Steve Sommers | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Steve Sommers


TEDxGatewayArch is the independently operated St. Louis-area organization associated with TED, a nonprofit devoted to disseminating "Ideas Worth Spreading," usually in the form of short, focused talks. The original TED event began in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converged. Today, the nonprofit and its licensed TEDx affiliates cover a wide variety of topics and offer talks in more than 110 languages. The next TEDxGatewayArch event is Ripple Effect, scheduled for Oct. 27 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

The Mistake:

Staying on a road that was comfortable just because it was comfortable.

I was educated as an engineer and did sales in that field. I was working for myself and, after a couple decades, became disillusioned. I sought out a business coach to help me further develop the business I'd grown. At least that’s what I was thinking. He suggested I write down four things I might want to be. He said, it doesn't matter if it's an astronaut, a cowboy, a deep-sea diver. It doesn't matter the reasonableness of what you want to do. Just write those down and basically keep your eyes open. If there's ever an intersection of two or more of those, it's something you should investigate.

I remember writing down movie director – I always thought that would be cool – and educator. Architect was another one. The other was life learner. I would say a year or two went by before I read an article about TEDxBozeman in Montana. I'd been a fan of TED for a long time, and this article talked about how people could start their own TED events.

It was probably a day or so later that I looked at my list of what I wanted to do and overlaid it with the TEDx article. I realized, “Wow, three things intersect on my Venn diagram. This is what I could do.” I would say, within a month, I decided to go do what it took to become a TED licensee. And the entrepreneur in me decided, “Let's just do this thing.”

As far as being an educator and learner, that's really the basis of it. I'm learning, talking to people who are experts in their field. Then our group is putting them on stage to teach others. As far as being a director, absolutely, I’m producing an event. So, looking essentially at a Venn diagram of my dream careers, what I'm doing now with TEDx is the sweet spot for three of the things I’d written down. I didn't think I'd ever be a director, life learner or a teacher. But, in essence, that's what I am.

I had, and still have, that engineering-related business. It’s much smaller than it was. But, for 30 years, I made my living from something that I, quite honestly, had begun to feel really indifferent about. I could’ve continued that, and probably made more money. But I wouldn't consider that as being successful. So I think the mistake was just staying on the hamster wheel.

 I didn't think I'd ever  be  a director, life learner or a teacher. But, in essence, that's what I am.

The Lesson:

My advice to younger people would be to do this exercise. Write down the three or four things you really want to do without necessarily feeling the need to get an education to pursue those things. I think it's about just keeping your eyes open. Where does the Venn diagram intersect? It's the intersection of these things that indicates a career you really want. Anybody who has an intersection of two things I think is fortunate. I found myself very fortunate that, for me, it's really a combination of three things.

You can't see something unless you know what you're looking for. That exercise kind of helps open your eyes.

I’ve realized there are more rewarding aspects to life than just making money and you can theoretically find work that is engaging and rewarding and still make a living.

TEDxGatewayArch is on Twitter at TEDxArch.

Photo courtesy of Steve Sommers.

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