5 life lessons from Nelson Mandela for entrepreneurs

5 life lessons from Nelson Mandela for entrepreneurs

I fear I will never in my lifetime see someone as caring and as able to make such a profound dent in how we see each other. Mandela’s life reminds me of the maxim that it matters not what happens to you, but only what you do with what happens to you; and that no matter how extenuating the circumstances, you still have the freedom to decide how to respond to adversity.

But can his work enlighten our views of entrepreneurship? Can his struggle, and life, serve as useful lessons for the entrepreneur? I believe the answer is yes.

1. 27 years, 9861.54 days locked away in a small cell, where he smashed rocks by day and conversed with other prisoners by night. Despite his physical limitations, confinement, and lack of freedom, he knew that he was still free in his mind to think and dream of better days. He used those days to think big, positively, never losing hope that things, one day, would turn out all right.

As an entrepreneur, you may be facing similar, although less impairing, challenges and constraints, especially if this is the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey. Perhaps you have taken loans, are highly in debt, and are sharing a small apartment to keep costs low, sleeping on random couches, in order to turn your dreams into reality. Even though those circumstances are less than ideal, remember that they are temporary. It is wise not to let your small business make your small minded and to realize that you’re still free in your mind to think big, and to dream, while focused on execution, of better days.

2. “I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.”

A very important step towards becoming a successful entrepreneur lies in wisely choosing the people with which you spend your time. The people around you, if they are negative, can make you think that life is terrible and that you and your ideas have no chance. If they are positive and independently minded, they can make you see deeper and more distant, once thought unattainable, horizons.

3. “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”

No matter your present circumstances, no matter your current background, you can, if you are sufficiently passionate and determined about what you do, become successful.

Everyone faces challenges. Most successful entrepreneurs come from not so favorable backgrounds. More often than not, what separates those who made it from those who didn’t is the fact that successful entrepreneurs found a way to stay dedicated and passionately focused on what they, and their products, had to offer the world.


“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”


4. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Your friend’s company got funding while yours didn’t? Perhaps a competitor’s product is doing really well in sales. On a personal level, perhaps you look down on someone your age who appears to be fairly accomplished.

Guess what? Being jealous won’t help you at all. Quite on the contrary. Jealousy will hurt your cognitive processes and ability to focus on the outcomes you want for your business and for your life. When it comes to the competition, keep in mind venture capitalist’s Brad Feld advice, “Be obsessively focused on your competitors while ignoring them.” In other words, know their products, positioning, finances, but don’t react to their every move. Instead, focus on you; focus on your journey, on how far you have come and on your product’s ability and potential to make a dent in the universe.

5. “If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man.”

In the end, your journey should be just about that, about the journey itself, about having a journey you are proud of, and not about outcomes. The worst cases of depression that I see in entrepreneurs take place in the lives of those who think that they will only be happy when they make their first million, when they get funded, or when they achieve some sort of financial success.

When those outcomes finally take place in their lives, they quickly realize that money in itself isn’t everything.

Instead of focusing on profit alone, focus on the bigger picture, on what you are leaving behind, and ask yourself, “Would I do, and go through, the same things over again, if I had the chance to?”

Most importantly, ask, “What is my legacy?”


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