Opinion | Op-eds

The irrational choice

At a job interview last semester, I was asked point-blank: “Why’s a tech-savvy guy like you running a newspaper company?”

I was dumbfounded. On the surface, a background in publishing—even as the president of a company—may not be the first thing that most startups look for. But to me, the connection was obvious. In the moment, I tried to throw together a coherent answer about how Spectator was the perfect preview of the future challenges that I might face as an entrepreneur launching a startup of his own. But the words just refused to come. (Every Speccie knows the feeling.)

I’m not referring to the obvious similarities, such as a tight cash flow and rapidly changing market. Spectator has taught me something far more valuable to my future life, should I become an entrepreneur. A startup can survive with sub-par funding, or even a very simple product. What it can’t live without is passion. Pick any really, truly successful entrepreneur, and I can guarantee you that the root of his or her success was a dedication so unbelievably strong and heartfelt that it left no time for second-guessing. By any measures, this passion is illogical, foolish, and a little bit crazy.

You see, there is no way to rationalize entrepreneurship. You can live comfortably, even in New York, for far less than one hopes to make off a successful startup. Spectator is even harder to justify. The publisher may be the president of the company, but the 40-50 hours per week job comes with no salary, no benefits, and no respite from schoolwork. On paper, being president means signing checks and negotiating discounts. In reality, it means dealing with the problems so thorny that nobody else wants to touch them, the crises so urgent that nobody else can, or the catastrophes so disheartening that nobody else wants to try. That’s when your job begins—and if you’re still thinking logically, you’ll make the rational choice. You’ll give up.

And yet we take the leap. More surprisingly, we do it without ever thinking twice—at least, I know I never did. Against all odds, logic, and reason, we put up with the midnight phone calls, followed by the 2 a.m. emergency meetings (followed then by the 9 a.m. classes—we’re still students too, remember!). I wish I could explain why, but once again, the words just refuse to come. All I can do is point to the fact that while I have no need to come to the office every day this semester anymore, I couldn’t imagine better lunchtime companions than Dan, Ellen, and April. Or that my fondest memories of my entire college experience involve the best co-editors I could ask for—Sam and Michele—and the emails that we sent each other on the days when Spectator felt more like a hurricane than a newspaper.

When you look at it logically, it’s surprising that we publishers do it at all. We don’t do it for the recognition, nor for the satisfaction of seeing our writing printed in the paper, nor for the money. By the time we run for the position, we’ve been at Columbia long enough to know that there are other ways to get a job as an investment banker, most of which still afford you a full night’s sleep every few months. Journalism ethics dictate that we never write for the paper—this is the last Spectator issue of my time at Columbia, and the only one that publishes even one word of my own writing. Our nonexistent salaries aren’t on the line—whether Spectator’s finances are healthy or not, at the end of the day, we’re still college students: broke. The only reason for you to do it is because you see a burning need that only Spectator can fill, and you’re convinced only you can help Spectator realize this goal. The true entrepreneurial spirit.

To anyone who has ever founded a startup who reads this, it will come as no surprise to hear that my year as publisher was the most stressful and demanding year of my life. Nor will it surprise them to hear that I loved every minute of it, and have no regrets—not even one. For everyone else, I know a few of you understand, but I know most of you are reaching the end of this column still wondering when I’ll answer the big question: “Why?” Why? I couldn’t tell you why. I never thought I needed a reason, not until that interview. Every Columbia student remembers Lattimore’s translation of the “Iliad”: "Some questions have no answer for those who do not already know."

Call me a masochist. Call me crazy. Call me an entrepreneur. But above all, call me a Speccie.

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in computer science and economics-statistics. He was a finance associate on the 132nd associate board, finance deputy on the 133rd deputy board, finance director on the 134th managing board, and publisher on the 135th corporate board.

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Anonymous posted on

This was a great piece! So glad to hear your voice, for once.

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Anonymous posted on

like the title! so true :)

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Gary Chou posted on

It took me about 15 years post-college to really understand what you've articulated with -0.5 months to go!

The other related idea: sometimes we fail to look our decisions with a wide-enough window. A seemingly stupid decision in a 1-2 year window, may be absolutely brilliant in a 7-10 year window.

As my photography teacher used to say: the photograph will reveal itself to us when it is ready. Our jobs as photographers is simply to keep making photographs, and to be good midwives in coaxing them into being.

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