The Drive to build : From coconut cash to banana millions

I am always surprised by how much I can relate to ambitious people, even when I have no idea what they actually do.

For example, take this interview with Kobe Bryant.

I have never watched a basketball game in my life (basketball is the one with the orange bouncing ball, right ?).

And still, I couldn’t help but relate to him when he said :

Q : So how much are you willing to give up? Have you given up the possibility of having friends? Do you have any friends?
I have “like minds.” You know, I’ve been fortunate to play in Los Angeles, where there are a lot of people like me. Actors. Musicians. Businessmen. Obsessives. People who feel like God put them on earth to do whatever it is that they do. Now, do we have time to build great relationships? Do we have time to build great friendships? No. Do we have time to socialize and to hangout aimlessly? No. Do we want to do that? No. We want to work. I enjoy working.

Q : So is this a choice? Are you actively choosing not to have friends?
Well, yes and no. I have friends. But being a “great friend” is something I will never be. I can be a good friend. But not a great friend. A great friend will call you every day and remember your birthday. I’ll get so wrapped up in my shit, I’ll never remember that stuff. And the people who are my friends understand this, and they’re usually the same way. You gravitate toward people who are like you. But the kind of relationships you see in movies—that’s impossible for me. I have good relationships with players around the league. LeBron and I will text every now and then. KG and I will text every now and then. But in terms of having one of those great, bonding friendships—that’s something I will probably never have. And it’s not some smug thing. It’s a weakness. It’s a weakness.

This captures the trade-off so well : when we become ambitious, we give up our shot at a normal life.

There is a significant upside to creating more freedom and wealth. But it also means struggle, anxiety and, yes, the loss of a certain type of human connection.

So, why do I still feel all this work is worth it – even necessary ?

The 4 Hour Ambition

My instinctive answer was that we are all chasing the “7 deadly sins”. (As in : greed, sloth, gluttony, lust).

And this was probably the actual reason, at least for me, at least at the beginning of my journey. I wanted a better life, with no bosses, no alarm clocks and lots of free time.

This was the promise of The 4 hour Work Week, and it made perfect sense to me.

But lately, something new has happened in me.

I found myself driven to choices that meant more stress, more discipline… and less money (at least in the short term). It seemed as if something else inside me had overcome my original desire for an easy life.

My first reaction was to be slightly annoyed with myself.

It felt like having a cat who constantly whines for you to open the window, but wants to get back inside as soon as you let him out.

Why couldn’t I nurture the little business that I had built, make enough to live comfortably in Vietnam or Thailand and finally relax ?

Why did I feel the need to grow, when it would threaten the comfortable life I had taken so much time to create ?

The Banana King

This started to make sense while I was reading about another ambitious man, Samuel Zemurray.

Samuel Zemurray was the “Banana King”, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the US at age 14, and went on to build a banana empire.

In an early 20th century’s version of geo-arbitrage, he bought a plot of land in Honduras, and grew the business by buying up land until he was powerful enough to topple governments and influence the U.S. State Department.

While reading his story in Rich Cohen’s The fish that ate the whale, I couldn’t help but wonder : When will he stop ?

Time and time again, Zemurray has the opportunity to gather his chips and go home. And still, long after he has made a fortune, he keeps going back to his plantations in the jungle.

At one point, he sells his company for 31.5 millions (in 1930’s dollars !) and retires… then proceeds to make a comeback and take over the buyer, United Fruit !

The scene is incredible : Zemurray appears in front of the board of United Fruit to expose what he considers poor management.

Making fun of the Russian immigrant’s accent, the chairman responds “Unfortunately, Mr. Zemurray, I can’t understand a word of what you say”, driving Zemurray to storm out of the room.

While the directors believe he fled back to retirement, he returns with a stack of papers, proxies that will grant him control of the company.

“You’re fired! Can you understand that, Mr. Chairman?”, he says.

And this is how the supposedly retired banana man takes over the most powerful fruit company in the world.

The Drive to build

What I learned from this millionaire who kept diving back into the mosquito-infected jungle, is that there is a force  stronger that the need for comfort or pleasure.

I would argue that it can even be more powerful than greed and lust.

I call this force “The Drive to build”.

The Drive to build is the creative itch that explains why so many books are published each year, despite writing demanding so much effort and bringing so few rewards to the average author.

And so, it seems that the force that pushes me to grow my business beyond “coconut cash” (the point where I’m making enough money to live an easy life on a beach in Thailand) is the same exact urge that drives a damn hipster to self-publish his poetry book.

(This does not do any good to my self-image as a rational business man.)

From bananas to asteroids

Not satisfying this Drive to build comes with terrifying consequences.

You can see it in people who want to start a business, but wait to “find their passion” first.

It is a special kind of existential dread where nothing seems to make sense, or have any value. I remember living with it everyday as a teenager, and I still recognize it in myself on bad days.

I see it in other people as well. There is the successful copywriter with a great life who wakes up and says “Peter Diamandis is working on mining asteroids. Why am I writing an ad for this law firm ? Why am I not working on anything bigger ?”.

The balancing act of ambition

The most interesting part of this thought is the following paradox : the surest way for me to face this terrifying feeling again is to burn out.

If I don’t build, I wallow in angst… but if I work too much and crash, I loose all ability to be creative and wallow even deeper.

This is something I am still coming to grips with. Two days ago, I wrote a journal entry where I seemed astounded to realize that working ever more hours was not going to be a sustainable trend.

Maybe the Drive to build comes back to the will to become more than human, and to escape death. Maybe you could put it in the same category as “Making babies” and “Religion”. This would explain why its opposite is existential angst.

But of course, we cannot escape our human limitations. We can fly, but not so high that we burn our wings.

The kid

This realization hit me when I was working on the first draft of this post.

I was living in Saigon at the time, and I was just getting back into running after a long break. I would go to the park at night to avoid the mean Vietnamese sun, and run as long as I could.

The first few days were incredibly frustrating. I was unable to run as far, or as fast as I could just a few months before.

For a start, I wanted to get back to a reasonable time on the 10 km. On the first day, I had to stop after 5 km. My legs were killing me.

“Maybe I ran too fast”, I thought.

Two days later I tried it again. This time, I ran 6 km, but the run left me so weak I almost puked. Once again, I had failed to pace myself.

“I like to run fast”, I thought “There is nothing wrong about that”.

Obviously, there was something wrong, because I felt terrible and could barely walk home.

But I still went back the following week. This time it was all different.

I had covered 3 km at a decent pace when a local kid started jogging alongside me. I thought nothing of it at first, until I noticed him glancing up towards me.

“Hi”, I said.

One of the strangest conversations of my life ensued. The kid obviously wanted to practice English, and me being the only white person around, he opted to chat while running.

When asked how old he was, he answered confidently “Twenty-two”. I showed him on my fingers how much twenty-two was, and he responded by flashing twelve fingers. This made much more sense.

The kid wasn’t used to running. I admired how hard he tried to keep the conversation going, using every trick he learned in English class (“Where are you from ?”, “How many people in your family ?”), all while struggling to catch his breath.

Every so often, he would take a break on a bench. I would loop around the park in 10 minutes, then the kid would get back to jogging alongside me, and resume his line of questioning (“Do you have a girlfriend ?”).

After a while, the kid went home, but not after making me promise I’d be back the next day.

(When I went back the next day, he had brought his brother and sister along and was eager to introduce them to the running French guy. The three of them ran behind me around the park like a pack of ducklings).

On this first encounter with the kid, I had ran slower than usual to accommodate his much smaller legs.

On that day, I had also ran 14 km, and still felt great. Maybe it’s good to pace yourself after all.