An Intensity of Purpose

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One of the most evocative songs to come out of India’s struggle for independence was ‘Ekla Cholo Re. Penned in 1905 by Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, the title roughly

 translates to ‘Walk Alone’. It became the anthem of a generation and was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite songs. Filled with powerful metaphors and imagery, the message in the song was not one of hate. It was not one of violence. It was instead a poignant recognition of the loneliness that comes from following any path of deep conviction.

Like all the best literature, it resonated because it distilled a universal truth. I was reminded of this when a startup founder I know confessed that

What caught me by surprise was that the hardest part of building a startup is the loneliness and the self-doubt.

It took me back to October 2008. The Great Recession had hit but we did not know it yet. In a period of one month my little startup's revenues had dropped by 60%. Within weeks, under-capitalized as we were, I was dipping into the family college savings to make payroll. I was facing layoffs of employees who believed in me, who were friends and had become family. At times like these it is hard to find anyone to speak with because you believe, perhaps correctly, that no one will understand. When this searing sense of separation strikes it is not for a lack of company. Rather it is because of the feeling that no one else can see what you see.

This annealing journey is what made me a fierce advocate for startups. The title of this blog came from a talk I gave earlier this year. I said that the best founders I had met shared what I called 'an intensity of purpose and a willingness of action.

You could call it constancy. You could call it endurance. Either way you would not be wrong. Angela Duckworth has an excellent talk on TED on the subject of grit, which amounts to the same thing. Do you have the fortitude to stick to a task, to a mission, long past the point where it has any pleasure, driven only by the satisfaction of seeing it through to the end? It is overcoming the naysayers who believe something cannot be done. This should be familiar to all the people who struggle every day to change a status quo and build something new.By no means are startup founders the only ones who create new paths so others may follow more easily. Social justice activists, scientists at the cutting edge, brave artists, everyday heroes, there are many people who are cut from the same cloth. So for all the warriors out there who fight doubt, failure and despair, in EVERY field of endeavor – here is my salute to you. Tagore’s poem inspired so many in their darkest hours. The original is in Bengali, below is the translation in the maestro's own words.

If they answer not to thy call walk alone
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou unlucky one,
open thy mind and speak out alone.
If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou unlucky one,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.
If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou unlucky one,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart,
and let it burn alone.

Here's a non-traditional, but lovely, rendition of this song as sung by the inimitableAmitabh Bachhan. Try playing it in the background as you read the words above. Picture in your mind's eye a nation in turmoil, perhaps as your own world is today. I know that every time I re-read these beautiful lyrics I discover something new, and sometimes it is hope.

Photo credit: unknown (via Wikimedia Commons)

Image credit (Typography): Divya Jain, used with permission.

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