Life is a Startup

Noam Wasserman discusses his new book, and about how an entrepreneurial mindset can lead to better life decisions

October 09, 2018

Professor Noam Wasserman, a leading expert on founders of startup companies, details in his new book how an entrepreneurial mindset can lead to better life decisions.

Editor’s note: Professor Noam Wasserman came to USC Marshall in 2016 after nearly 20 years at Harvard Business School, including 13 as a professor. At USC Marshall he is the Jorge Paulo and Susanna Lemann Chair in Entrepreneurship, professor of clinical entrepreneurship, and founding director of Founder Central. His national bestseller, “The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup,” was an Amazon #1 bestseller in the management genre and won the Academy of Management’s Impact on Practice award.

We caught up with Wasserman to discuss his latest book, Life Is a Startup: What Founders Can Teach us About Making Choices and Managing Change,” due out in mid-October from Stanford University Press.


Where did the idea to write your new book come from?

In 2010, the second year I was teaching my “Founder’s Dilemma” course at Harvard, a student came by to meet with me. I thought it was going to be a typical student meeting. But he sat down right across from me and looked me in the eye and said, ‘Noam, I’m never going to be a founder, but your course has already changed my marriage.”

My first reaction was apologizing to him about his taking the wrong course. My second reaction was, ‘Tell me more!’ What he had said was baffling to me, given that I had been focused on researching and teaching founders for a decade.

It turns out he was a newlywed. He had been grappling with his new co-founder of life—how they were going to manage things within their family, how they were going to allocate their roles and collectively make decisions. Each day after class, he was seeing some new lesson that was applicable to the life they were building together.

"You think this is an entrepreneurship course, but it’s actually a life course!" -- Noam Wasserman

So essentially he grabbed me by the lapels, shook me and said, ‘You think this is an entrepreneurship course, but it’s actually a life course!’

Did that surprise you?

It was not at all what I had pictured I was doing in the classroom. But in conversations with students, I began to see that the founding best practices, entrepreneurial mindset, and key inflection points I was teaching were also applicable to life in general.

In 2015, I decided to start collecting a top 10 of the biggest lessons for life that had come out of the work that I had been doing for the last 15 years. And that ended up being what’s in the book.

Can you give us some examples of these life lessons?

One is the perils of following your passion. The flip side is running into the “handcuffs of life” that prevent you from pursuing what you are passionate about.

When you are too passionate about things, your passion leads you to move forward too quickly, and you encounter hazards.  You dive into the pool and—too late—find out it has no water.  So we have to learn to pull back on the reins and assess several key aspects before we dive in.

On the flip side, incrementally throughout life, we make decisions that in the short term make all the sense in the world, but in the long run come back to haunt us. For example, you spend your signing bonus on a mortgage. You go and start a family and bring in a nanny to help you out. Then, you decide to impact the world by pursuing your dream job at a nonprofit (or a startup!) that won’t be paying even close to as much as you need in order to sustain your lifestyle. The ”handcuffs of life”—your high-priced lifestyle and hard-to-change expenses that made all the short-term sense in the word to take on—prevent you from being able to pursuing that dream. 

Another example of a life lesson from the first half of the book involves failure and success. We’ve heard about how founders get stronger from their failures, but never learn actionable ways we can adopt their best practices. So I take us deep into their practices and show how we can adopt them.  Also, how do we prevent our fear of failure from torpedoing our making life changes? How can we gain knowledge and motivation from our failures rather than having them stop us in our tracks?

On the flip side are the perils of success. You reach your dream, and then all sorts of challenges are introduced. Your success has actually heightened a bunch of problems for you.  Planning ahead for the perils of success is key to being able to have them be true successes.

How is your book structured?

The first part is grouped around making choices better than we usually do—being able to have the freedom to pursue your passion and not have the handcuffs get in the way, and being prepared for both the challenges of failure as well as the perils of success.

The second half of the book goes into managing change—when you’ve made your decision, how are you going to make sure that it will go as smoothly as possible?

We talked about the first half already.  The second half—managing change—starts with what I call the “blueprints of life.” We accumulate in our mind how the world works, how people are incented, how organizations are structured. We have an unstated set of assumptions that we make about the world. And when we go and make a change, we often have some rude awakenings of realizing there are key disconnects from our blueprint.

For example, when I was coming to USC from a place that I had been for nearly 20 years, I assumed all universities ran like Harvard, but then once I was here I discovered there were other (often better) ways to do all sorts of things. I didn’t even realize I was making some of those assumptions. Fortunately, for many of the most important assumptions, I had learned from founders how to anticipate, test, and adjust to the biggest disconnects, or else it might have been a rocky transition for me.

Other key areas in the second half of the book are lessons from founders about avoiding the magnetic pulls of equality and homophily (the natural attraction we have toward socializing and working with “birds of a feather”) and about reducing the challenges introduced by mixing our personal and professional lives.

How is your new book different from others that focus on principles of life and work?

There are a lot of authors in the self-help realm who say, ‘This is how you can go and do things better,’ but there wasn’t anything out there advocating taking an entrepreneurial mindset and the counterintuitive practices of the best founders, and applying them to career changes and personal relationships.

Can you give me a snapshot of the Founder Central initiative?

The mission of the Founder Central initiative is to create and disseminate knowledge about the most important early decisions faced by founders and the other people who help build startups.

We now have a core faculty of four professors, two post-doctoral students and an executive director.  We also have a bunch of collaborators from other USC Marshall departments. So we’re up to about a dozen people from one person (me) a year ago.

We have a brand-new course on entrepreneurial history that will debut in January, when the spring semester starts. We’re bringing in a lot of smart people who have more creative ideas than I could ever come up with alone, so we can have an even broader and deeper impact on the next generation of startups.

In January, we’ll have five sections of my course (Founder’s Dilemmas), so it'll be about 250 students total taking the course across Marshall’s undergrad and graduate programs.

You have eight children, right?

Yes, from age 26 down to 5.  And I have two grandkids.

You're a busy guy.

(Laughs) Unfortunately, I don't get to do enough with raising the grandkids. When you get to that stage, it doesn't add to the busy-ness, it adds to the joy.