Galilee, Golan Heights, Safed, Misgav Am, Acre, Haifa, Israel-Palestine.
“What do you trust most about yourself?”
You asked me that, my friend, on a hilltop somewhere far from home. With the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair, high above the world around us, it didn’t take long to answer…
…I trust that I will always choose happiness.
One of the most startling, shaping, significant pieces of knowledge I’ve picked up along this crazy journey called life is that happiness is not a given. It’s not an obligation for life to provide, or an expectation for me to receive. It not…just there. Rather, happiness is a choice. And as is the case with all choices, it requires a decision and it requires action. To be happy I must choose to be.
And this decision has become a drive, a self-imposed challenge to seek happiness in the most unlikely situations. To push myself to find the beauty in the little, overlooked moments or the grand, mind-spinning obstacles. To take what I find and share it.
It’s an ability that stems from the contrast between light and dark, a struggle to find joy in the shadow of depression. I remember calling it a hole—one that seemed impossible to climb out of—one where I could barely see the light. Depression was my biggest opponent, my nemesis perhaps, but I am thankful for my struggles for they made me who I am.
I’m better for them.
Having experienced those depths drives me to reach the highest heights. That struggle gave me the ability to seek, absorb, and share beauty in ways that I couldn’t and wouldn’t have otherwise. Knowing the contrast between light and dark allows me to appreciate the sunshine a thousand times more, and then some.
So to answer your question, my dear friend, what I trust most about myself is that I will choose to find the light, the love, the goodness around me, and do my best to share it with others. I trust that I will be strong enough to change my course when I see that light moving in a different direction. Even (and especially) when that light moves off the beaten path, I trust that I will continue towards it at full speed.
People may tilt their heads and wonder where I’m going and why. They may ask what it is I’m smiling about, and I’ll tell them…
…It’s because I’m chasing sunshine. And I plan to soak it in and let it shine out like sunbeams through the freckles sprinkling my cheeks.
Fear. It’s a scary thing. A scary thing made up of scary things. It’s also silly. It causes us to do silly things, or causes us to do nothing at all. And there’s one type of fear that I think is sillier than all the rest. It’s the type of fear that comes from crossing boundaries. Boundaries we set both internally and externally. From breaking rules. From breaking down boxes. Why is this type of fear the silliest of them all? Because it keeps us from doing one of the most important things in life–living. This type of fear turns into routine. Normalcy. Cookie cutters. And where’s the fun in that? Coloring in between the lines is safe. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. But by doing so we miss out on page after page of line-less life to scribble all over with any color we might imagine. For that reason, this type of fear is my motivation. My motivation to live differently. To travel paths less travelled, or to forge new paths all together. My motivation to be uniquely me. For that reason, fear isn’t something to be avoided, it’s something to embrace. Some of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever encountered were found just on the other side of something that scared me. Challenging my ideas, seeking other perspectives, chasing experiences with the intent that they will expand my horizons, my identity, my concept of life and all its possibilities. Living with this intent can be seen as adventurous or free-spirited or brave. But one thing that it’s not is fearless. That particular path I took scared me, but that is precisely why I took it. And the most beautiful thing about it is that it no longer does. That is a boundary I have pushed further, and as a result have expanded my capabilities as a human being. I’ve seen, I’ve done, I’ve loved something I never would have otherwise. And as a result I’ve added depth and vibrancy and page after page of colorful scribbles to just what it means to be me.
My bookshelf is filled with tales of little princes and rabbit holes and wild things. My walls are strung with photos of sun and sand and stars. Of magic. A paper map is pinned with places I’ve been, and some places I’ve been only in my dreams. My room is the color of celery. My white linen curtains just barely shade the sun, that magnificent light I can never be too far from. In the morning sunlight streams through my windows and I know I have to chase it. I run down paths lined with trees, surrounded by a world much greater than myself. The sun never touches my skin but it touches the leaves above me, making them look like they are glowing from within. I know that my legs and my muscles can take me anywhere. I appreciate what my body can do. I appreciate the sweat running down it. I appreciate the breath within it that gets faster and heavier the further my feet take me. When I stop, my breath and my sweat and my muscles don’t. I walk out from under the leaves on the trees into the sunlight they’ve been hiding. I lift my chin and close my eyes. The sun warms my skin and fills my body and mind with light. I know that whatever the sun touches is a part of me too. I know that as long as the sun is shining I can do anything, absolutely anything I imagine. I’m eager for the future but in love with the present. I see goodness-in myself, in people. I crave adventure and fear and challenge. I want to be confused, amazed, enlightened, breathless. After the sun sets and paints the sky with color, and after the moon comes out to take its place, the world slows down around me. My mind slows down. My heart slows down. Stars sprinkle the black sky above me and fill it with the most magical kind of light. The stars remind me that the sun I love so much is just one of countless others. Of countless other suns shining light into countless other hearts across countless other galaxies. I wish I could pluck one out of the sky and hold it in my hands and press it to my chest. My imagination is a beautiful place. I know that I look at life through a child’s eyes in many ways. I know that I see it through the eyes of a soul much older than myself in others. Mostly, I know that I’m me. Just me. And that makes me happy.
It’s a cloudy afternoon and I’m daydreaming. Daydreaming of a night without a cloud in the sky. Daydreaming that I’m lying in tall grass underneath an ancient tree with bare branches reaching into a sea of black, absolutely sprinkled with stars. The harder I look at the speckled lights above me the closer they seem to be. The brighter they become. Like they are ever so slowly falling down to Earth. Or maybe Earth is spinning ever closer to them. I want to run my fingers through the sky and hear them sparkle. I want to rearrange the constellations. They seem close enough to touch. I pick one out and stretch up my hand. Just before the tip of my finger reaches it, it bursts like a firework into thousands of flecks of shimmering golden light. I reach for another and another until the whole sky sparkles. Stardust rains down and kisses my cheek. It falls into the grass around me. I close my eyes. I feel a cool breeze from some far away place. I feel the galaxy spinning around me. I feel my mind spinning just the same. I open my eyes to see that the golden flecks of light have grown wings and turned into fireflies. I sit up. They swirl around me, lifting my hair into the sky above me. I watch as they fly higher and higher, thousands of them, up into the bare branches of the ancient tree. There they glow and there they stay until they must return to their place in the sky, to light up the world.
Recently I was a bit taken aback when I was asked the question “What is the best piece of advice you have for a young, aspiring entrepreneur?”
My initial though was well, I am a young, aspiring entrepreneur. I am the founder of LaQuist, an online business providing unique pieces of wearable art to customers across six continents in the form of custom hand-painted shoes. Although I’m proud of all I’ve achieved with my business so far as a 21-year-old college student, I felt I had a much longer way to go before I was qualified to start giving out advice. I am used to reading advice articles and columns from entrepreneurs with a lot more years and dollar signs under their belt. But then I thought, maybe that’s where my advice is unique. I have a few years and a few dollar signs, but more importantly I can relate to where you are right now.
So, from one young, aspiring entrepreneur to another, here is my best piece of advice: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” –Arthur Ashe
Okay, I know we’ve all heard a million quotes in our lifetime. They’re a bit overdone, cliché, I get it. But, if you’ll bear with me, I think the beauty of this quote is best seen when broken down. And the best way I can do that is from my own experience.
1. Start where you are.
I started as a ‘young, aspiring entrepreneur’ my freshman year of college, lacking several what some might consider important things. (1) Money. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the ‘ramen noodle every night’ budget. (2) A formal business education. As a freshman, I had yet to take a business class, and especially not on the specific sectors that go into making one work. (3) Time. Having just been thrown into the world of college I didn’t have a ton of extra time to devote to my entrepreneurial endeavors. (4) Finally, and this is the one that may come as a bit of a shock, I lacked a plan. I did have a basic business idea in mind, but I didn’t have a detailed plan of what that business was going to look like. Although it may sound crazy, the lack of a specific plan ended up being one of the biggest things working in my favor. Without one, I was able to let my business shape, change, and grow organically and figure out the specific who’s, what’s, where’s, when’s, why’s, and how’s along the way.
Now that I’ve told you what I didn’t have at my start, there are three important things I did have: (1) An aspiration to use my artistic ability in a meaningful way (2) A desire to give back (3) A wish to communicate and connect with others. Those three goals sparked the process that has led to what LaQuist is today, and those three goals have shaped every decision I’ve made along the way.
So, back to you. Think about where you are right now. What are you lacking? What do you have? Your answer to the first question might be quite a bit longer than your answer to the second, and that’s okay. You may find along that way that the things you initially lack actually push you further ahead in the future. You will always be able to justify a better time or place to start reaching for your entrepreneurial aspirations, but now is the time and place. Start where you are and the rest will follow. In the words of Nike, “Just do it.”
2. Use what you have.
Besides a list of goals, one tangible thing I had was access to social media and a network of friends and family that were willing to offer their support. After analyzing my starting position the first step I took was posting to Facebook, offering to paint a pair of custom shoes for free if someone was willing to provide the pair of shoes to be painted. Surprisingly, I had more than a few takers, enough to begin building a portfolio of work.
The next thing I had was access to and knowledge of the Internet, which, luckily for me, was the best way to reach the most number of customers. I created an online boutique using the marketplace Etsy and that is where LaQuist began to take shape. As I continued to build my portfolio of work I could gradually increase prices on my products. Then, by creating a LaQuist blog and Facebook page I was able to generate buzz around my business.
As you might have noticed, the things I had at my disposal didn’t require money. Which is good, because as mentioned earlier, I needed that for ramen. The only initial investment LaQuist actually required was about $100 for a stock of painting supplies. Beyond that, it did not require additional inventory. In fact, if you were to take a tour of LaQuist you would be rummaging through a 66-quart plastic bin and a laptop that together house everything LaQuist requires to operate.
For your own entrepreneurial endeavors, I encourage you to really think about all that you have at your disposal. And if you’re lacking something, think creatively about the ways you can work around it. For example, if you don’t have knowledge of web design or coding, there are plenty of template-based resources like WordPress and Wix. If you don’t have money to invest in advertising and marketing, take advantage of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. By focusing your attention on what you do have, rather than what you don’t, you may be surprised at what you can accomplish with limited resources.
3. Do what you can.
If there is one thing I can do, it is to try my darndest.
I contacted local media outlets, pitching the story of my unique business from my unique perspective and generated word in the community about my business. I reached out to independent boutiques about offering my shoes to their clientele and have since developed mutually beneficial retail relationships. I entered business plan and pitch competitions and earned funding that allowed me to take greater risks with my business decisions. I joined entrepreneurial clubs and organizations at my university, gaining insight and advice from other students with entrepreneurial aspirations. I sought out opportunities to network at business conferences, speeches, and startup weekends, building relationships that have been vital to my achievements.
While putting the pedal to the medal there are a few things I found that surprised me, and they might surprise you too. First, there are people out there that want to see you succeed. I received support at times and places that I never expected, which came when I demonstrated the passion behind my goals and my desire to achieve them. Second, your age is one of your biggest assets. You may think that because you are young certain doors will be closed off to you. Although that may be true at times, I can guarantee that for every door that closes, not one, but two doors will open. Finally, once you get the ball rolling it will keep on rolling. Even though the actions I listed above may seem like a lot to wrap one’s brain around (and trust me, that’s not even the half of them) I took them one step at a time and the rest naturally followed. It’s not enough to just keep your eyes open for opportunities—you actually have to seek opportunities out—but once you take the first step, the next one will be that much easier.
To wrap things up…
It’s been a little over a year since I started LaQuist, and so far I have achieved more than I ever expected to accomplish. I am now the owner of a global business, having shipped hundreds of custom shoes to customers across six continents, all while benefiting children in need. It turned out that the things I initially lacked didn’t hinder me from accomplishing the goals I set out toward from the beginning. I recognized and utilized the things I did have, and then gave it my best effort to get from point A to point B and beyond. All it took was a little creativity and a lot of hard work.
So again: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That’s my best piece of advice to you.
And remember, you’ve got at least one person on your side already (that’s me!).