There’s something very scary that happens around entrepreneurs and con artists alike. We (either the first or the second group, I’ll let you decide) are in a constant mission of making the world fit us. We don’t just avoid taking the world as it is, we actively stretch the lines and reaches of what is to make it more and more similar to what we want it to be. We are surrounded by a field of distortion. It can be subtle, like talking about the product you intend to develop in the present tense instead of future, or a bit more all-encompassing, like describing your vision and mission with your technology as the center of a new universe. We say these things to investors because we need them to get to where we want. We tell stories to our partners and employees because we need them working on our side. We repeat it to ourselves because there is no other way we’ll get to the end of our 25-hour day if we don’t believe there’s a point to everything, and that point is the world we say we are creating.
One of my favorite books is 1984 by George Orwell. The concept of Doublethink he coins in the book is how I think of this entrepreneur-speech. We know our product doesn’t exist, we know our tech isn’t ready, we know we won’t save the world, and yet – we forget we don’t believe it, until we do.
So that’s where things start to get scary. If you’ve deluded yourself into thinking you are going to save the world and everything is going absolutely amazing, how do you tell when things are actually not that good and you’re just wrapped in the speech you yourself created?
How do you, as a founder, know when you’ve gone too far and you should jump ship before you find yourself so way under not even the fish will listen?
How can you tell when it’s time to stop believing your own bullshit?
Founding a startup gives you a million reasons to quit. I’ve personally been through a fair share. I have impressively bad memory for times in my life I do not like, so I couldn’t name them all, but even after almost five years of ignoring them I remember the key pieces.
I wanted to quit when I was just starting, and this was just a ridiculous thought I had believed too soon and there were so many other things clamoring for my attention. When there was nothing but a half-convinced will, a vague idea and an even more vague what if.
I wanted to quit when I won my first contest. When it felt like I had checked a box and could move on with barely any side-glances at the future possibilities. While I still could. While I wasn’t attached – at least, not really.
I wanted to quit when it got serious. When I had to start making choices that didn’t seem obvious anymore. When I started fearing I was hurting myself and my future over something I didn’t quite comprehend, but which definitely had a very low chance of survival.
I wanted to quit when the responsibility sunk in. When I realized there were too few of us doing something similar, and so I had too many eyes on me. When I noticed that if they needed names, they thought of mine, both for the good and the bad.
I wanted to quit when it wasn’t working. When people I trusted would have supported me started talking behind my back. When I was denied the little help I asked for. When the disbelieving smiles became scoffs and upturned noses, and they came from closer than I would have liked.
I wanted to quit when it looked like it was working. When people got excited and started putting me on a pedestal and throwing flowers my way and crowning me with words and press and prizes and I couldn’t stop thinking I was lying even with my mouth closed bowing to a smiling audience.
I wanted to quit four months ago. When I thought I was truly, definitely done. When I was drained to the point of tiptoeing the line around an old, nefarious friend. When I did not have the strength to be overwhelmed and so numbness took me by the hand.
I started being cold about it. It wasn’t even about my startup anymore: it was about optimal use of my time. Should I be putting this many hours in the week in something with returns in X years? Should I let this one go and start something new? Should I diversify my personal portfolio? Should I start working as a consultant? Should I actually go out into the world and get a job?
If you read my previous articles, you know I came to Ireland with the intention of quitting. I waited two months, out of demureness, to ask who’s now either my star mentor or my part-time guru, about quitting.
“I wanted to ask you about passion”
I blurt it out as fast as I can so Bill just stares at me for a bit before laughing. This is a conversation he gets with every cohort, he says, so I breathe a little easier.
The startup idea of passion scares me. I have no problem with living and breathing my company – hell, I’ve had my logo tattooed for three years now and I have never once regretted it – but there’s always been something off to me in the whole “your startup’s product/problem must be the reason you breathe”-style overselling of passion.
Passion fades. It’s whimsical and it can spur you into action just as much as it can stop you dead in your tracks.
Passion, I find, is also malleable.
You can convince yourself that you love something enough to go through a considerable amount of hard work and maybe an even bigger amount of shit, which leads me back again to distortion fields.
How can you know for sure what you are passionate about if you, as an entrepreneur, are so skilled at changing the perception of things around you?
How do you know – and this is where everything sounds ridiculous, but if you’ve been though it you’ll know – that this is the one? That this is it?
How do you differentiate a bad day from a bad choice or a bad life?
When do you know for sure that it’s time to quit?
“From what I’ve seen” he said, “people who quit at a certain stage in their startup and start a new one are bound to quit at the same point in the next. After all, if you didn’t cross the hurdle now, how will you know how to do it later? And if you will do it later, why are you not doing it now?”
A solid argument for an overachiever like me, and like most founders, really. Coldly speaking, really no point in delaying a hard thing to do. And after all, aren’t we all about fail fast, fail cheaper? The earlier you try it out and it doesn’t know, the earlier you know.
As I said – solid logic, good retort. But Bill wasn’t done.
“Besides,” he said, preparing for the final blow, “Why would you quit a second before learning everything there is to learn from the experience?”
The mic drop was probably heard all the way to Chile. I just sat there gaping and staring at him, mouthing “what the fuck.” Of all the things he could say, of all the ways he could appeal to me, this was, perhaps, the most perfect. Because it was so infuriatingly true, and now that he had voiced it, it was unavoidable.
How indeed could I walk away from a mystery I hadn’t seen the end of?
There are two ways of living. Like the world happens to you, or like you happen to the world.
To Bill, this means choice. Choosing as an act of self-love, self-preservation and self-elevation: giving yourself the time to stand back and look at the cards you have been dealt and instead of merely reacting, choose the way you are about it.
It’s easy to consider the world as something that happens to you. Victim mentality and self-commiseration are, after all, widely-spread tools to deal with bad times and worse circumstances. It is indeed true that we sometimes get much more shit than we should. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, what we have or what we lose; sometimes, we don’t even choose what we do.
But we can choose who to be.
It’s not easy, since we’re programmed to react in doing. I recently read that we praise in verbs and adjectives (“what a pretty picture you painted”, “thank you so much for helping”) but what really makes people reaffirm reactions is to command them on nouns (“you are truly an artist”, “you’re a wonderful helper”). The focus shifts from action – sometimes planned, sometimes reacted into – to the person.
Who am I? What does a person like me do in this situation?
Or even better: Who do I want to be? What would that greater, better person do in this situation?
You are, says Bill, and then you do. And the more you do, the more you work on something, the more likely you are to choose to be passionate about it. Action, he says, begets passion.
How does this translate into the world of startups?
You get to choose yourself in any one of the weird situations startup life gets you. You can choose to be inspiring, disruptive, hungry, altruistic, humble, eager. You can choose to be amazed at a new development, or competitive when presented with a problem-now-turned-challenge, or generous with your time and thoughts and words. You will still react by doing, but the actions will be grounded in the person you are choosing to be.
When we talked about passion, about problems and about perseverance, Bill unearthed a choice for me. In the face of all the weird things your startup has given you, and the weirder ones to come. Who will you choose to be?
I chose to be curious.
I like mysteries. I like wonder. I like the unexplained as much as I like the explanation behind it. But more than that: curiosity is, to me, the drive to expand your personal collection of experiences, thoughts and visions. I think this permeates my work, my writing, my every day choices.
I can be curious. And it happens to be a powerful way to be.
But, as you already know, I’ve been through some stuff, and I am sure to go through worse. And it’s easy to waver when presented with challenges that don’t look like dares but despair. So when I talked to the voice of reason in my life, my loving partner, he did ask me the dreaded question.
Can curiosity get you through everything?
It’s been a while now, and I’ve mulled the answer over, and it’s still the same one that sprung to my mind all those weeks ago.
Because the truth is, I don’t know.
But damn if I’m not dying to find out.