By the time I was diagnosed with stage 4 neck and throat cancer, I thought I was done with life-changing experiences for a while. In fact, I had been running the company that my previous life-changing experience inspired me to found for only six months when I got the call.
What happened was this: Five years before my own diagnosis, my then 4-year-old son was battling a rare form of lymphoma. I was witness to our beautiful boy’s extraordinary bravery as he endured spinal taps and an extremely aggressive chemo treatment.
During this time, I occasionally escaped for a short run around Rice University to clear my head. It was during one run around the decomposed granite track that circles the campus, looking for answers to questions that had none, that I realized how I could combine my skills and passions to make a tangible difference in the world.
I saw clearly that I could meld my skill set as an engineer and entrepreneur with my passion for family to help create a cleaner, less toxic environment for our kids. I envisioned a company that would keep plastic out of the oceans and landfills by using 100% post-consumer plastic, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by offering an eco-friendly alternative to concrete and asphalt, and cleanse toxic automobile pollutants by natural filtration of storm water. I wanted to make a real contribution toward a safer environment, and my son’s bravery was the deep well from which I could draw inspiration.
Three years later, my own cancer treatment and recovery, coupled with the unending support of my team and our clients, sharpened the clarity of purpose I had found. No one person and no one company can eradicate cancer, but making strides in that direction has imbued our company’s mission with urgency and intention: to improve our environment and communities by eliminating toxins and carcinogens that are present in our everyday lives.
I encourage you—entrepreneurs, business owners and dreamers—to find fuel in your life challenges. The most trying times can clarify what motivates, inspires and challenges you. When you see what lights your fire, go for it. Even without a traumatic experience, you can take steps to clarify your purpose.
Successful entrepreneurs rise, grind, stretch and strive every day. They listen to clients, customers and the marketplace—and to their guts. They ignore the voices that tell them business is just business; it’s not personal. That’s because if you make your business personal in a positive way, you will be a powerful agent for change. To clarify your purpose in the world, start by asking these four questions:
1. Am I happy?
Are you passionate about what you’re doing? Does it fulfill you? If you answered no, take some time and really consider what you love to do. Ask yourself what excites you so much that you lose track of time, what you find yourself reading about or doing when you’re off the clock. When I reflected on this question, my passion was easy to name: my kids.
When you figure out what this is, ask yourself: Is this a hobby or a business? If it’s something just for you, it may be a hobby. But if it solves a problem, makes something easier for other people, or improves a product or a service, then it may just be a business you can commit to in the long term. Equally important, make sure there is a market or an audience who will find value in your offering. If it fits these criteria and makes the world a better place, you’ll have a clear purpose going forward.
2. What do I want?
What do you want to achieve so much that you will be motivated to learn, work and sacrifice more than anyone to reach that goal? Overnight successes are illusory: What the world sees as sudden is backed by years of work and dedication. So ask yourself whether your passion is strong enough and your goal is clear enough.
One way to figure out whether this passion will stay with you for any length of time is to write it down, put it aside and come back to it in a month. For me, the drive to work toward a safer, cleaner, less toxic environment for my own kids—and children everywhere—was persistent and unflagging.
3. What do I know?
Once you’ve defined what you want to do, take inventory. Do you have the necessary skills? The appropriate education? The funds to get started? If not, map out a path to attaining what you need.
As you make a plan, incorporate the ways your existing skill set will help you achieve your larger goal. The business I developed could bring together my skills—product design, invention, engineering—and my passions for manufacturing in the U.S. and cleaning the environment. My primary task would be to shore up the capital and the material resources to begin my journey.
4. Can I solve a problem?
What is the gap between what exists and what is needed? Is your solution new or different? Search the internet and scour retail to find out. Do a patent search, either on your own or with a patent attorney. Talk (and listen) to your potential customers. Having done this research, build a prototype of your product or write a detailed plan for your service. Assess the market potential for what you offer and once again consider whether you have something that solves a problem, improves someone’s health, or makes a process easier or better.
This due diligence will help you determine just how the purpose you have found contributes to the greater social good. It will also show you whether you can be the best at doing it and find a place for yourself in the market.
Finally, ask yourself: Will it be fun to do this work? My research showed me that the solutions I proposed weren’t already in the marketplace. This freed me to anticipate how much fun I would have making permeable paving surfaces that snap together—like playing with Legos in the real world.
Having a child with cancer was a bracing wake-up call for me about what really matters in this life. The surreality of the whole experience forced me to stop and listen, pause my entrepreneurial ambitions, and find a deeper purpose. Because I did, I was given the gift of making a difference. Yes, there are many inspirational stories of people who have found clarity because of traumas that wipe away the fog of the busyness of life. But it’s not necessary to experience trauma to find clarity. Just slow down, listen to your inner voice and commit to change. When you clarify your purpose, it will be fun to go to work—and your business will benefit exponentially.
Photo by @veronicoleman via Twenty20