Name: Peter Sims
City: San Francisco
Passion: Empowering people
Peter is one of the most humble people you would meet. When I met over lunch, and after reading his accomplished and stellar journey, I was expecting to sit down and ask him burning questions. Instead, Peter showed up with a gift, a smile and open ears. He was truly present, an attitude that is rare in our ADD culture. Peter happens to be an award winning writer, the man behind one of Stanford Business School's best classes, and a former venture capitalist. He was also the coauthor with Bill George of the best-seller True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, and cofounder of Fuse Corps, a social venture that places entrepreneurial leaders on year-long grassroots projects with mayors and governors to tackle some of America’s most pressing problems. My favorite part of Peter's body of work is his best-selling book Little Bets which inspired our work at The Passion Co. Peter shared with us a candid and unpolished story of how he came to do what he loves and enjoy every single minute of it.
How and when did you find your passion?
It’s a long story, but after feeling dissatisfied with my job in venture capital, I started a search in my late 20s for more meaningful work. I discovered my passion to empower people, and help them unlock their fullest potential, as an accidental author, and then later as a social entrepreneur and entrepreneur.
I followed my curiosity and did my best to listen to my heart. There’s a quote that I love from William James:
Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, 'This is the real me,' and when you have found that attitude, follow it.
When I’ve done the work that I love, it has felt this way.
Tell us more about the transition from your traditional job to your Passion.
Again, it’s a very long story, with many dark valleys – times when I felt completely lost, and many others saw me as lost – but, ultimately, I moved from venture capital to being an accidental author by going to business school. At Stanford, I followed my curiosity for leadership to start a class on authentic, values-based leadership.
Through the process of developing the class, which I loved, I got to know Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, who is now a Professor at Harvard Business School, and was starting a similar class at HBS. We had a great back-and-forth, and mutual learning, so Bill asked if I would help him with his next book. It was the best learning experience of my life, and our work was meant to empower our readers.
Where did you start with your Passion?
I really just followed my curiosity, and found projects and like-minded groups of people. Role models and mentors and friends played crucial roles in support – no one ever invents a path on their own. One little bet after another, after years of hard work and building one brick after another, it got to the point where each day of work was a joy.
Tell us about a time in your earlier transition to living your passion when you failed. How did you feel? What did you learn?
I’ve been fired three times in my life, including trying to live my passion, and I also had an engagement that didn’t work out. What I found was that when I lacked self-awareness, I lived in ideas of who I was, rather than the “real me” as James describes. It was a very painful process of enduring painful setbacks and failures, largely because I didn’t really know who I was, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. There were many moments of feeling lost wandering through dark valleys, wondering if I would ever find another job again, and questioning myself. The self-doubt was extremely strong, as were the many voices questioning my judgement to pursue a path “less travelled by,” especially after being offered a choice path in venture capital on the partner track. Without the support of my parents, brother, and close friends, it would not have been possible.
Today, I feel very comfortable with myself, perhaps too much so at times, for the journey is always full of learning, and I really don’t think of the term ‘failure.’ Every experience and day is a chance for learning and growth. I try to live by the credo from Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
What is fear to you? What has been your biggest fear about living your Passion?
I think that my greatest fear has been that I would not be able to get a job. I know it sounds silly, but I felt that fear very strongly for years, and it still flares up in the background from time to time. It’s not entirely rational, but since my career is so unconventional, when I did try to get a job, it just never really worked, so my fears were somewhat justified.
I can remember one conversation that I had with my dad in particular early into pursuing my passion, when I was already an author, yet still very unsure of my path. We were having lunch, and my dad, who took very linear career paths as a lawyer and a judge, asked me, “Peter, are you sure you know what you are doing?” He thought a career in venture capital would be exciting, yet also understood that I had my own values and interests. He just couldn’t quite understand what I was doing, since it was so different from his experience, and it wasn’t until LITTLE BETS came out that he finally understood how my mind worked.
I’ve come to realize that expressing my creativity is fundamental to my humanity, especially if it’s channelled toward just, ethical, and socially impactful ends. My dad now really respects my work and path, and he’s very proud of the hard work and struggle it required.
Was there a time when you were running out of money? Did you need to give up a lifestyle to pursue your passion? Tell us more about that and how you coped.
I’ve never been motivated by money, and there were periods (years, even) when I had a very tight budget. I've never eaten Ramen, but the trade-off of not making the money of a venture investor was hard in one respect: I felt like the women I dated really cared about whether I made a good living. That was pretty important to them, much more so than finding a guy who was cause-driven.
Ultimately, I stopped dating a woman partly because of this. I was in love with her, and she said vice-versa, but her fears about money were significant, and she didn’t have the stomach for the risk of dating an author. In hindsight, her fears were misplaced, as I’ve lived a very comfortable life as an author, speaker, and entrepreneur, but ultimately, the people closest to you need to be 100% supportive.
I love hearing stories of hugely successful entrepreneurs like Infosys founder and former CEO Narayana Murthy, whose wife Sudha worked to help him and start the business when he had no money. That is love.
Otherwise, figure out how little you need to survive, and then every dollar above that is freedom – freedom to pursue the work you find calls you the most, and that will be the most meaningful. Money can be the ultimate trap that prevents people from pursuing their passions. I see it all the time.
How do you take care of yourself? Do you pause, work out?
I always need to do a better job of this, but the key elements are: get plenty of sleep (8 hours on average), eat as healthy as possible, and get plenty of exercise (5 times a week).
Who inspires you and why?
I’m inspired by people in large and small ways. I’m inspired by my wife in many ways, my parents and brother in others, and people I don’t know who lead good and noble lives. I’m currently reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt, and he inspires me for his willingness to stand up to corruption as an enthusiastic reformer. We need more of that type of leadership in America today. Too few people in politics have any courage, nor the conviction to take on some of the big interests that have corrupted our political institutions.
Do you have a mentor? How did you find him/her?
I used to place a LOT of weight on mentors, and always seemed to have one big mentor through the various stages of my life, until my early 30s. At that stage, I resolved to myself that I needed to figure things out on my own in life, and borrowed advice from John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, who when I interviewed him, said,
Learn a little bit from a lot of people.
I really internalized that. I’ve learned an enormous amount from my Uncle Joe, who’s a truck driver, and I’ve learned a little from dozens of taxi cab drivers. Everyone has wisdom and insight, often very unique insight. You just have to ask the right questions.
Advice to the Community
Follow your heart, believe in your dreams, and live your values. To do anything else would be settling, and I think it’s really important to aspire to ‘not settle’ in life – in your work, in your relationships, and in your potential to make a contribution to other people and society.
Do you have a video, playlist or anything else you would like to share with our community that helps inspire you?
I do not. But this speech, by John W. Gardner, entitled “Personal Renewal” is the best speech I’ve ever read, and I find inspiration in it each time I read it: http://www.pbs.org/johngardner/sections/writings_speech_1.html