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To Be or to Not Be: that Seems to Be the Question

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “to be or not to be” was the question. The first line is so familiar:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

and the first section adored, and often memorized by adherent high schoolers:

To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: here’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life;

Scholars and academics continue to study and interpret Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Many a Ph.D. dissertation has focused on it, and sometimes the interpretations stretch pretty far, making for entertaining reading. For the rest of us non-academics, and especially those of us living the definition of web entrepreneur, I think Hamlet should be re-considered. If I could be so bold as to suggest a modification to Shakespeare’s work (and I’ll only change the first line), I think it fits our modern age perfectly. Because I see this behavior over and over in potential entrepreneurs, I’ll take license and change “to be or not to be: that is the question” into “to be or to not be: that seems to be the question“. The rest remains appropriate.

Over and over I meet potential and moderately successful entrepreneurs struggling with the question Hamlet raised. Their actions are well described by that entire section above. But I suppose that is my interpretation of Hamlet. It differs from most I have read (I haven’t read many, mind you). It fits an inordinate number of entrepreneurs I meet. What drives your passion? Is it to Be, or is it to not be?

There areĀ  few ways to think of this. The obvious : “Do you really want to succeed, or do you simply fear failure?” does indeed apply sometimes. But so does the less obvious (but more prevalent) “do you have a target for what you want to be, or are you working hard trying to not be something else?” I see a lot of people holding back in order to not be something.

There are plenty of psychologists ready to discuss your personal self image, your mental imprint of the meaning of life, the baggage you bring from your past relationships (including family) and your “inherited” fears and quirks. All good stuff that needs to be tidied up. But what I see is more specific: I see people who say they want to “succeed”, but are quick to point out negatives with a follow-on “but I don’t want to _____________“. The blank filled in with characterizations of ugliness. They want to sell a lot of product, but don’t want to cheat anyone. They want to market their services, but don’t want to be too pushy. They want to sell, but don’t want to lie. They want to innovate, but not be unethical (or immoral). They want to succeed, but…

To be or to not be. Where is the passionate energy going?

The biggest successes wanted to Be. They were after achievement. They wanted, whether that was a benevolent want (Mother Theresa wanted to help others?) or a selfish want (Malcolm Forbes wanted to be rich and famous?). For many, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” were unfortunate side effects to be suffered, or corrected after the fact through philanthropy.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles” perfectly describes what some blossoming entrepreneurs go through. Considering “outrageous fortune” to be wealth, is it more noble to get rich (despite the scorn some may cast upon you for being “filthy rich”) or is it more noble to deal with life’s burdens like everyman must? Maybe Hamlet’s “sea of troubles” is the common man’s suffering. The bills that need to be paid.

Entrepreneur Hamlet continues to suggest that quitting, or accepting common suffering, leaves one ultimately defeated (since without wealth one simply cannot defeat an economic system designed to enslave him). But he astutely notes that the desired peace and calm associated with having given up a struggle, will never arrive. And that’s the rub! Once you give up, you don’t find peace (as if to die) but instead you start to dream again. Free of the struggle, you are once again not only able to dream but you can’t help but dream. Because you are an entrepreneur. And what do you dream of? Potential success! Ahhh.. life is a cruel mistress!

“to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;”

Hamlet understood the curse of the entrepreneur. He referred to the calamity of a long life. The desires don’t go away. An entrepreneur will always see a different path, and want to follow it. An entrepreneur wants to know how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Enough about Hamlet; what about you?

  • You say you want to sell Widgets. But you rarely speak to your potential customers, rarely influence them to buy, and spend most of your time in XHTML or re-design meetings. You don’t like to be pushy, apparently. To be, or to not be?
  • You say you want to rank at the top of search engines, but when shown that better or more links are needed, you choose instead to re-design your home page (again). You don’t want to violate Google guidelines with questionable links, you say, as you double up your design efforts. To Be or to Not Be?
  • You recognize that you need to build relationships in the marketplace, in order to succeed as a leader, so you join Social Media. And then you follow everyone. You don’t want to be an attention whore, apparently. To be, or to not be?

and my favorite…

  • You say you want to be #1 in search engines for (generic word) but you don’t want to change your site so it represents a comprehensive and definitive answer for searches for (generic word).

Later this month a group of entrepreneurs will gather at Think Tank in Del Mar, California. I think Hamlet should come to Think Tank, and stand on the rocks of Del Mar beach reciting his soliloquy out loud (with my modification).

If you want to achieve, you can be who you are, or you can work to become who you want to be, but you must be someone. To be no one, unhappy as yourself, dreaming of being different, while holding back for fear of becoming something, is to waste your life.

Hamlet suffered for us already, and explained it clearly. Take his advice. If you have the passion to Be, do what it takes to become. If you feel in your heart that you were meant to be someone, then it is your destiny to give up convention and try to become who you are meant to be. Forget what others think. Forget the rules. Suffer the slings and arrows if necessary. Note the unfortunate side effects, to be managed later. But be true to yourself. For those given the gift, there is nothing nobler. The rest need you to try, and will reward your success.


  1. Todd Mintz wrote:

    “…Run, rabbit run.
    Dig that hole, forget the sun,
    And when at last the work is done
    Don’t sit down it’s time to dig another one…” Pink Floyd “Breathe”

    Yep, you nailed it. Awesome!

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Adam Audette wrote:

    Nicely done.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  3. Awesome Todd!

    Friday, September 4, 2009 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Jonathan wrote:

    That was well written & more so if it did not take looooong to write ?
    as a contrast I am forwarding my psychiatrists views

    Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 3:45 am | Permalink
  5. I wound up here by means of an Aaron Wall post. Very insightful.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 11:20 pm | Permalink