Last Saturday I went the beach with my family. The days are the last days of summer. The sun was comforting, the breeze was cool, and everyone at the beach were in a wonderful mood. Everyone but me. I couldn’t quite tell why I was groggy. I had no imminent reason to be upset or worried, but it was one of those mornings where you feel like everyone conspired to annoy you. Most likely, I was probably overworked and needed some downtime with my family – at the beach…
As soon as we positioned our beach-chairs and settled in, my youngest, who’s in 3rd grade, wanted to walk to the edge of the water and build a sandcastle with me. It’s a ritual that he and I have, where we dig tunnels and caves in the wet sand right by the ocean. Sometimes we end up with castles and mountains, and sometimes with ponds where small crabs come to dabble and rest. In the hectic life that I lead, this time we spend together is usually a priceless gem of father-and-son bonding. But last Saturday morning, it was the last thing I wanted to do. Reluctantly, I followed my enthusiastic kid, trying to fake some excitement, looking for the best stretch of sand to commence digging.
We found a spot by the water and immediately started to work. We had forgotten our pail and shovel at home, so at first we dug with our hands. A few minutes later we found an abandoned plastic shovel and started using it to extend the excavations, when a kid about my son’s age approached us cautiously. He stood there watching us for a few seconds and then turned to me and said: “Did you bring this shovel from home, or did you find it here?” It turns out the shovel belongs to him. I apologized, thanked him for letting us use it, and handed it back to him. He lingered for a second, introduced himself by name, and then asked if he could join.
Now, there were three of us digging tunnels and caves in the wet sand together. Yarin (the new recruit and shovel-owner) turned out to be a diligent digger. With this excellent increase of 50% in manpower, we decided to extend our operation and add some castles in between the tunnels. After all, we had loads of sand that we dug out and had nothing to do with it.
Five minutes later, 5 year old Itai, Yarin’s cousin, approached us and asked to join. He offered a plastic rake to help beautify the surroundings of the towers, and soften the sand where it was hard to dig. He had enthusiasm, a tool he brought with him, and a family relationship to our employee number three. He was hired on the spot. With four of us working together, more management had to be done. I found myself digging less, and spending more time deciding where to dump the next shipment of fresh sand, how deep to dig, and whether to start creating decorative walls to some of the structures.
A small crowd of kids started gathering next to us, gazing at the working hands, and hoping they can join the endeavor. Next, a 4 year old girl approached me. “You got any tools?” I asked? She showed me a round shovel that can also be used as a scoop, and was immediately hired. At this point I just couldn’t help laughing.
Before long, I was supervising seven children, working together on an intricate and elaborate network of moats and towers. Yarin (who was now essentially the CTO) brought a Styrofoam surfboard that can be used to bring dry sand from deeper inland. Next to us, three other kids and a dad were trying to create their own network of tunnels. They failed to replicate our success, and soon asked if they could join us. Not only have crushed the competition, we’d also made our first acquisition.
This entire time, my son (who now enjoyed the status of being employee #2) was having the time of his life, and I just couldn’t contain my laughter. By far, this was one of the funniest situations I’ve ever been in.
On the drive back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the experience. Children are authentic, and there is much to be learned from their behavior. The contagious engagement they exhibited working in the sun, the camaraderie, and the passion are something that most workplaces can only dream about. And of course, at the end of the day, we all knew that the sea would wash away everything we built within a few hours. Why was the experience so meaningful to all of us?
The answer is something that all of us shared when we were digging and building. We shared the same vision, the same mental image that included castles and moats, and not just sand and water. We didn’t see what was there – we saw what it could be. And fueled by this vision, we enjoyed working together to make it materialize, even if it doesn’t last. This is why most technology startup companies fail, but most people love working for them. It’s all about the journey. The important thing is not to accomplish a common goal. It is simply to enjoy playing together.