As many of you know, I am a prolific reader – I devour knowledge and try to read at least one book a week.  Over the holiday break, I finished reading Founders at Work (gah! affiliate link!).  It’s a series of lengthy interviews with the founders of over 30 famous software companies.

I was at first disappointed – having worked for many years in software, and now kind of still in software/tech, I was hoping for a fresh perspective – I didn’t realise the book was all software founders. Nonetheless, I persevered, and really enjoyed the interviews. There was a lot of talk on venture capital and funding, so it’s a must-read if you are getting into a business like that, but otherwise I did skim those parts and focused more on the business strategies.

Out of all 30 interviews, I noticed three things common to each. And they’re all lessons that apply not just to business, but to life. Perhaps they’re obvious, but they’re also profound.

People Who Change The World Don’t Usually Know They’re Changing the World

This was the one thing that really struck me. A lot of these ladies and gents had no idea what they were doing would change the world. In fact, none of them had the goal of changing the world. They had a problem or set of problems they wanted to solve. That was all. And even when it became apparent that they were on the verge of an incredible breakthrough, they kept resolute focus on making it happen.

The founder of Research in Motion, which pioneered the way that cellular networks can send data packets, was just trying to make it easier to check his email. The co-founder of Apple Computer did NOT want to leave his current job, he just wanted his company to build computers cheaper so that everyone could have one.

It was incredible the clarity of mind some of these folk had, and they didn’t even know it. What goldmind are you sitting on and you don’t even know it?

Where You Think You’re Going and Where You End Up are Often Different

Oh my how I know this lesson oh so well. This book is several years old, and thus many of these companies have died, reincarnated, or otherwise have take on new shapes and forms. That is perhaps an assessment of this industry in general, but I’m sure if it was written for a different niche the story would be similar.

But so so so often, these founders were working on the wrong thing. The successful ones figured out what was wrong, and fixed it. As quickly as possible. Are you doing the wrong thing?

I was doing the wrong thing for a long time. It took me awhile to find out it was the wrong thing. But believe me, as soon as I found out, I pedalled as fast as I could to try and correct.

What would you do if you were in the shoes of James Currier, founder of Tickle, a software company that offers career testing [now a subsidiary of Monster]:

Never having built a company, I didn’t know where I wanted the lines drawn. It was like a big, white piece of paper….I woke up on October 3, 1999, at around 4 a.m. with my chest burning from fear and pain about not knowing what to do, and worrying that I had taken my friends’ and mentors’ money. I had realized what I was trying to do was not working, and that I didn’t know how to fix it and I was in way over my head.

Sometimes the Hardest Things in Life are the Best For You

Running your own business is hard – hardest thing I’ve ever done. But even just taking charge of your life, taking control and making decisions that are right can sometimes be hard too.

This isn’t such a bad position to be in. It’s exactly where I felt I was when I was “stuck” in a job that I hated. The only way out is to throw away all assumptions, question everything, and ask for help. If you don’t have any mentors or trusted advisors, get some. Now. And challenge yourself. It’s good for ya.

I’ll close with these wise words from Bob Davis, founder of Lycos, an early Internet media company since acquired. Even if you’re not in the least entrepreneurial, you can resonate with this statement:

I think the life of an entrepreneur is a life of setbacks, challenges, dissappointments, and failures.  It’s not how you celebrate the successes, it’s how you overcome the adversity and the hardship that determines how the business succeeds. “

I think everyone’s life should be like that.

You can pick up a copy of Founders at Work at Amazon. (gah! affiliate link!)

P.S. Stay Tuned:  In January (aye, that’s next week!) I’ll be sharing my process for how I planned my 2011 goals – everyone’s been asking where I’m hiding. As well, I have a Happy New Year video message for you!