Less is More

We are reviewing the ten most important factors that will determine your success (or not) as an entrepreneur.

#6.  Comfort with Chaos

Many people need structure in their lives.  They need their job to be somewhat linear … A to B and then B to C, and so on. 

The life of an entrepreneur is anything but linear.  In fact it is often just one step above total chaos.

One of the great thinkers of our time is a man named Nassim Taleb who has written three books that touch on the subject of chaos:  Fooled by RandomnessThe Black Swan, and Antifragile.

It would, of course, be ridiculous to try to summarize his overriding theme in one blog post but, anyway here goes:

Some things are totally unpredictable.  We should never discount the unpredictable.  We should be careful to check our thinking that A causes B.  Some things thrive on chaos.

 An entrepreneur must learn to live with chaos.  But, more than that, the entrepreneur should accept that disruption, chaos, and even stress strengthen the entrepreneurial process.  In fact, what is the goal of an entrepreneur but disruption in an effort to change or improve on what already exists?  In other words, an entrepreneur needs to embrace chaos.

Here is a quote from the Prologue of Taleb's great work on what he calls the "antifragile" (think of this property as the opposite of something "fragile" that breaks with stress, like a piece of glassware):

"Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk and uncertainty.  Let us call (these things) the antifragile.  This property (of antifragile-ness) is behind everything that has changed with time:  evolution, culture, ideas, … ".

            Antifragile:  Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb (Random House, 2014)

I have written ten skinny books – each on a particular subject.  The average number of words in my Skinny books is about 12,000. 

The typical non-fiction book has approximately 75,000 words.  And, each of my Skinny books is a compilation of about 25 books on the topic.  So, if you do the math, you will see that each Skinny book summarizes and distills about 1.9 million words into 12,000 words. 

How is this possible?  WORD INFLATION by U.S. writers.

Over the last 100 years, writers have yielded to the following two pressures to write MORE NOT LESS:

  • It is easier. Tightening your writing is very challenging.  You have to labor over every word.
  • It is hard to sell a book for $20 that is only 15,000 words. Publishers want bigger and longer.

Word inflation is the term that I use to describe the tendency to write more rather than less. 

Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is only 4,500 words?

And yet, the typical lawyer’s brief (a written document explaining a lawyer’s position) is 14,000 words.  Since there are usually two briefs on every matter (sometimes more), that means judges have to read 28,000 words (or more) to decide a legal principle that may have been described in 20 words or less. (NOTE:  the Bar Association is trying to develop standards as to how many words attorneys can use in their briefs – what a relief if lawyers actually learn to communicate with less rather than more words).

What is equally frustrating is that studies have shown over and over that people learn better when there is less rather than more to read.  For example, one study divided readers into two groups.  The first group got a twenty page explanation of a scientific principle.  The second group got a two-page summary.  After everyone had finished reading, the two groups were given a test to see which group had a better understanding of the principle.  And, as you probably guessed, the group that got the two-page summary had a much better comprehension. 

Let me leave you with a story.  One of the greatest judges in US legal history was Oliver Wendell Holmes.  In writing a friend one day, he said “sorry for the length of this letter … it would have been much shorter if I had more time.”  

We are discussing the ten most important factors in your success (or not) as an entrepreneur.

Here are #4 and #5. 

4. Confidence - I could write ten posts on the stories of hugely successful entrepreneurs who were told over and over that their idea was "dumb", "never going to work", or "a waste of time." It is in the nature of being an entrepreneur that change is part of the process. The entrepreneur is trying to do something new and different (hopefully better).  And, quoting from a great book, The Creative Habit:

"Creativity is an act of defiance.  You're challenging the status quo.  You're questioning accepted truths and principles … Every act of creation if also an act of destruction or abandonment.  Something has to be cast aside to make way for the new."

So, once you plant your "entrepreneurial flag", be prepared for the possibility that you will hear "oh, that's been tried before" or "not a chance in a million that will work" and so on.

An entrepreneur needs to be deaf to the naysayers and have confidence that his or her idea has merit and can work.  Without confidence, you have no shot.

5. Ability to conquer a fear of failure - failure is part of the entrepreneurial process. If you are overly afraid of failure, you are most likely going to be too cautious in how you pursue success. You may think you are taking appropriate risks but if failure is always in the back of your mind, you are most likely playing it too safe.  Risk (of failure) is an unavoidable part of the game. 

Putting failure out of your mind is not always easy.  While some people are instinctive risk takers, most of us struggle with the prospect of a negative outcome.  But, that's OK.  Good entrepreneurs understand that failure is a possibility but refuse to be controlled by the possibility.  They hear the noise, but just don't listen to it.   

OK, so now you have had some time to think about the type of activity you would like to pursue as an entrepreneurial venture. Great, now I want to tell you what I believe will be the 10 factors behind your success (or not). I am going to discuss 3 points in this post, then 7 points in my next two posts. 

1. Enjoyment - we have already crossed this threshold.  As I have indicated, the activity you select must be something you enjoy doing.  The pursuit of your entrepreneurial aspiration must be fun.  Not every minute of the day, of course.  With any entrepreneurial venture, there will most likely be components of what needs to be done, that are not that enjoyable to you.  But, overall, the activity should be one you look forward to.

2. Intensity - there is no half way with an entrepreneurial venture.  You are either "all in" or don't bother.  Note:  This does not mean you are full-time.  All I want is a ten-hour per week minimum commitment.  BUT, while you are engaged in your entrepreneurial activity, no distractions or diversions.  Give it your all, or don't bother.  Success is hard enough as a rule but impossible with anything less than 100% effort.

By the way, I am a bit of an entrepreneurial groupie.  I read everything I can about successful entrepreneurs and speak to as many as will speak to me.  If you want to read about intensity, here are two autobiographies and a biography that you can learn from:  Shoe Dog, Phil Knight (founder of Nike), Grinding it Out, Roy Kroc (founder of McDonalds), Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance (founder of Tesla and Space X).

3. Persistence - I have started 20 companies and been around hundreds of entrepreneurs.  The one overriding factor that separates the success from the failure is persistence, refusal to give up on a dream.  This does not mean that you do not change direction (pivot) when you see a roadblock or an opportunity.  Part of persistence is "bull-headedness"; but another part is an ability to deal with reality.  Sometimes the line is not that clear.  But stubbornness without vision is not an attribute.

This is the first post of what will be a series of many about starting your life as an entrepreneur.

Starting your life as an entrepreneur?  You already have a life, and a job, and obligations, and perhaps some debts.  What in the world am I talking about?

Well, first things first.  Here is my proposition: 

Every single person (over age 15) should have some part of their life devoted to an entrepreneurial activity.

What is an entrepreneurial activity?

An entrepreneurial activity is about which you have a high level of interest and the pursuit of which involves risk and reward.  Generally, the risk and reward are two sides of the same coin.  You risk money, time, and reputation in the hope that you achieve much more money, greater flexibility with your time (freedom to do what you want), and a heightened reputation (prestige, respect, influence).

I am not talking here about quitting your "day job" and starting your own business.  Rather I am advocating that everyone craft into their life (perhaps at night, early AM, and/or weekends) some activity that is (a) fun (high level of interest), and (b) potentially life-changing (risk-reward). 

The possibilities are infinite:  write a screenplay, design jewelry, start an online retail business … invent UBER (drat … someone already did that). 

Every week I am going to elaborate on this theme.  For now I just need you to start thinking … what activity would be fun and potentially life changing for you?  Do you have ten hours a week that you could devote to it (if not at least ten, probably not worth trying)?  Are you prepared to lose some money, some free time, and maybe fail in a way that others will see?  If so, great … we'll get started soon.

I just finished reading GRIT:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth (Scribner, 2016).

There are a couple of very important “take-aways” from this book (although it is about 150 pages too long). 

The premise of this book is that achievement is the end result of tons of unrelenting effort (“perseverance”) applied to a life vision (a “passion”).  No one can argue with that.

But, for me, the best “take-away” is that often the hard part of achievement is not the perseverance (although that can be plenty hard) but rather the identification of one’s passion

Duckworth makes an important point when she pokes a little fun at university commencement speakers … a great majority of whom advise “follow your passion.”   Duckworth is right when she says “I do not think most young people need encouragement to follow their passion.  Most would do exactly that - in a heartbeat - if only they had a passion in the first place."

She then goes on to make what I consider the highlight point of her work – that finding one’s passion is not some epiphany or eureka moment but rather an evolution of trying different things, experimenting, giving up one some ideas and pursuing those that resonate most strongly.  In other words, finding one’s passion is as big a part of the challenge to achievement as is hard work and persistence.

A comedienne, Paul Poundstone, has said:  “the reason adults are always asking children what they want to be when they grow up, is because they are looking for ideas”.   For the lucky ones, it comes early in life.  For others it is a process.  But, a critically important process – because until you find that one thing that embodies you, you can never (in my opinion) achieve to your fullest potential.

Speaking of commencement speeches, I happen to love the following from actress, Jodie Foster, spoken to the graduates at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006:

(As you move on from college), you pick up bits and pieces of treasure and trash, pain and pleasure, passions and disappointments and you start stuffing them in your bag … your big bag of experience.  You do some dumb things that don’t work out at all.  You stumble excitedly on little gems that you never saw coming.  And you stuff them all in your bag.  You pursue the things you love and believe in. You cast off the images of yourself that don’t fit.   And suddenly you look behind you and a pattern emerges.  You look in front of you and the path makes sense.  There is nothing more beautiful that finding your course as you believe you bob aimlessly in the current.  Wouldn’t you know that your path was there all along, waiting for you to knock, waiting for you to become.  This path does not belong to your parents, your teachers, your leaders or your lovers.  Your path is your character defining itself more and more everyday like a photograph coming into focus, like a color that becomes more vivid in contrast with its surroundings.”