Richard Feynman once said that “you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
I shared this post recently as a screenshot on Twitter and I had 100s of people reach out and say it was something they were struggling with and the post really resonated with them. So I decided to share it here.
I wrote this note to myself a while ago while sitting at my desk reading an article "The Maintenance Race" by Stewart Brand.
This question is one I think about a lot.
I’d love to know what you think about this question or if you have something similar to it that you ask yourself. Even better, what specific examples would you add to the list at the bottom? Message me and let me know.
I wrote this as bullets to myself so enjoy the new format...
- Startups attract founders with a ton of imposter syndrome which comes with tons of denial and the distraction to manically focus on external validation. This spite, and desire to prove to ourselves, can drive tons of success but it can also be the devil that kills the startup, or myself. This is not an abstraction. This is personal experience.
- Discovering how I lie to myself, usually as a way to numb the deep insecurities I'm facing, is the single most valuable thing I’ve learned as a startup founder.
- Being open to discovering what you're wrong about as fast as possible, assuming you're not right but you can learn faster than anyone, is THE vital skill set to drive speed at the early stage of startups. This feedback loop allows you to find direction, aka the market, then the pull of market will increase your speed. Most confuse speed with progress when mostly it’s just distracted chaos.
- This radical honesty is how you attract and retain the greatest employees in the world. The hardest part of a startup is when the canary in the coal mine is your best person leaving that caught you off guard. Great employees don't leave because it's not working, they leave because you're not aware or honest with yourself that it's not working, yet. They leave because of your denial. When all they want, and what the business needs, is for you to be aware and excited to learn what is not working. These were tough lessons to learn.
- That's the hardest part. The ability to know what you're lying to yourself about and be honest about it. That's when you actually get to focus on it, which usually is what actually makes the entire thing work.
- When I think about investing, or building my own startup, all I really care about these days are these questions “Have you figured out what you might be lying to yourself about?” “Are you aware of your denial?”
- It's also how you raise money that truly grows the business. "Raising money with waving hands and hiding core metrics" might get you a round of funding, but it's never how you become successful. It will just start you down the path of self-implosion to be exposed at a later date when the reality comes out. But it will allow you to validate yourself in the short term to friends and family, who have no idea about startups, talking about the millions you've raised in a casual and chill tone like it's no big deal. Always raise with honesty and openness about what's not working, what is, and where this can go. As I learned over the years, omission is the most manipulative type of lying and the one where gaslight yourself.
- The Black Swan, as Nassim Taleb says, is usually hidden inside the lie we weren't actually aware of because we didn't ask the questions we were scared to ask. This allows us to ignore the Black Swan..
- Someone told me, “DENIAL” is short for “Don’t even know I am lying.” I know “lie” is a strong word. If that doesn’t work, try “self-imposed blind spot.”
- If the Black Swan is the thing you couldn’t predict that changes everything and drives exponential growth, then let’s say the “blind spot” that you put in place for any number of reasons (usually related to power or keeping the self-image intact.)
- The blind spot is easy to see when you go looking - the unaskable question, it makes your heartbeat go up when you think about it, it’s the place you’ll fight hardest to defend. It’s the thing that takes us out.
- My blind spots have always been based on lies I told myself, and they’ve lost their power as I’ve become willing to <really> look in the mirror. It never completely goes away, but the more I demand truth from myself and listen to those around me, the less room denial has to run the show.
</end> specific examples below…
- Some of the most valuable conversations I’ve ever had with other founders or founders have had with me are when they help me realize this. It looks something like this:
- “I’ve been buying paid ads to help drive growth when 90% of people never come back.” - The lie is hidden in the fact that people don’t actually love or need the product. So you focus on the wrong number to make yourself feel better. Expensive lesson.
- “I can raise more if I wanted.” - It’s always harder to raise than you think and raising isn’t the solution to the reality of it not working.
- “If we just push harder we will get there” - The lie that doing the same thing will lead to different results. Rethinking is needed when re-engagement isn’t happening. Starting over based on what you’ve learned is sometimes better than trying to adjust a ship that’s stuck.
- “Our culture is struggling because of X” - The lie that you aren’t the problem and how you are leading isn’t creating the environment for others to become leaders, be productive and do great work. Many people think that X is the problem with the culture, but as a founder & CEO the answer is never X, it’s always U.
- “If we just add more we will find what works.” - The lie that adding more is progress when it’s actually confusion. It actually requires doing less things and removing more so you can actually find what works. Adding more just increases the complexity and allows you to distract yourself with more fake metrics.
- “I don’t want to scare the team with this info” - The team already knows something is up, they want you to be honest. People rally when they believe in your authenticity, not smell your bullshit. You’ll get a lot more from people sharing the hard things you are thinking through vs holding it in and trying to change the outcome before you tell them the struggle. (*this is very different for execs vs lower-level team members. Sometimes M&A, major changes, and other events like RIFs must stay in small circles and be communicated well)
- “We could be profitable” - The lie that you actually are scared to prove that. If you could you would. In rare cases of network-effect businesses, you don’t want this to be the case. Or SaaS growth multiples. But usually, if you are in growth mode you are trying to win a market and the honest answer is “we can’t be profitable if we want to win this market…” don’t lie to yourself.
- “I’m not really worried about anything…” This is the line when you know a founder doesn’t even know they are lying to themselves.
These days, I really admire when a founder comes to me and says "I'm really struggling with this and I don't know what to do."
The most successful companies and leaders come from being able to address the things most people ignore. It's where all the magic happens.
I think about this question whenever I feel stress and struggle lingering overhead... the relief is usually one truthful conversation away.
Please reach out anytime. Just hit reply to this email or DM me on Twitter. I'd love to hear from you.
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