Christopher Knight was only 20 years old when he walked into the wilderness of Maine. There he lived alone without human contact for almost three decades.

Before that, he grew up in a very close family with four older brothers and a younger sister. Christopher, like all the Knight children, was brilliant. They were all technically skilled and curious by nature. They spent their days learning and testing new ideas and their nights reading Shakespeare and other poetry.

The Knight family wasn’t wealthy, but they were studious and industrious. Chris and his siblings studied thermodynamics and decided to build a greenhouse. They buried hundreds of gallons of water in one-gallon containers beneath it. They knew that water molecules gather heat during the day and at night released that heat. So, throughout the Maine winter, the Knight family grew food in their greenhouse without paying a dime to the electric company or grocers.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his intelligence, Christopher felt he never really fit into modern society. He decided to walk away from civilization because there was no role for him to fill that didn’t feel like a farce, like he was living someone else’s life. He was not content with the options society offered. Like each of us, Chris yearned for true freedom and liberty. So, at the age of 20, he drove his car into a remote area of the wilderness in Maine, left his car keys on the center console, and walked into the woods. He lived there without human contact for 27 years.

When asked, Knight couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to live alone, having no contact with society for more than a quarter of a century. “It’s complicated. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define me. I became irrelevant.”

The dividing line between Knight’s identity and the forest dissolved. He said, “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”

Knight’s story evokes varied emotions. Some think it’s crazy. Others understand and often romanticize his story for their own reasons. In today’s world, outliers are often shunned, mocked, and excluded. When a person chooses to walk a different path, they open themselves to judgment and ridicule.

However, reactions to Chris’s story not only teach us something about society, but they also tell us something about ourselves. We all know what it is like to be late for work and stuck in traffic after a long week, to work all year just to squeeze out two weeks of quality time with loved ones, and to spend more time maintaining life than living it. We know what it’s like to follow society’s rules but still feel like we’re missing something. To do everything that we are supposed to do yet remain unfulfilled and unhappy. But Chris Knight wasn’t searching for happiness; he was escaping unhappiness. He sought the freedom to become the most authentic version of himself, not who society expected him to be. Once he had eliminated all the environmental clues that previously defined him, he found that freedom.

The question we should be asking ourselves isn’t, “Why did Chris choose to defy social expectations and carve his own path?” The question we should be asking is, “Why don’t more of us make the same choice?”

Who do you think you are?

Imagine that you are hiking a mountain trail in Maine with your best friend on a beautiful day and see Chris Knight walking in the woods. He’s disheveled and unshaven. His clothes are tattered and stained. He doesn’t look like someone who is merely hiking in the woods. He looks like the woods are his home, like some wild man lost to time. Most likely, you would turn to your friend and ask, “Who is that guy?” Even though Mr. Knight had let go of who he was, you would still expect him to have a name and an identity. So, you would ask, “who was that?” not “what was that?”

Now, imagine that you are hiking the same mountain trail with your best friend when up ahead, you see a green alien that is seven feet tall with six legs. It walks toward you and says, “I’m sorry if I startled you. I was just out for a morning stroll. My name is Bob. Nice to meet you. Have a nice day.” Bob then spreads thin leathery wings and flies away.

Would you turn to your friend and ask who that was? Probably not. Even though the creature had a name, was self-aware, polite, and well-spoken, you would most likely ask your friend, “What was that?” The ability to speak, interact and feel empathy is not enough, at least in our minds, for the creature to have an identity. Bob was out of place—in the wrong environment. Our environment doesn’t just determine what we see, it also determines how we see it. A person wearing a trench coat in the city on a cold winter day would blend in. The same person wearing the same coat on the beach would immediately draw attention.

We subconsciously use clues from the environment to determine an identity for ourselves and others. Therefore, after we ran into Bob on the trail, we would ask what instead of who. If Bob took you to his alien planet, all of the members of his species would look at you and ask, “What is that?” Because you would be out of your environment.

Today, we construct our entire identities from the role we play in the world around us. We allow society to determine who we are and what we do with our lives. That is why a child in Montana is statistically more likely to want to be a cowboy than a child in New York. Cowboys are everywhere in Montana, and kids want to emulate their environment.

A recent study of American parents with children who are eleven or younger showed that 81% use YouTube to find content for their kids to watch. And 34% of those parents say their children watch content on YouTube regularly. The effect is significant. The same percentage, or a third of those kids, indicated that they wanted to be a YouTuber when they grew up. They are inundated with YouTubers and want to emulate their environment.

Whether they want to be cowboys or YouTubers, both sets of kids are products of their environments and not just in who they think they are, but also in who they aspire to become. The anomaly of transcending your circumstances and becoming something other than what society expects is exceedingly rare.

On a biological level, we are nearly identical to ancient humans. The most primitive parts of our brains are devoid of an environmentally designed identity. That is what we are, not who we are. Ultimately, we are just a character built from clues in the world we were born into, even though we played no part in designing that world. Our identities are mutually agreed-upon fiction, and most of us live our whole lives within its imaginary boundaries.

What do you think you are?

One of the more famous lines from Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie The Departed is, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” If you are an employee, your employer co

ntrols nearly every aspect of your life and many aspects of your environment. Most people reject this statement initially, but they eventually accept it to be true. Don’t believe it? Think about it. What time you wake, when you eat, how much you earn, where you live, where you shop, who you spend your days with, and how each day is structured are all controlled by the type and location of your job.

The entire façade of identity is so widely accepted that even our language depicts our submission to it. In English, we say: I am a financial advisor, I am a truck driver, and I am a teacher. We do not say: I advise, I drive, or I teach. Even the Spanish language describes careers with the verb ser, not the verb estar. “Soy un Profesor.” Ser describes an unchangeable quality. Estar describes something that can change. The language of the modern brain defines what you are based on what you do. Telling someone to “be yourself” is just saying that they should feel free to choose from among the options that their environment has made readily available. Your identity will either be an asset or a li[1]ability on the journey to entrepreneurship. If you perceive yourself to be a product of your environment, then your identity becomes a liability. However, if your environment is a product of your identity, it will always be an asset.

Identity, Tangibility, and Social Relativity

All the tactical steps that create and start a business are just tasks. They are not a business strategy in and of themselves. Most of it is busy work: establishing operational entities, filing for employer identification numbers, obtaining licensing, setting up an accounting system, etc. None of these steps creates an actual tangible result. That’s because the system is designed to process information, not to produce a profit. Profits must be manufactured, created where once there was nothing. Money is the by-product of that creation and your productivity. In business and life, there are times when you process and times when you produce, but you are only paid for what you produce.

Most entrepreneurship lessons focus purely on processing information while ignoring real productivity. For instance, what does your business do? What does it sell? What service does it provide? What problem does it solve? And then there’s the how questions. How do you sell your product? Is it online or in a brick-and-mortar location? How do you find customers? How do you market your services? These are all common, if not clichéd, questions in the business world.

The first step toward entrepreneurship is not to define what you do and how you do it. The market will dictate that. The first step toward entrepreneurship is to define who and why. Who is your customer, and why do they need you? Both are critical questions to answer. But more importantly, who are you, and why are you doing this? When answering these questions, it is crucial to remember that money is a tool. It is the by-product of your productivity. It is not a reason. Money cannot be your why.

Half the world’s population lives on less than $5.50/day, while the average American lives on between $92 and $200/day, depending on age. If your net worth is more than $93,000, you are already in the top 10% of the wealthiest people on the planet. The individual poverty level in the U.S. for 2019 is around $12,000, while the median global income is less than $10,000. In other words, the poorest people in America still earn more than half of the world’s population.

The vast majority of aspiring entrepreneurs in America have never left the country. Therefore, their perspective on wealth is socially relative. Social relativity skews opinions and creates biases. There will always be someone with a bigger house and a nicer car. On the global stage, wealth is so completely relative that it is impossible to use income as a benchmark for maximizing potential. That is why it is imperative to discard your environmentally implied perception of self and find your own why—one that transcends social relativity.

Elephants and Nike

Ecologists recently discovered an interesting by-product of the destruction wrought by hungry elephants. Biodiversity is richer and more complex within elephant feeding grounds than in the untouched jungle. While accessing the tastiest and most nutritious greens, elephants often dig up the ground, tear off branches, and even knock over large trees.

Like elephants, entrepreneurs manufacture their environments for themselves and others. Traffic patterns follow access to trade areas, and symbiotic brands support each other through shared co-tenancy. Entire social structures, like schools, churches, and neighborhoods, emerge from shared access to entrepreneurial resources. And just like elephants, when entrepreneurs have maximized the opportunities that a particular area offers, they move on to new opportunities, breaking ground for future development.

Elephants also have complex social structures, just like humans. They recognize each other after being separated for extended periods and often examine the bones of deceased friends and loved ones. Elephants understand who they are, but their importance to the surrounding economy of resources is defined by what they are. For budding entrepreneurs, understanding the difference between who and what ensures that we move on to new opportunities when it’s time. Phil Knight, iconic former CEO and co-founder of Nike, explained the power of “what” over “who” in his book Shoe Dog:

“Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.”

If an entrepreneur considers herself a restauranteur, she may overlook opportunities outside the restaurant industry even if her business is failing. She isn’t a restauranteur; she is an entrepreneur who, at this time, happens to own a restaurant. By thinking of herself as a restauranteur, she is unknowingly accepting a place within the roles that society has offered. She has not knocked over trees or disrupted the ecology.

Before founding Nike, Phil Knight was a sports reporter, an accountant, and even a university professor. If he had allowed his identity to be defined by what he did during that time, Nike might never have existed. Both Chris Knight and Phil Knight, along with all entrepreneurs, manufacture their environments and create opportunities for themselves and others where previously none existed. They accomplish this by ignoring who they are and knowing when to move on and find more opportunities to be what they are.

Why does this matter?

Making the mental transition into entrepreneurship requires more than behavioral modification; it requires identity transformation. Your Boss Brain doesn’t recognize the social constructs of your environment as part of your identity. Your entrepreneurial instincts originate from the most primal parts of your brain, not from modern economic pressures. That’s why the desire to be your own boss is as prevalent among the highest-paid employees as it is among everyone else. A bigger salary will not change what you are.

If you are a dissatisfied American worker who wants to quit and be your own boss, your dissatisfaction isn’t only with your actual station in life. You are also unhappy because the role you play within the options that America provides doesn’t allow you to maximize your inherent abilities. Your identity is, therefore, the foundation of your motivation. The geography and timing of your existence offered different choices than those offered to your ancestors. Still, they don’t change your innate human desire to explore the limits of your potential.

The world says that you should be yourself while your Boss Brain rejects the hierarchy of the modern workplace and the limited choices it provides. Rather than ignoring them, the budding entrepreneur must nurture their instincts through fearless trial and the inevitable error. To ignore your drive to create a legacy is to deny the most fundamental element of your humanity.

To your Boss Brain, what you do is a by-product of what you are, not vice versa. In the animal kingdom, lions hunt, birds fly, and fish swim. What they are defines what they do. Sometimes birds hunt, but that does not make them lions. Sometimes lions swim, but that does not make them fish. The Boss Brain ignores the environmental clues that dictate identity. It gives no thought to who. Who you are is for others to perceive and define for themselves, but that does not change what you are.

This is a primary distinction between the employee mindset and the Boss Brain: one looks at its environment and takes a place within it, while the other creates the world in which it lives.