Friday, January 24, 2014

Don't Stay Hungry

Entrepreneurs are frequently admonished to "stay hungry."  These words are almost like scripture, having been cited by Steve Jobs himself in his legendary 2005 Stanford commencement speech.

Intuitively, these words seem to be true across a host of domains.  Starving artists of all types feel the curse of the sophomore slump; going from hungry unknown to wealthy celebrity has tripped up any number of young athletes, child actors, standup comedians, and rock stars.

The artists who seem to avoid this curse appear to do so by following the "stay hungry" philosophy.  Even when successful and wealthy beyond all imagining, they continue to find ways to feel dissatisfied and unhappy.

Basketball great Michael Jordan demonstrated this in his Basketball Hall of Fame speech, when he took the occasion of receiving his sport's highest honor to get back at all the people who "doubted" him:

I think it's a bunch of hogwash.

The implicit assumption behind "stay hungry" is that you need to fuel your drive with deprivation and anger.  These can be powerful drivers, as modern American politics demonstrates.

Yet I refuse to believe that I do my best work when I'm miserable and irascible.

I'm far enough along in my career that it's hard to describe me as hungry.  I don't eat ramen every night (too many carbs!) or live in a crappy apartment in East Palo Alto with a bunch of other entrepreneurs (though that is a cool way to live).  Yet I feel like I'm accomplishing as much as I ever did in the past, and perhaps even more.

Rather than frantically pursuing "success" to relieve a self-inflicted sense of inadequacy, I try to do things that I love--specifically, helping interesting people do interesting things.

I want to do more, write more, and build more, but I do these things with a sense of enjoyment, not compulsion.

I try not to tell entrepreneurs what to do.  But I will say this: Don't stay hungry.  Don't motivate yourself with envy and avarice.  Don't start companies to escape who you are or become something you're not; start them because of who you already are.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Write or do not; there is no try

As I've written in the past, a writer is someone who writes:

While this definition seems simplistic and circular, it has the advantage of being correct.  Here is a long list of things you can do that don't make you a writer:

1. Think about what to write.
2. Read what other people write.
3. Talk about what you're going to write.
4. Take a class to learn how to write.
5. Think of a title for the novel you're going to write.
6. Think about what you'll say to Oprah when she wants you to talk about the novel you're going to write.

I think you get the picture.   No matter what else you do, you have to sit down at a keyboard and start typing.

Pretty simple, eh?

Now go back and re-read this piece, and instead of "write," substitute whatever it is you want to accomplish.

Doing more by aiming lower

Think back to your last long weekend (perhaps even the one that just concluded).  In your mind, you probably had a long list of things you wanted to get accomplished.

How many of them did you complete?

If you're like me, most long weekends and holidays end up as a "lost weekend," where you accomplish far less than you hoped.

Part of this is because humans tend to be overly optimistic; even the most organized and strong-willed would struggle to live up to their excessive ambitions.  But a significant factor in our lack of accomplishment is the anxiety we feel.

Take this past weekend.  On Friday night, you probably felt like you had oodles of time in front of you.  What a good time to rest and relax!  Of course you didn't get much done.

Then on Saturday, you still had an entire two days ahead.  A good reason to live it up.  Sure, you could get started, but there was still plenty of time to catch up.

When Sunday rolled around, the worry probably set in.  Hmmm, there's a lot on the to-do list, and now there are a whole bunch of other errands that need to be done.  Each time you thought about starting on your list, you probably felt daunted, and so you put it off.

Today (Monday), panic set in.  This morning, for example, I felt nearly overwhelmed when I contemplated the ruins of my ambitions, and to boot, I started receiving a series of text messages and emails from people with additional requests.

And so it's Monday night, the holiday weekend is gone, and the list is just as long as ever.  What went wrong?

I'd argue that I could have done more if I had aimed lower.

We seem to assume that ambition drives accomplishment.  As the old saying goes, if you aim for the moon and miss, you'll still land among the stars.

Never mind the fact that this is terrible astronomy; it can also be bad advice for procrastinators.  Sometimes, aiming lower leads to greater accomplishment.

If I had simply set a single goal (say, writing a good blog post), I probably would have tackled that goal much earlier in the weekend.  And energized by my success (and feeling like I was playing with house money), I might have tackled another goal.  And then another.

The world judges you based on your accomplishments, not your ambitions.

It's too late to follow this advice this weekend, but hey, there's always President's Day!