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At business schools, scholars of entrepreneurship generally follow one of two basic theories of how enterprises start. The first, called the discovery theory, holds that the universe is filled with opportunities, and that entrepreneurs are the ones who discover and exploit them. The second is called the creation theory, and holds that opportunities are created by the actions of the entrepreneurs themselves. So either a pocket-size computer always existed in theory and Steve Jobs discovered it and called it the iPhone, or Apple’s development-and-experimentation process was what created it.
This might sound like an esoteric debate, but it is actually extremely useful for anyone looking at the enterprise that matters most: life. Probably all of us at some point have felt the pull to “find yourself,” to ascertain your essence: who you are, what your life means, what you are supposed to do with it. To find yourself, you first need to decide if at your core you are a discovery theorist or a creation theorist: whether your essence already exists but you need to discover and understand it, or whether it has yet to come into existence and you need to create it through your choices, beliefs, and actions. Deciding between these two theories will give you purpose and intentionality—and a way to proceed with the enterprise of your life.
Figuring out which theory you favor requires a bit of philosophy—specifically, philosophical knowledge about the relationship between your existence and your essence. Existence means that your being is real, not imaginary, and usually in some physical sense. Essence is what Aristotle defined as τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, which means, roughly, “the what it was to be.” Your essence is the inner, expressive “you-ness” of you—what makes you you, as opposed to a pencil, a goat, the person next door, or any other physical entity that can be said to have existence but not your essence.
To find yourself, then, is to understand your essence—to know who you are inside. And this is absolutely necessary for well-being. Psychologists have shown in experiments that having a clear sense of your “true self”—being able to make explicit who you believe you really are, not just leaving it implicit in how you act—more strongly predicts a feeling of meaning in life than positive emotion and/or high self-esteem. In addition, people who can describe their true self have a much higher sense of life’s meaning than those who can describe merely the way they act in daily life.
No one said this was easy. Your essence is not obvious, and to find yourself demands thought and effort.
“Who in the world am I?” asks Alice in Wonderland. “Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” To crack that puzzle involves knowing how and where to look, which brings us back to the theories of entrepreneurship. If your essence already exists and precedes your existence, you must discover it. And if it does not exist, you must try to create it.
1. Essence precedes existence.
Many people turn to religion to help answer Alice’s question, and that option generally follows the discovery theory. Many faiths assert that your essence is ordained before you are born, and that your life’s work is to discern and embrace it. For example, Christians and Jews believe that humans are made in God’s image, and so to find yourself is to know God and discover his will for your life.
Not all beliefs that essence precedes existence are religious, though. Take evolutionary psychology, which posits that our essence is to survive and reproduce. This body of thought explains why you do what you do, even when your behaviors and motivations seem strange or absurd. For example, to envy a social-media influencer may seem senseless, but envy of those who are richer or more beautiful—while tough on the soul—makes sense in evolutionary terms, possibly because it may impel us to compete by trying to improve ourselves.
2. Existence precedes essence.
Theories of an essence that precedes existence assume that there is a true self to discover. But what if that isn’t true, and we have no intrinsic essence? That is the argument from the existentialist philosophers, who say instead that we must create our essence in order to lead a fulfilling and responsible life. Most famous for this line of thinking is Jean-Paul Sartre, who in 1946 said, “We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.”
Lest you think that the self-creation idea is an esoteric 20th-century European concept best entertained over filterless cigarettes and strong coffee, note that it is utterly woven into American individualist thinking through the work of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson begins his most famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” with the Latin phrase Ne te quæsiveris extra—“Do not seek for anything outside of thyself.” Whereas his Puritan forerunners in New England argued that people are defined by traditions and institutions, he maintained that these were nothing more than dead weight impeding the creation of one’s own meaning.
3. There is no essence.
Of course, both theories could be wrong—there could be no such thing as essence, either discovered or created. This is the argument of nihilists such as the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who bluntly writes, “Human life must be some kind of mistake.” He suggests that life has no meaning or purpose, and that to look for it is delusional. An honest, ethical life requires acknowledging this fact and simply learning to live with it, Schopenhauer maintained.
I believe that the no-essence option defies human experience (and also happens to be a profoundly non-entrepreneurial approach to life). Evidence, if not proof, of the potential existence of something is our desire for it. As the 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas put it, “It is impossible for a natural desire to be void of object, for nature does nothing in vain.” Thirst presumes the existence of water; a feeling of loneliness with its commensurate desire for companionship presumes the existence of other people. And the craving to know our essence is evidence that this essence does—or can—exist.
Whichever of these philosophical positions speaks to you, the quest to find yourself should begin with this question: Do I believe I have an inherent essence? If not, the second question that follows is: Can I create an essence? Different paths to self-enlightenment depend on how you answer.
If the answer to the first question is yes, then the job is one of discovery. If you are a religious person, this can be a straightforward process: Dive into your faith to find yourself. Read the texts; take classes; participate in worship. Become a student of your religion in order to be a student of your own essence. In this practice, you may relate to the words widely ascribed to the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: “I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.”
If the source of your preexisting essence is more mysterious to you than the exercise of a religion can reveal, then a different journey of discovery is in order. Treat your essence with the exploratory spirit of Lewis and Clark, and with a hunger to see what lies around the bend. Try out different things in work and life: Experiment, reflect, and assess what your wanderings bring to your sense of meaning and purpose.
If you answer no to the first question but yes to the second, that means you suspect that your essence doesn’t preexist but can be created. Finding yourself, then, requires an alternative approach. To create an essence, start by imagining the person you wish you were—not in trivial terms, such as money and possessions, but in what matters, such as relationships, values, and integrity. Then assume the essence of that person in your life by acting like that person. As I’ve discussed in a previous column, research suggests that this method can enable you to reap the benefits of those qualities. To grow into this person, act as if you were them—and make their essence fully yours.
But what if you answer no to both questions, either because you believe that there’s nothing you can do to find your life’s meaning or because, like Schopenhauer, you believe that life really has no meaning? As I stated above, I don’t happen to agree with either point of view, but some people do. If you are in this position, then your path is straightforward: No need to agonize, just live—at which point, you have found yourself.
After all of these options, one nagging possibility remains: What if you choose a theory, but it is in fact incorrect? What if you believe that your essence preexists, but it doesn’t, or you believe that it doesn’t preexist, but it does—and then, either way, you have chosen the “wrong” strategy?
The answer is: It probably doesn’t matter.
The greatest benefit of this exercise is not to get the metaphysics just right, which might be impossible, but to choose a life of conscious action. I teach my business students about the discovery and creation theories not to paralyze them, but to get them started on their venture with a sense of direction. The truth is that in discovery, they create, and in creation, they discover.
So it is with life. The real danger is not that you find yourself too slowly or with unnecessary struggle; it’s that you never start your search at all.