Over the years I’ve worked alongside all sorts of fascinating entrepreneurs in the high-tech industry. Real founders of real companies – some even made it big. For a long time I had a big title and a big function. I even ran a well-funded startup for a while.
But I was never an entrepreneur.
Having been involved in several private rounds of funding, IPOs, even a merger or two, I’ve accumulated quite a contact list of VCs and investment bankers. I can put an investor pitch together that’ll get you reaching for your checkbook.
But I’m still not an entrepreneur.
And, get this: I’ve owned my own business for more than a decade. Aside from a bit of a squeeze after the 2008 recession, it’s done pretty well, paid the bills and all that. But you know what?
I still don’t consider myself an entrepreneur.
The reason? I don’t get hung up on labels. And it’s a good thing because, if I did, I probably wouldn’t be much use to you or my consulting clients.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that job titles aren’t important. I think they’re very important. If you’re the head of engineering, you have to deliver products on time and on budget and they better work or heads will roll, starting with your own.
If you’re an executive officer of a public company, that’s a very big deal with big responsibility you have to take seriously because thousands of customers, employees, and shareholders depend on you.
Those are the things that I focused on for the first 23 years of my career. And that’s how I gained the knowledge, the skill, and the insight to do what I do today.
“Entrepreneur” may mean a lot of things to a lot of people these days, but it’s not a job function. It’s not even a job title. It’s just a label. And focusing on a label will keep you from finding your true passion.
You see, it takes time to figure out what you’re meant to be, what you’re capable of doing better than anyone else. Your true calling is never just a label. It’s a job, an area of expertise, an innovative capability. Your true calling doesn’t just jump out at you and shout, “Here I am.” You have to find it. And that can only come from experience.
What kind of experience? Experience developing real expertise, learning a trade, figuring out how business really works, negotiating deals with real companies, becoming an effective manager, and gaining exposure to a business world you simply can’t get sitting in a room with a computer on your lap.
Maybe the most important thing you learn from experience is what you don’t know. That’s probably the greatest irony in this world. We all start out thinking we know it all. But the longer you’re around and the more you learn, the more you come to realize how little you actually know -- and, perhaps more importantly, how little you actually know about yourself.
After you gain enough experience, you begin to see the world as it really is and yourself for who you really are. That’s when you begin to gain a sense of humility and balance. That’s when you begin to develop maturity and perspective. And those are very important qualities when it comes to building and running a successful business.
The funny thing is, had I decided to focus on being an entrepreneur early in my career, I never would have gained the knowledge and insight to help so many entrepreneurs and executives. Had I become a young entrepreneur, I would never have found my passion and I would not have had the impact I’ve been so fortunate to have.
How do I know? After all these years, I know myself. I’m happy. I’m fulfilled. And I love what I do.
So let me leave you with a thought. The world is full of infinite possibilities, but your career – indeed, your life – is finite. There are loads of opportunities out there, but if you don’t find them, it’s as if they don’t exist. They’re like far off lands you’ll never get to see. Beautiful music you’ll never get to hear. Passion you’ll never get to experience.
The only way to bring opportunities to life is to go out and experience things. Do things. Learn things. Meet people. Real people in the real world. People who’ve been places and done things you find exciting. That’s how you’ll find your true passion. And one thing I can tell you with great certainly. You won’t find it in a label.
This post originally appeared at Entrepreneur. Copyright 2014.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of the upcoming book, “Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Contact Tobak. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.