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Advice for Every Would-Be Entrepreneur

In a couple of weeks, I'm speaking to 500 students who've studied entrepreneurship and who hope to make their marks on the business world. So what should I tell them?

It could be the usual stuff: Do something you know and love, make sure your product or service is unique, surround yourself with talent, and be prepared to dig into savings for a while. Not very inspirational, I'm afraid. When I'm asked to give the reasons for my success, none of those things immediately comes to mind. Here's what does.

When I was 19, still in college studying accounting, my mother passed away. I loved my mother and she loved me, and she was my biggest fan (my dad, too!). My mom always encouraged me with confidence and support. Her death was devastating. Just after the funeral, as my brother, father, and I were together driving away from the cemetery, I turned my head towards her gravesite, and told her that I would make her proud -- that she didn't need to worry -- I wouldn't let her down. The image remains remarkably vivid. It was my initial motivation to succeed.

Fast-forward to the age of 48, when my wife, Naomi, to whom I'd been married for 26 years became ill and died at the age of 47 (my mom was 46 when she died). My wife helped me start, so I felt even more compelled to develop the business to its maximum potential. I certainly couldn't allow myself to fail. With three kids to raise, I was scared.

Both of these life-changing events taught me about the fragility of life. That realization made me more introspective to learn more about myself, what I really wanted out of life, my expectations for myself and others, and how I could make a difference individually, in my career, and in the lives of everyone around me.

I studied philosophy, behavioral psychology, and, of course, business. I joined a CEO-peer group, Vistage International, which helped me understand the role of the CEO, and I became much more self-aware of my values as a leader, people's needs (including my own), and my definition of success -- all propelled by the acknowledgment that there is little time.

So here's my advice: If you want to become an entrepreneur... or a musician, an occupational therapist, a magician -- or whatever -- be certain that you know what excites you and why you want to succeed, and don't fret over how you'll get there. Know that when you're driven by the right motivating forces, you will eventually discover all the right things necessary to succeed.

To what life-changing events, good or bad, do you owe your success?

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