In a mere .40 seconds, Google serves up 79,800,000 results on “how to be a successful entrepreneur”.
That’s a lot of advice.
- Bold headlines: Build Your A-Team … Pitch Like a Pro … Know Your Competitive Advantage
- Name dropping : Zuckerberg … Jobs … Sandberg … Omidyar … Wozniak … Corcoran
- Videos on sleep habits of successful entrepreneurs … from dropout to billionaire … rocking your pitch
- Catchy words: unicorn … killer … crushing it
With almost eighty million results to sift through, it is possible to find advice or information on just about anything and everything. But, in reality, the biggest determining factor in achieving success cannot be found on a website, in a book or in advice personally shared from the best of mentors. The ultimate success or failure of an individual has far more to do with their own mindset than any other factor. While there are many traits that contribute to mindset, here are three that, when adopted, lead to a powerful shift in thinking and outcomes when confronted with difficulties.
Gratitude is not an emotion but a mindset that allows for the possibility of good being derived from the worst of circumstances.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, published a letter earlier this year with advice on how to be happy, and none of his advice had to do with wealth, success or achievements. Instead, it had to do with mindset. “Happiness shouldn’t be a goal, it should be a habit. Take the focus off doing, and start being every day. Be loving, be grateful, be helpful, and be a spectator to your own thoughts.”
By embracing a mindset of gratitude, we allow ourselves to hope when facing defeat and to feel joy in the midst of difficulties. When we are grateful for the good despite the bad that is happening, we are empowered to move forward, to remain tenacious, to summon the energy to struggle on. Gratitude fuels an entrepreneur to persevere, iterate, pivot or close down one venture with the courage to begin again.
A mindset of generosity helps maintain the emotional resources and the social goodwill to survive the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.
I first met Alex Wirth, the cofounder of Quorum Analytics, Inc., at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City earlier this year. I had asked a panel of investors and founders for advice on growing visibility for our civic-focused startup, APPCityLife, which is based in the sparsely populated state of New Mexico. Immediately following the session, Alex sought me out and introduced himself as a fellow New Mexican and offered to provide introductions into his own network where it might be of help.
Alex is one of those inspiring individuals who has found success in his own company by embracing a philosophy of generosity. He opted to extend his own network to another startup founder simply because he could and because he knew it would help. Not once has he asked for anything in return, and he has more than made good on the offer he made to me that day.
A mindset of generosity does not mean we operate in a state of naivety. We can be generous by sharing our network while respecting the privacy of those within our own network by gaining prior permission before sending introductions. We can share insight, give advice, and help others while still protecting our own intellectual property. But when we operate from a protective mindset or a scarcity mentality, where we make sure we get ours by keeping it away from others, we not only fail to help where we could make a difference, but we also fail to surround ourselves with others who embrace a mindset of generosity and who could, in turn, support and help us in a time of need. A wide network built on goodwill that we can access in times of difficulty can mean the difference between survival or failure.
Positive pragmatism is the ability to clearly identify barriers and flaws while maintaining a hopeful environment for exploring creative alternatives.
There is this moment in the experience of every entrepreneur where some devastating setback threatens to derail all progress forward. It is the self-talk, the story that we tell ourselves about that moment which shapes our perceptions, reactions, and ultimately, our decisions. If we’ve learned to frame those moments in a mindset of positive pragmatism, we are far better equipped to endure the extreme lows that are a common occurrence within the startup industry.
A recent post by photographer Brandon Stanton, the creator of the popular blog, Humans of New York, perfectly depicted this attitude of positive pragmatism. A young entrepreneur’s comment about becoming CEO was met with derision by many readers who questioned how the purchase of a suit could turn anyone into a CEO. But the truth is this: when someone leaves a startup, it leaves a hole. Somebody else has to step up and fill the gap – – and it is usually someone who cares a little more, is a little more committed, and who isn’t yet willing to give up no matter how ill-prepared they are to fill that new role. They assess the new challenges created by the loss of that team member and weigh those new challenges against the potential for success with the remaining resources, talent and traction. And little by little, the remaining team often learns new skills and acquires the knowledge to fill the gaps to the startup forward.
While there are a multitude of factors which affect the outcome of a startup such as team, skills, knowledge, and even luck, adopting the right mindset can help an entrepreneur access deeper reservoirs of mental and emotional energy to overcome the difficulties and barriers which, otherwise, might derail the best of teams.
We’ve all heard some version of the saying that begins “when the going gets tough…” But the reality is that when things get difficult, even the tough find it very tempting to look for reasons to give up. And to be fair, quitting can be the right decision – but the hidden costs of that choice mislead us into thinking that the relief of giving up is worth the disappointment of not finishing.
When we come upon a massive barrier to accomplishing a goal, the level of desire to gain whatever we see as the ultimate reward is directly related to the price we are willing to pay to overcome the barrier.
If our goal is to earn a specific degree in college, it isn’t the degree itself that keeps us going through the difficult classes or enormous financial costs – it’s the ultimate reward of a coveted lifestyle or opportunity to work within a specific field that forces us to dig deep in the difficult moments where quitting seems to be so much easier than continuing. The degree is just a piece of paper; it’s what that piece of paper makes possible that we see as the ultimate reward.
If we’ve chosen to become an entrepreneur, it is rarely the job itself that we see as the big reward; it is seeing our idea becoming a reality, our solution to a problem put into action that fuels us to give up so much to see that vision through to fruition.
But, whatever the goal, when things get difficult, we begin weighing the cost in front of us with the value of that ultimate reward. We start to doubt whether we are actually capable of finishing the goal, whether we’d really like the results of finishing, and we begin to think of ways to lessen the goal to something that wouldn’t take nearly as deep a toll on us financially, physically, emotionally or mentally. We allow ourselves to rationalize why quitting would be better. We would have more time again. We wouldn’t be so broke, because we could do something easier to make money right away. We would have more time to pursue a hobby. We could put all of our energy into a new interest that looks easier to do and like a lot more fun that what we’re trying to accomplish now. The reasons, really, are limitless.
Quitting brings instant relief. The pressure is off. The fear of failing is over since quitting isn’t the same as failing (or so we tell ourselves). And the temporary disappointment we feel and that others may express will pass. Besides, it’s not their life, it’s ours, so if we’re ok with the decision, everyone else can just get on board or keep it to themselves. Ah, yes, it is so alluring to quit.
But what we don’t take into consideration nearly often enough is the hidden costs of quitting. That temporary disappointment we feel in ourselves? It’s not temporary. It’s permeates every facet of our psyche and has a powerful effect on our future decisions. When we find a new goal for ourselves, we begin that goal with the knowledge that we might quit without reaching it. It makes it harder to begin again and easier to quit the next time. When we measure ourselves up against our competition, we secretly believe that we may not go as far as they will, because we might quit when they’re still committed and willing to pay a higher cost to get to success. We start making smaller choices, safer decisions, and we start seeing ourselves as less-than.
Sometimes we will fail. But the long term cost of failing isn’t nearly as devastating if we’ve given everything we could to try to achieve our goal as it is when failure comes by quitting. And, yes, sometimes the right decision is to quit. Sometimes the price is too high. Sometimes we weren’t realistic when we set out to achieve some goal. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right. Sometimes a need arises that supersedes our desire to accomplish a goal. And when that is truly the case, the challenge will come in reminding ourselves of the actual facts of why we quit when we begin to doubt our ability to see something through to the end. In those instances, we must remember that sometimes the sacrifice of giving up is the right price to pay to meet a higher need.
But far too often we tell ourselves we’re quitting to meet a higher need when the reality is that the cost of continuing just looks far too expensive. It gets harder before it gets easier. It looks more impossible right before the solution becomes clear. And we will never, ever know the incredible joy and satisfaction of success if we quit when we’re on the dark side of difficulty.
The next time you’re tempted to give up on a goal, ask yourself if it is worth living with that choice the rest of your life. Ask if the future regret will be worth the relief now. Your answer may surprise you, and it may be the fuel you need to push through when the going gets tough.
Never, ever allow someone else to decide your level of passion.
I’d taken on a part-time position with a local museum which I’d taken specifically for the hours when my husband would be home with our three kids. And while I actually enjoyed the work, I also missed out on a lot – my daughter’s last year of competing at nationals for climbing as well as weekend camping trips, family suppers, and just hanging out in the back yard with the kids on a warm Saturday night.
But the moment that pushed me over the edge was when I arrived home at 3 AM on a Saturday night. I tried to open our garage door but met resistance. Pushing a little more firmly, I realized I was actually scooting my youngest son across the tile of our foyer. At some point after being tucked into bed, our youngest woke up. He did the only thing a little boy missing his mother knew to do – wait at the very spot he knew I’d return. And so he waited on the cold tile until he finally fell asleep.
I picked my son up and carried him back to his bad, pulling up the covers up and kissing his forehead. I sat at the edge of his bed for a few moments, tears welling up as his little hand gripped tightly around my finger. And in that moment I knew that no job was worth doing this to my son.
Within the month I’d resigned my position and metamorphosed from stay-at-home mom to founder of a tech company. Not that being an entrepreneur eradicated Mommy Guilt. It didn’t. But it did mean I decided what I was going to feel guilty about, because I was the one choosing the trade-offs of what I’d miss to give time to something else.
There are times now that I am definitely judged as being that mom – the one who ends up parenting her kid via cell phone while boarding a plane, who is rarely available to volunteer for anything during or after school, and the one who has more than once sent her kid off to school with a still-damp uniform after forgetting it was needed for a game after school. I’m the mom who celebrates my kid’s somewhat crappy-looking science fair entry while happily ignoring the silent condemnation of his classmates’ parents who see my hands-off approach as unsupportive. Truth is I have no desire to see if my participation in his project will earn him an A. It’s his learning experience, and if I’m judged as the mom who doesn’t help her kid with his projects, I’m ok with that. I’ve made peace with being that mom.
But I’m finished with feeling guilty. Or, at least, I’m finished letting anyone else decide what should make me feel guilty. If I blow off one of my kids or ignore them when they really need me, and I do it because I am far too immersed in my own thoughts to be present and listen, I should feel guilty about that. It is a poor choice that leaves me as inaccessible as if I wasn’t there. If I don’t parent by making my children accountable for immoral, inconsiderate, unkind, or dishonest behavior, if I don’t provide comfort and perspective when my children are wounded by life, or if I’m not accessible for the average, ordinary conversations that are actually the courage-building moments when one of my children might share one of those big issues that they’re carrying deep inside – if I am not available to be that parent, I should feel guilty.
But I’m finished feeling guilty for being gone on travel and not available at a moment’s notice to help one of my children get out of a momentary problem. Yes, I’m unavailable. But, no, it’s not the end of the world. And more often than not, it simply results in the learning moment where my kid discovers they have the inner resilience and resources to manage the issue for themselves.
I’m finished feeling guilty for not being there every morning to cook breakfast. Guess what? Cooking skills are empowering. When my teenage kid discovers he can forage in the pantry and make something to eat without setting the toaster on fire – that isn’t neglect – that’s fostering independence.
And I’m finished feeling guilty for not being invincible. There are days I’m barely treading water because of the overwhelming amount of responsibility that I have on my plate, and allowing my children to witness my own moments of weakness, vulnerability, and fear – that is a gift I am giving them. When they witness the same raw emotions coming from me which often hold the same power to derail their own pursuit of goals and dreams – and when they see me get beyond those momentary emotions to move forward – I am sharing with them the honesty of the journey, the reality of the pain and emotional toll that is taken from each of us if we are to grow to meet the challenges along the journey. I refuse to feel guilty for sharing that with my children.
The truth is that I absolutely love what I do now. I love our company, our vision, the problems we are helping others solve because of what we’ve built. I love the dynamics, talent and energy of our team. And I love the opportunities that have arisen along the journey – the chance to build rewarding friendships, the opportunity to launch an organization with a dear friend which is focused on empowering other women, and the privilege of being inspired by others who are pursuing their own dreams. I also love being a mother, even if the mother I am today isn’t what I imagined. I’ve made peace with the messiness of it all, because it is the mess of it all, the ebb and flow of blending all of these roles together into one reality which has helped me finally feel at peace with who I am.
I don’t believe there is one single trait that, absent all others, can deliver success for entrepreneurs. It’s really a unique blend of traits and talents within each individual – as well as many outside factors – all converging at the right time in the right way. If it were as simple as a specific trait, then those individuals possessing that trait would be successful every time – and that is certainly not the case. Many a successful entrepreneur has gone on to live through colossal failures. And while there are just as many reasons for a startup’s failure as for its success, I do believe that there is one trait that, if given room to grow, will ruin an entrepreneur. When an entrepreneur stops being willing to be coached, their days are numbered – and understanding the underlying root of this resistance is vital, because the solution often depends on what is causing us to shut out the advice of others.
There was a phase early in my own journey as the founder of a startup that I was far too resistant to the feedback and ideas of those around me, and for me, it was my inexperience that was getting in my way. I had clarity on our ‘big idea’ and knew it was my job to protect our focus so that we, as a company, didn’t end up chasing every shiny thing and every dollar that looked like a possibility. But in my very worthy goal to protect my team from being pulled to and fro by contrary paths and indecision, I become implacable. Thankfully, I had the good fortune to survive those growing pains without losing momentum, and I’m grateful that the experience helped me become much more willing to hear the cautionary words of others and to entertain opposing views. I’ve learned that while it’s right to protect the goals and vision of a company, a founder must also be open to advice and correction from others and synthesize that feedback into a more refined path forward.
Entrepreneurs can also become uncoachable simply because we are so afraid of taking the step we’re being prodded to take. We can easily confuse fear with intuition and believe that our inaction is actually being wise. Intuition tells us the truth when we are missing warning signs that something is not right, but fear is a liar and operates from our weaker selves. As entrepreneurs, fear is often the thing we experience right before a breakthrough. When we start rejecting advice that is pushing us past our comfort zone, we become paralyzed by inaction and ruin our chances for success.
But when being uncoachable is driven by hubris, that is really the most destructive reason of all. Hubris is defined as excessive pride or self confidence. Hubris turns almost any trait’s value into a detriment. It changes confidence into cockiness, single-mindedness into disdain. When that happens, the very traits that initially resulted in early progress become the very traits that lead to failure. It is the difference between someone forging ahead into the unknown and choosing the road less traveled and the individual who drives over a cliff, despite the multitude of warnings and cautions along the way.
While an entrepreneur absolutely must possess thick skin and the ability to filter through doubts, fears and bad advice, there better be an understanding that in the midst of the cacophony of feedback, there may be invaluable insights and guidance that could make the difference between failure and success. When we are coachable and receptive, we increase our chances of success.
Perhaps a good test is this: if you think everyone around you is an idiot, and everyone who shares advice with you is a fool who just doesn’t get it – especially if your own vision isn’t leading to your expected outcomes – then maybe it’s time to serve yourself a slice of humble pie and realize that they may not be as much of an idiot as you thought. You may well be in that same category yourself for summarily rejecting all feedback as beneath you. You have to want success more than you want to be right, and when that is your goal, you’ll find the humility and grace to accept difficult advice and hard truths that can help you succeed. I know from experience that hearing difficult advice that goes against what we want to be believe is painful and difficult, but I’ve also seen the results of it and know that without finding a way to be coachable, there is no way to get where we want to be.
Good to remember as a startup founder – thunder gets attention but rain delivers results.