What are you avoiding?

Exercising
Exercising (Photo credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service)

As part of my “chains” work, and on the advice of Jerry, I’ve added a new, 2 minute exercise to my daily routine.  I ask myself: “What are you avoiding”  I take some time to write a response in evernote, and then I ask: “Why are you avoiding it?”  I’m only a few days in but I’ve found this to be very powerful for me.

I think even when we’re not thinking about the things we’re avoiding, they are always at the surface of our minds.  I noticed that unlike the ideas exercise, the answer to this question comes almost immediately.  I definitely know what I’m avoiding, and it’s absolutely burning calories, even if I’m not always thinking about it.  The harder part has been asking and answering the why.  Sometimes, often, the why is a “weakness,” an admission of a mistake, a fear of failure, a fear of exposure (I’ve found for me a common reason for avoiding something is a fear of being exposed as a fraud…”wait a minute, you aren’t really an entrepreneur!”).  We often know the answer to the why too, but it can be painful.
Ultimately I don’t think the purpose of this exercise is to pump myself up to face whatever I’m avoiding. I don’t think that’s a sustainable solution.  Instead feels like I’m strengthening my noticing skills, and what I’ve found even more is that it is like the 7 year old me shining a flashlight under my bed.  There is no monster.  There is no great horrible, life threatening reason to avoid whatever I’m avoiding.  It makes the things I’ve avoiding now easier to face, and I hope this practice makes avoiding even less common in the future.
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The magic wand – do overs

Several years ago I taught an undergraduate class in business leadership at Queens College. From the beginning I had, what to the students seemed a revolutionary policy: You always got a chance to re-write your essay. If you didn’t like the grade you got the first time, you could incorporate my suggested changes (or not) and re-submit your essay at least once.

The lesson I tried to teach was that doling out Do Overs was a powerful incentive. It mitigated the fear of failing and, more often than not, brought out the best in the kids.

Many walked away with the notion that they, too, when they ran their own companies (and they all thought they would one day), would hand out Do Overs. Fewer of them, though, walked away with the deepest lesson of all: you’ve got the magic wand in your hand right now. Give yourself a Do Over. Let go of the shame, guilt, anger, fear from eating too many Oreos and try again today.

I really love this post by Jerry.

I was listening to the Philosophers note on Learned Optimism a few weeks ago and Brian / Martin Seligman talk about the difference in perspective between an optimist and a pessimist that is very much in line with what Jerry is saying here. Someone with a more pessimistic perspective tends to see things as permanent, especially their own mistakes, while a more optimistic person sees things as temporary. The optimist, they said, truly believes in the do over. It has taken me a long time to finally start believing this.

The reality is this: There are very few things in life where a do over is not possible. So why, sometimes, do we want to torment ourselves by thinking things are permanent? Do you really want to torturet yourself by believing the deal you failed to close was your last shot?

I guess without realizing when it happened, I started giving myself more do overs in the last year, and it’s amazing how different the world looks. It’s so much lighter, I sleep better, and life seems much more playful. When you know you have another chance at something, you’re willing to play. It’s no longer so serious. Why shouldn’t life be more playful?

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random thoughts on being an entrepreneur | gapingvoid

22. One successful entrepreneur I know well has a wonderful quality, namely that he never, ever compares himself to other people. He just does his own thing, which actually serves him rather well. Just because his competitor has bought himself a bigger motor boat, doesn’t mean he feels the need have a bigger motor boat. This quality helps him to build his business the way he sees fit, not the way the motor boat people see fit.

23. Running a startup is full of extreme ups and downs. Which is why so many successful and happy entrepreneurs I know lead such normal, stable, unglamorous, “boring”, family-centered lives. Somehow they need the latter in order to balance out the former. Extra-curricular drama looks great in the tabloids, but that’s all it’s ultimately good for.

24. MBAs are conditioned to use their brains in much the same way as sex workers are conditioned to use their genitals. Nice work if you can get it.

25. Bill Gates may have a million times more money than me, but he isn’t going to live a million times longer than me, watch a million times more sunsets than me, make love to a million times more women than me, drink a million times more fine wines than me, listen to a million times more Beethoven String Quartets than me, nor sire a million times more children than me. Human beings don’t scale.

Really great post by Hugh over at gapingvoid.com. These are just a few of the good ones.

I particularly like 22 and 23. Both can be extremely difficult to pull off. It seems to be a human tendency to compare ourselves to others from time to time, some of us more often than others. What’s inevitable though the more you do it, the more likely you will feel like crap. There is always someone out there better than you at something, if you’re looking and comparing you’re going to find them a lot. Being comfortable and proud of you and your skills is empowering.

On 23. Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster of emotions, no doubt. I met with an entrepreneur last week who has done it many times, and he told me “You’re going to have several moments where you have 2 or all 4 tires off the road.” There’s no way to avoid those situations, they are part of the journey, but even more importantly don’t be so quick to get your emotions wrapped up in things. Good things happen and bad things happen, but they don’t change who you are. Hugh nails it, a key to being a successful entrepreneur is being reminded daily of who you are by those around you who love you.

The Way I Work: Paul English of Kayak, Page 2

We work really hard for 40 to 45 hours a week, but we believe in people having strong personal lives. Over the past six years, there have been maybe five times I’ve spoken with Steve before 8 a.m., after 5 p.m., or on the weekend.

via inc.com

It’s so tempting as an entrepreneur to think you need to power through and work very long hours, including on the weekend. I don’t believe that’s necessary. I don’t think there is a direct correlation between hours worked and progress / results. Paul English in quote above, founder of kayak.com, says that they work 40 -45 hard hours a week and despite being in business for more than 6 years, has only worked hard on the weekend maybe 5 times. I’ve already broken that in my current startup. Why? Is it really necessary? I starting to believe you can do more with less.

Great quote from Seth Godin

It’s so tempting to start drawing maps for people. It makes them happy and it makes me feel smart. But resisting that temptation is the right thing to do, because once someone does it on their own a few times, they become unstoppable. Watching that change occur is one of the highlights of my professional life. And in fact, every great teacher I’ve ever known seeks the same outcome.

— seth godin

I’ve been fortunate to have many great teachers in my life, and I had plenty of moments with them where I just wanted them to “draw the map,” for me. They never did though. Instead they gave me just enough to get started on my own.

Anxiety

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There’s been some anxious moments the last few weeks in the startup  I’m working on.  It’s the typical fears that you deal with in this stage of a startup (basically, what if we fail?).  I’ve been deep down this fearful road before, but this time it feels different.  I’ve been able to watch and notice more than ever, and it’s really interesting what I’ve seen.

I’ve noticed that often times we connect the anxiety and the situation as one, therefore calling it an “anxious situation.”  The tendency is to act quickly, swiftly, aggressively to solve these anxious situations.  In my own moments of high startup anxiety I’ve responded by working longer hours, setting up elaborate tasks list, creating crazy work rules for myself, and lost hours of sleep.  The funny thing is those all actually increase the anxiety.  Why? Because my work or work ethic was not the issue, the anxiety was the issue.  I’ve learned you need to work through that first, which often times requires a break and a breather, and then you can come back and deal with the tasks at hand (which usually are NEVER as bad as they look when you were anxious).  Or as Jerry put it in an email conversation earlier:

In fact, some times the anxiety can be so high it can actually prevent you from putting together the structure you need (to make you feel less anxious!).

There’s a big difference between the anxiety and the situation.  The anxiety is not tied to the situation, the anxiety is your reaction to the situation, and the anxiety makes dealing with the situation more difficult.  Step back, reflect, separate the two, and move forward…

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2009 to 2010 thoughts

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We are now less than one week away from the end of 2009, and the first decade of the 2000’s.  As I look back on 2009, there are a lot of great lessons, ups and downs, victories, and losses, but ultimately a significant amount of progress in my life.  Life it seems is really about the balance between  enjoying and appreciating who and what you have currently, and at the same time continually pushing for growth.   Simply said: be truly grateful for the present and think and act big for the future.  Easier said than done.

Anyway looking back on 2009 for me I can see a few personal lessons to carry forward:

1.) Talk about it.  I wrote about this back in July. This year, particularly in my relationship with Julie, this lesson finally sunk in for me.  Communication is not about finding solutions, it’s about connecting with someone else, and generally it makes everyone feel much better.  I think we  feel better when we open up to another person.  And generally it is much easier to find solutions (if that’s what you’re looking for) when you are feeling good and open.

2.) Don’t do something just because you think it will make you money.  Sounds very obvious, but man is it a hard one.  As I wrote about back in May, I learned this lesson the hard way, spending almost a year working incredibly hard on a concept because I thought it would be a somewhat easy way to make money.  I of course was wrong.  Building a business is a long process with lots of ups and downs.  If you don’t have more interest in the process beyond making money, getting through those downs is going to be rough.

3.) When it comes to business concepts or projects, there is a big difference between a good one in general, and a good one for you.  For me at least, just because something seems like a good idea does not mean it’s a good idea for me to pursue.  I again learned this the hard way, as discussed in this post. (I may reference this post more…)

4.) Plan for and demand time for thought.  Big ideas don’t usually happen when you are checking email, sports scores, listening to podcasts, watching tv, etc.  They usually happen when your mind is allowed to think, free of distractions.  It’s way too easy to get sucked into the flow of the day and the week, and not give yourself time to reflect.  The reflection time is really when interesting thoughts come forward. And by the way, I don’t think time for thought should be all about allowing the big ideas to come through either…it should be just for thinking as well.

5.) JFDI. I just wrote about this. This one is a biggie for me.  I’m really good at putting things off, especially tasks or situations that may make feel uncomfortable.  I’d rather just push them to a later time and date.  There are usually 2 consequences that stem from that approach 1.) Generally the situation / problem worsens with the delays 2.) you feel worse and worse about putting it off.  There are definitely situations where a bit of reflection is the right move, but 9 times out of 10 we know what action needs to be taken almost immediately.  Act and you’ll get more done and feel better.

6.) Be Optimistic.  Sounds simple, and I guess in theory it is.  But for me it can be a struggle.  There’s a voice in my head that is optimistic about things 70% of the time I would say.  The problem is the other 30% of the time it’s very pessimistic.  This voice sees the “bad” in my life as permanent and a direct reflection of who I am as a person.  That’s a hard one to deal with.  In making a conscious effort to notice this voice and brush it aside, it’s amazing how much better life looks day in and day out.  Again it’s not easy, and it seems to be a long process, but just noticing the downer voice is a big first step

7.) Be your biggest supporter, not your harshest critic.  Similar to #6 above, I’ve really become aware this year of the inner critic.  When that voice is strong in my head, things really feel hard in my life.  Nothing I’ve done means anything.  Nothing I’m working on will ever be good enough.  I haven’t treated this person correctly, or said this when I should have, or called this person in a reasonable time.  Certainly there are times where that voice needs to come through to make adjustments and teach lessons, but it needs to change its tone.  I’m looking for one that teaches, guides, and supports not criticizes.  First step is noticing the critic, something I did very well in 2009.

I skipped a few years with this tradition (last one was 2006, which looks very similar to this years), but think it’s a good one to continue going forward.  Happy and healthy 2010….

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Op-Ed Columnist – The New Untouchables – NYTimes.com

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

I forgot about this piece from Thomas Friedman from back in October. I can feel this new creative, entrepreneurial class really starting to kick into gear around me. It’s not an age or race thing, it’s a state of mind. It just feels like more people are going out on their own to create progress in the world. That’s of course a very good thing.

JFDI

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I stumbled on to this great blog post by @msuster talking about what it takes to be an entrepreneur.  His post can be summarized in four letters, JFDI, which stands for Just F**King Do It.

Entrepreneurs make fast decisions and move forward knowing that at best 70% of their decisions are going to be right.  They move the ball forward every day.  They are quick to spot their mistakes and correct.  Good entrepreneurs can admit when their course of action was wrong and learn from it.  Good entrepreneurs are wrong often.  If you’re not then you’re not trying hard enough.  Good entrepreneurs have a penchant for doing vs. over-analyzing.  (obviously don’t read this as zero analysis)

This really resonated with me.  I can get very comfortable with analyzing things.  I can in fact spend months and years analyzing something.  This is partly because I like to research, explore, review, brainstorm and partly because I’m scared of moving forward.  Sometimes I tell myself I’m just afraid of making the wrong move, but either way it’s all related to a fear of taking the next step.  The problem with this is you end up in this limbo world where you are safe from mistakes but also tormented by the decision hanging above you.  The longer the decision hangs above you, the heavier it gets whether you are aware of it or not.  The only reprieve from the weight is to act.  JFDI

In the blog post he talks about an entrepreneur who was constantly in brainstorming mode on his next thing, saying he was stuck because he didn’t have any money.  He was convinced the only way forward was to raise money.  This is a common excuse for inaction among entrepreneurs.  I’ve certainly been guilty of this, although I must confess my preferred stall tactic is to tell myself and others that I don’t quite have the right idea yet.  It doesn’t really matter the reason because at the end of the day they are just excuses. This is one of many deciding moments in the life an entrepreneur, the place where it seems like you are all out of options.  Either you find a way to do it, or you quit.  Mark advises the stalled entrepreneur:

I was blunt (warning: that sometimes happens with me) and told him not to bother and that I wasn’t prepared to help with angels.“Why?” he asked.  I told him he wasn’t a real entrepreneur.  He looked stunned.  I said that he had been talking about doing this for too long.  He still had no website and no prototypes.  But “he didn’t have the budget to hire a developer until he had raised money!”

I said that was my point. “A real entrepreneur would have done it anyway.  He would have found somebody technical and inspired that individual to work for equity or deferred payment.  Real entrepreneurs are contagious.  They are filled with ideas and they get those ideas onto paper.  That paper can be in the form of wireframes or in the form of a PowerPoint plan.  Or worst case your ideas can be conveyed verbally.  But they GET THINGS DONE.  You have the skills and knowledge to do that.”

Blunt but great advice.  If you want something bad enough, you can find a way to move forward, to act.  If you’re focused on the acting towards a result instead of a step towards a result (getting a prototype built some way vs obsessing over raising money to get a prototype built), if you’d JFDI, it would come together some way.  The entrepreneur took his advice:

He took my comments as a challenge.  He went out and found a developer and built a product.  He refined his business plan and he got commitments for $150-200k but needed some lead angels to commit first.  When he re-approached me he had a much better plan and he had a prototype!  I introduced him to some angels and his round was OVER SUBSCRIBED!

You and I have all the knowledge and skills we need to move our businesses forward RIGHT now.  We don’t have to wait for more data, for someone else to help, for outside input, for the “right moment.”  None of that.  We can move things forward right now. JFDI and you’ll not only feel better, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

(Additional thought:  I think self reflection, analysis, outside input, etc are still very important and should be used with the JFDI approach.  I think a good analogy is practice vs real game in the sports world.  There is definitely a time and place to practice and develop your skills, to analyze, to grow and then there is a time and place where you just trust and act.  Get out of your head at the real game and trust your training and preparation will guide you in the right direction)

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How far are you willing to go?

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I’ve had the pleasure of having front row seats to watch my friend Jason develop his business Jackthreads (check it out, it’s a private shopping community) over the last 4 or so years.  Things are going very well for Jason now as his membership and revenue numbers continue to explode month over month.  More importantly he’s now able to work full time doing something he loves with customers and employees who also love what he’s doing.   The business is now drawing all sorts of interest from investors to partners to customers.  Everyone seems impressed by this thing that seemingly popped up over night.  I can tell you, it didn’t. Jason took the long path here. 

He started out 4 years ago with a totally different business model. He has had more than a few people tell him he was crazy, that his idea was off, that he had no business building something like that from Columbus, OH.   He had all kinds of jobs from bar back to sales consultant to selling towels just to sustain himself while he worked through this concept.  He burned through multiple  programming groups / teams and watched his development process drag on and on. He had to work tirelessly just to get someone to give him a chance to test his concept.   He had more than a few “what the hell am I doing,” moments.  There were more moments where quitting made more sense than going on.   Obviously, he chose to stick with it.

As an entrepreneur, you are going to have lots of “what the hell am I doing,” moments.  It’s a key part of the journey. In fact most cases are like Jason’s, where you must go through the grind of work and doubt until you finally see some traction.  The deciding factor ultimately is how you deal with those moments.  Do you stop as so many do, and as I have done?  Or do you push through as Jason did.  How many moments of doubt, how many “no’s,” moments of frustration, odd jobs are you willing to go through to see your idea to fruition?  How far are you willing to go?

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