You Can’t Transfer Will

Originally published on my Tumblr on January 2, 2012.

I’ve done an okay job at it.

Last year, I met up with Josh Stylman. We took advantage of the small window of gorgeous Spring weather and grabbed a couple afternoon Negra Modelos at Pacifico. Josh is a former-entrepreneur turned investor / advisor and I asked him about that transition. He mentioned that part of what makes investing in startups difficult is that “will is non-transferrable.” You can advise and encourage a startup all you want, but at the end of the day, it’s up to them to exert the will and effort required to get things done.

That phrase hit me hard. I called Josh a “former-entrepreneur” but that really just means that he’s an “entrepreneur between obsessions.” Entrepreneurial character traits are hard to shake even if there is no immediate project on the docket. Of all the entrepreneurial traits I can think of, self-reliance and strong personal will are the most foundational. People like Josh, myself, and the rest of the Fictive team have been conditioned to rely on our will to get things done and so it is frustrating to see its absence in a project you are involved in.

I don’t do a lot of angel investing, but in my personal life I often feel like a kind of early-stage investor. Instead of investing money in startups, I invest my time and energy in the dreams of my friends & family. These folks hope to build something great or change careers or advance in their existing careers and have asked me for advice on how to do so. I didn’t realize it until recently, but these personal energy investments bear a great deal of resemblance to financial investments.

Once someone has involved me in the plot for their dreams, they keep a little piece of me with them, whether they know it or not. They can take that energy and turn it into something great or let it fade. Either way, I have a very real emotional stake in their outcome.

I used to think that I had near-infinite energy reserves, but it’s become increasingly clear that, like a financial investor, I need a return on my energy investment. If people involve me and then go on to accomplish what they set out to do (or even just work hard toward it) I gain a great deal back in the satisfaction of knowing I helped someone. It’s then easier to pay that energy forward to other folks who want my help. If they go on to do nothing, I lose the energy I invested and it won’t be coming back.

This year, I’m making it a goal to fully internalize Josh’s comment. Will is non-transferrable. In order to have the biggest impact possible, I’m going to need to be increasingly discerning with my energy investments. I need to throw myself behind the most eager folks so my reserves stay full and I can keep being generous with my time and energy for a long time to come.