, without any signs of having really lived a life. Its about sliding sideways through the last curve, bruised but smiling, and yelling “Wow, what a ride!” to all passer-bys.”

  • dshen

    Really inspiring, Mark!

    One thing I rant about these days is this stupid pursuit of happiness. I think the word 'happiness' is a bad word to pursue. This is because 'happiness' invokes the perception that you must be in a state of perpetual bliss or giddiness or there's something wrong with you.

    I think that we've really done bad things in our society for this pursuit of happiness. Youth take drugs, adults go to therapists and take anti-depressants, etc. We commit suicide if our lives aren't perfect and we're not feeling happy 100% of the time.

    I like the word 'positivity' much more. As you describe, often we need to struggle mightily and not feel very happy in order to get to a good place. But as long as we get there, we're better right? So if we can measure our lives not by the amount of giddiness/bliss we feel but rather that our lives are in a more positive place than yesterday, I think we will be better off.

    Think about Columbus when he discovered the New World. He sailed in fear of falling off the edge of the earth, his sailors were going to mutiny for lack of food, and didn't even know if he would make it there AND then back home again. But yet he prevailed and got there and back. I'm sure he didn't feel 'happy' the whole way there. In today's world, our entitled 'get happy quick' society would have quit a few days into the trip I'm sure. But in the end, Columbus did something really great.

    That's why I'm pushing for the 'pursuit of positivity' where we may not feel happy all the time, and in fact we will feel sad/mad/depressed/etc on the road to a more positive place in our lives. We're all human after all; to deny that we should be feeling negative feelings is just plain stupid.

  • Bmortongroup

    Highly recommend First Things First by Covey as well. At least the first half :)

  • dshen

    One thing that people don't realize even with money is that your problems don't go away; oh sure, old ones might, but they get replaced by new ones, sometimes even bigger ones than before. Pretty soon you're spending a ton of money just to keep these new problems at bay – you may one day wake up to find out that you have a whole personal team of people you're paying a lot of money just to deal with the new problems. It's just a sham to think that more money makes you more happy. Our society needs a serious attitude shift which I can only hope will someday happen…

  • Paul Shapiro

    Well done Mark. After working at a stressful consulting company that wasn't growing, I downsized myself to spend more time with my 2 year old daughter who is about to enter Boston College. The time we spent, and the shift to an enjoyable career as a self employed consultant, has made the intervening 16 years incredibly enjoyable and stimulating.
    Thanks for a very refreshing post; nice to see the “other” other side of the table.

  • Victor Wong

    I actually just read The Alchemist after another entrepreneur recommended it. One quote that stood out was:

    “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never forget the drops of oil on the spoon”

    I think that book is tremendously valuable for any struggling entrepreneur to read. I summed up some of the takeaways:

  • Michael Abehsera

    Mark I really really enjoyed this post :) have a great day and thank you started the morning good.

  • Justin Herrick

    Just do what Gary Vaynerchuck did and dictate the book to someone and have them type it up. Either that or you could write the draft and let someone else handle the edits, but i'm just teasing. One day you'll have the time. 😉

  • Aihui Ong

    Many thanks for the great post. Yes you are a VC and lives a charmed life but only a happy man knows how to express words from the heart. That's why I always enjoyed your blog posts.

    Eat, pray, love is not only a great book, it's also a great journey. I was very unhappy in 2006, so I left, I ate, prayed and loved and came back a different person, a much happier one! :)

    Thanks again!
    ~ Life is full of adventure, it's just not a bed of roses.

  • Shanny

    Lovely post – a blog that makes me happy everyday is

  • Lugom Aidem

    Happiness is not measurable by any concrete standards. And it's also one of those things where the level of happiness can't be relative to anyone elses happiness but your own. There's no way to tell whether Christopher Reeves was truly happy or not, and then compare it to someone like yourself and say “he was happier than me”. AND there's also so many different types of happiness; satisfaction with where you are in life, just the emotional feeling of elation; an knowledge that you are secure, etc.

    In general, it comes down to optimism and positivity. You can say that someone who is generally positive is most likely to be happy and someone who is a pessimist and negative is generally not. And even psychologists can argue that some really messed up people people are happiest when they are pessimistic, and they find comfort in it…

    In terms of controlling your happiness, I'd say yes, you can control it to an extent -by working towards progress, then attaining it. If you are a rat in a cage, and no matter what you try, you fail, it's much more difficult to change your mood by smiling. You must not only take massive action, but you must make progress and see results from your actions. It doesn't even matter necessarily what it is you accomplish… If you repeatedly fail at one thing and realize you suck at it, find something else you can succeed in.

  • Natalie Sisson

    I was just discussing this very topic tonight at dinner with some Austrian friends. We were talking about the power of a positive mindset, the glass half full option you can choose to have and eliminating spending time with people who are downers, pessimistic and continually play victim.

    This is an inspiring post and one that I heartily agree with. I'm not quite at Fred Wilson's stage but did get down to $13 a few months back and at that time I was actually feeling pretty free, when it gets to that stage you have a choice to embrace your situation and make the most out of it or give in to it. Hopefully people choose the former and have a richer experience for it.

  • Erica Brescia

    Once again, a great post. With a few family members passing recently, I have been thinking about this stuff a lot lately and this was a great affirmation. Really appreciate the fact that you took time to write it.

  • Domas

    Great post. Happiness is truly a choice!

  • Vij

    Author says he has a job he loves. what if you dont and still have to do it to feed your family. How do we be “happy” then?

  • Shuba S.

    Thank you. As cup-is-half-full people, you and your wife might enjoy this blog I read daily:

    Reaffirms my faith in humanity and starts my day off on a wonderful positive note.

  • Julian

    Damn good article, Mark! Really refreshing to get a unique perspective from someone who advocates appreciating the journey more than the destination. I was a victim of the economic meltdown in the finance sector but took that as an opportunity to try launching a startup with some college buddies. Though my finance job paid well, had cushy hours and great prospects for upward mobility, I would have to say I'm enjoying the adventure and challenge of starting something from scratch much, much more, this despite the fact that there is no “salary” and in all likelihood we are destined to “fail” (according to prevailing statistics, anyways). There's something invigorating about being on the grind, hustling to make something of ourselves. Whether or not I'll be singing the same tune a year from now if we don't make it, I don't know, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that this is the fun part. Thanks for the encouraging words!

  • Matthew A Myers

    I recently came to realize I wasn't focusing on choosing happiness – even though I knew how to be there.

    I'm taking steps to be more relaxed all the time – and hopefully can find a startup consultant that can help me make some decisions to get to the next hurdle.

    I've come to realize part of this is setting my current life to allow a fallback plan of doing something I will enjoy doing for the rest of my life – which I might concurrently do anyway if things do go better than well. Opening a yoga studio, teach some of the classes, do some Reiki on people who are in need of it – and manage my online business!

    “And remember, whatever adversity you’re facing – enjoy the journey.” – and do yoga (find a style that works for you)! :)

  • kevin_swan

    It is because of guys like Mark, and their approach to life, that I love working in the startup industry. When I moved to Palo Alto at the age of 25 I was blown away by the fact that a bunch of people (I now call them serial entrepreneurs :-) ) would make millions and be right back to work building their next company or helping the next up and coming entrepreneur. Most also had such a great approach to life – money did not completely drive them.

    I have been told many times that there is much easier ways to make money than in entrepreneurship and venture capital. I believe this, but I also believe that those who choose to do this do it for so many other reasons. It is an extension of who you really are and startups is a way to reflect these characteristics in a “job”.

    I have only been at it 3 years and have no great success stories (yet), have had a lot of heartache and tough times, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

  • PetarVasic

    Great post !

  • ryanborn

    Nice change of pace and a wonderful post Mark. You should do more of these. I also believe your post script is important and had I not noticed it, my takeaways from the post would certainly be different. I think we all need this kind of refresher from time to time.

  • Matt Cameron

    The former CEO of EDS once wrote an email that I liked: 'There are two types of people in this world – energy suppliers and energy drainers'.

    So I would say choose happiness and supply energy to those around you – You will develop an invisible and very powerful attractive force that surrounds you with good people.

  • Todd Havens

    Thanks! Just…thanks.

    From another half-fuller in the world.

  • noel chandler

    Thanks Mark! Definitely an inspiring post and I feel blessed to work with people who choose happiness. Some days are harder than others, but it's all part of the journey and we're having a blast.

  • Azra Panjwani

    Wow Mark. What a beautiful post. Many of the things you highlight are things that I've come to realize over the last half a year or so of some serious soul searching. I've recently had a few things that didn't quite pan out according to plan. Initially I had a very a poor attitude about everything but it didn't take long to realize the negative, life-sucking impact it had on my energy and the energy of those around me. The Startup Weekend in LA where you spoke and were a judge on the panel was actually a key turning point in helping me realize precisely the kind of things I could miss out on just by having a negative attitude. Thanks for the post, it was a very refreshing read.

  • patrick allen


    A while back, my close mentor (also CEO of our partner company), told me that he envied my position. I was a taken aback… “My position?” I thought. “Broke as @$%@, 90 hr weeks, scrappin blankets from ROSS bc we couldn't pay the heating bill… what the hell is he smoking?”

    He missed the ride. After three successful exits, two $1B+ IPO's, his very best memories when he was the most happy all draw back to his early days in his first company. A few great pals doing everything they could to make magic happen.

    After that chat, I passed out the Alchemist to all three of my team mates (, for precisely that reason. I wanted to give them the gift of foresight.

    It's like we always hear older men say of highschool/college kids; “If I'd only known then, what I know now!”

    I don't know everything, but I can tell you this… I savor every day of this first startup and I never want to let this feeling go.

    Great post. Thank you.

  • rajatsuri

    well written and very wise

  • Dan Vidakovich

    Great post! Thanks a lot for the book recommendations.

  • Jon Katzur

    This is a really wonderful post- as a new graduate interested in the startup world it's nice to know that successful people before me had struggles, and that a positive attitude can carry you through. Great perspective, thanks for writing this

  • Butu

    Thanks mark for the nice blog post. It's so true how we take our life !!! everything in mind.. sometime difficult to control. but this article really inspiring .. need to know the balance in life and work hard..

  • DC

    Instead of the happiness project, how about the empathy project? How you cannot understand a 70 year-old's struggle with Parkinson's and end of life issues is a little frightening. Just because he has it better than someone else does not mean he should be jumping for joy. There are always people who have it better and people who have it worse. It's all relative. Believe it or not, one can have both – personal happiness and a deep understanding of why some people do not have it. Still, your post has a lot of great elements. Keep writing.

  • victoria alba

    absolutely right -on….way to put it into words ..:)

  • Joy

    I believe being truly happy with yourself is about learning the difference between 'need' and 'want'. If you let it, life generally brings you what you 'need'. Very often what you thought you 'wanted' does not turn out be that good after all and is usually a very short lived enjoyment. Keep an open mind, don't pre judge others or situations, until you have the full picture. Be grateful for what you have, as there are an awful lot of people in the world who have a whole lot less! and keep smiling. Give a smile to someone and you will very probably get one back!

  • TimChan

    Great message, great speech

  • Lui Jimenez

    That's what makes a great entrepreneur, someone who can lead, someone who can inspire others and someone that places a positive environment into the company. After reading this blog/article, I've come to realize that I should continue to focus on the great things i already have in my life and not worry so much about what i don't have. I wish more people would find this need to stay happy in order to stay driven and approach problems knowing there's always a solution and is a matter of time and some twisting to get it solved.
    I will continue to enjoy MY journey because i CHOOSE to and if Life has some challenging bumps ahead for me , then bring them on, I know exactly “how to take it”.

  • Jeremy Bonney

    Great post. Reminds me of Hector's Search for Happiness (awesome book).

  • David Frankel

    Outstanding Blog Mark – feel privileged to have read this

  • Lshamos

    Thanks Mark for saying these things so well and succinctly. I am working through things that your post answered as if I had a conversation with you.

  • Henrik

    I never commeted on a blog but this is just great…. I mean wow….. Thank you so much!

  • Jesus Casillas

    This post reminded me very much of “Desde la Adversidad” a great and inspiring book!(in spanish tough!)

  • Anonymous

    Great post!

  • Pete Griffiths

    ” 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 don’t this is a generous enough carve-out.  Seeing the glass as half empty is not a mental illness nor does it connote and inability to control one’s mind.  There are many people who fall into neither category but whose temperament is more anxious and insecure, who are quick to see danger and dwell on setbacks.  This temperament is not ‘broken’ but may well find it hard to take your advice to snap out of it and look on the bright side.  They may recognize the benefits of a more positive attitude, they may well wish they could realize them, and try very hard to follow the advice but it is just congenitally difficult for them.  

    Such attitudes are likely to find entrepreneurship stressful and difficult.  But this temperament is also so commonplace that it is reasonable to suppose it confers some evolutionary advantage.  IMHO with the best of intentions we are not going to be able to switch it off, or even moderate it much, with advice.  Ironically, an increasing body of research in psychology and neuroscience is making it perfectly plain that none of us ‘completely control’ our minds.  Some of us are just lucky enough to be born with a positive optimistic temperament.

  • Dan Spoor

    Great article! Thanks.

    After two years of struggling to get my business up and running, but loving the journey – i couldn’t have said it better!

  • Anthony Bullard

    Mark, as a 29 year old starting his first startup – and moving from Indianapolis to SF in order to do so – I can tell you that this article is hitting me at the exact right time. I have been torn down by the realities of what this business takes from someone. This is the most important thing I have ever done, and yet, there are times when the real world just off and smacks me in the face. Depression has at times set in deep. But this article has helped me remember that I have an opportunity to work with amazing people and build things that will affect lives. I shouldn’t let small things bring me away from the happiness I feel when I am working towards this amazing product we are building. I will make sure that the rest of my Team reads this as well.

    Thanks again Mark.