Want to Succeed as an Entrepreneur? Learn This One Lesson From ‘The Martian’

Though engineers and space aficionados probably loved The Martian, entrepreneurs had the most to love and learn. We got the forest. Everyone else got trees. It wasn’t special effects. It wasn’t references to getting to Mars sooner or feeling like you were there.

In fact, the most exciting parts–where Matt Damon’s character solved each engineering challenge, handling the teamwork challenges of rescuing him, the space walks–only built the foundation for the story’s biggest lesson. Most viewers didn’t notice it.

The biggest lesson is this:

No matter how much you’ve prepared, when you’re off the well-traveled path where everyone knows the next step because nearly everyone does it, you have to face and solve problem after problem after problem that you could never have foreseen.

Forget the special effects, acting, and script. If you’re an entrepreneur, here’s the movie’s most important scene. You don’t even need to have seen the movie to appreciate it:

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end.
Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Substitute “This is how my venture ends” and “you get to profitability” and he described our lives as entrepreneurs. Bureaucracies mean systems, resources, and processes. They’re great for many things, but when you start something new, you have none of them.

Bureaucracies don’t give you Martian problems. You can be the best engineer, manager, leader, salesperson, client rep, or anything in a bureaucracy and flail as an entrepreneur, even if you could handle each little problem a venture brought you, because the mental strain of not know what will come next can overwhelm you.

Whereas if you can take on unforeseen problem after unforeseen problem after unforeseen problem by figuring things out and finding or creating resources, then you can succeed as an entrepreneur even if you don’t know how to solve each problem.

It may sound crazy that the best engineer, salesperson, or any other functionary may not make the best entrepreneur. They’re attuned to the known. We entrepreneurs face the unknown. When we succeed, we hire the experts.

What makes an expert an expert? Often specialized training. Specialized training in today’s educational system usually means following instruction. A high GPA, an MBA, a PhD, and most credentials today mean you followed instruction well.

Did Matt Damon’s character succeed by following instruction?

If you drop your suspension of disbelief, you’ll notice he knows too much and has too many skills to be credible. We believe he can do all he can because we want to. But the challenge of solving ever more problems until he’s done resonates with us.

What makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurs is putting themselves in the challenge and knowing we can handle all of them. If anyone can solve them, I can. If I can’t solve them myself, I’ll find someone who can and make them part of my team. If I don’t have the resources, I’ll find them.

One thing Damon’s character didn’t have to do was to choose to put himself in that situation (though he did choose to go to Mars, which may suffice), which entrepreneurs often do.

He had to battle to get home. We entrepreneurs have to battle not just to reach profitability, but for friends and family to understand and support us, to overcome vulnerability, and not to have to prove that what we’re doing matters, even though to us being a lawyer or investment banker seems a lot less meaningful.

To repeat The Martian’s lesson:

“Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Now get to work and solve some problems you didn’t think you could.

Professor of NYU
Joshua Spodek co-founded and led several ventures. He coaches and teaches leadership, entrepreneurship, sales, and related skills at Columbia Business School and NYU using experiential, project-based learning. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including an Astrophysics PhD and an MBA, and studied under a Nobel Laureate. He helped build an X-ray satellite for the European Space Agency and NASA, and holds six patents. His current passion is developing methods to master business's soft skills, even for geeks like him.