The Myth of Sisyphus starring the hopeful entrepreneur

One of the hard parts about entrepreneurship is the lack of acknowledgement and appreciation when starting out. No one really knows what you are doing. A few people may know the hypothesis behind what you are trying to accomplish but for most unproven ideas they start their life as just that – an unproven hypothesis.

If you are a bricklayer building a house your work is very linear. The more you put in the more you get out. The goal of your work is to build a structure. The more hours you spend laying bricks the closer you get to reaching that goal. This is relatively easy to comprehend both for yourself and the people around you. You may find the work boring, but you can see you are getting closer to your goal and so can the people around you. Keep working you are almost there.

Now enter the core of entrepreneurship – prove the unproven hypothesis. This is where work gets anything but linear. The myth of Sisyphus describes meaningless work and therefore isn’t in its original meaning a good description of entrepreneurship, but with a few alterations the picture of one pushing a big rock to the top of a mountain, actually depicts entrepreneurship rather well.

First of all we need more rocks. You may have somewhat of an idea that your end goal should be a rock on top of a mountain, but exactly which rock is not all that apparent – so enter more rocks. You now run from rock to rock trying to push them uphill, spending all your energy pushing one rock only to see another roll back down the mountain, you then sprint to recover this and with herculean effort makes good progress with this one.

Now strolling around comes your good friend whom of course needs pictures for his Instagram profile. He takes a snapshot of you pushing a rock uphill. This of course somewhat shows you are working hard, but it does not show the full truth. It does not show the other rocks, all your sprints and efforts to keep them moving in the right direction. It does not show whether you are halfway, just getting started or near the end goal – and honestly you do not even know that. Your friends can show some sympathy towards your work, but they will never know the full story.

Then one day you can see a summit. You must be getting close now – all your work must have payed of. With endless nights of all out effort you get the rock you are pushing to the summit. You have looked forward to this day for so long and is ready to explode with relief – but then. The rock rolls over the summit and down on the other side. Everything goes downhill and eventually you find yourself in an even lower valley with a steeper hill to climb on the other side. What you thought was the summit was only a small step on the way. You almost had time to celebrate what you thought was your victory, only to find out – it wasn’t. You still have a long way to go – presumably – you don’t really know. You can’t see the summit, you know somewhat the direction, but whether it will take you a day, a year or you’ll never reach the top – you don’t really know. You just have to keep pushing your rocks in the direction you believe in and hope that some day it will all pay off.

This is entrepreneurship. One long education in delayed gratification. You spend all your energy on work you can’t be sure to ever return anything. You can work hard, you can work smart – but in the end you still need a good topping of luck sprinkled on top. You can do everything “right” with the best of intentions and still end up failing or do everything “wrong” with the worst of intentions and still end up succeeding – no one really knows.

This is the beauty of entrepreneurship and the reason why it is a crash course in life it self. Life is full of randomness and adversity, there is no panel of judges keeping score and giving you prices for good effort. Good, bad, lazy effort there is no score. All you can do is live in the moment move towards your goals and enjoy the journey.

 

Cleaning up your procrastination

This may come of as a very unconventional tip for breaking procrastination or even hard to believe – I found it that way when I first read it somewhere – but again and again it somehow works for me, so it might work for you.

Even though I keep my productivity in close check and am very much aware of when it starts to drift, I still from time to time find myself struggling with procrastination or trying to fight my way through thick layers of “bran fog”. Sometimes work and creativity just comes easy. Getting in the zone and banging out several hours of creative work just comes as second nature – but then at other times this “zone” just seems to have disappeared altogether.

My usual ques to get into the zone, as for instance the same hour long mix played through earplugs, just do not seem to have any effect. And even the act of sitting down and put on the music is a feat in of itself. As though the body or the head somehow resists putting up the work. This is where this little tip more often than not have helped me tremendously.

Whenever I find myself in this deep hole, walls covered with brain-fog and with a heavy lid of procrastination on top, I clean my shit up.

Quite literally – whenever I end in this situation I will clean up my room/apartment. Whether it being putting everything back to its intended place, cleaning off dust or vacuuming – it just has to look mint again. The reason why this works for me might be that I make these small unconscious notes of where things are not in order or where in the apartment it needs cleaning. They are of themselves not that big of a deal, but they seems to pile up inside my head and at some point they tip over.

You need to clean up at some point anyway and if you are procrastinating you are not getting anything done anyways – so you might as well try cleaning your home.

As U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McCraven says in his commencement speech:

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed”

And then goes on to say:

“Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

The full commencement speech is here if it caught your interest:

Give it a shot – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Accelerate global learning with XPRIZE

Heard about this project a few weeks ago. The XPRIZE organization is a non-profit organization that creates public competitions to tackle big world problems. They are usually backed by very big checks to the winners of each competition.

This specific competition is their global learning competition. In short and completely stolen of their site:

The Global Learning XPRIZE is a competition to build Open Source software to teach a child to read, write, and perform arithmetic, by themselves, without a teacher. Teams will compete to win a $15 million reward to build this revolutionary technology.

I totally love these initiatives – they really fire the entrepreneurial spirit inside of me. Taken on big world problems and really making a difference. Whether you are a entrepreneur and wants to join the competition, wants to back one of the competitions or simply share the message, you should go visit their site.

http://www.xprize.org/

Identity diversification

When you have figured out what your goal is, you should spend all your energy on reaching that goal, right? Yes and No. You should always strive to move towards it, but activities that may not seem to move you closer in the short run, may keep you from stumbling and rolling backwards in the long run. Let me explain.

If your goal is to travel around the world, you of course need some money, but what you do not need is to buy a house or get a full time job, apart from the latter being a means to get your money. You probably do not need to look for a steady relationship, unless you plan on bringing him/her along or loves to dilute all your experiences with a constant longing for your significant other and counting down the days until you are reunited.

If your goal on the other hand is to start a company or try to reach a certain position within your current one, then traveling the world for half a year may certainly not bring you any closer to that goal. A significant other may keep you sane at times, but may also limit your drive or ”hunting instinct.”

But let’s stay with the last example where you strive to build a company – that is what I can most easily relate to at the moment.

You could argue that in order to be successful you need to spend all your waking hours working on your idea. This is the goal you want to achieve – so more time and energy invested must equal more achieved – well not always. If you are building a pyramid and laying bricks, then yes – the more bricks you lay each day, the closer you will get to completion. But most endeavors are not that straight forward. Must are somewhat one step forward – then two back, two steps in the other direction – then one back etc. etc. This is where identity diversification comes into play.

If you derive all your happiness and feeling of achievement from one source, you could potentially dig yourself into a very deep hole, at times where your company are struggling. If you have given up all your leisure activities in order to spend 16 hours a day on your start-up, then you are signing up for some very dark days when things go bad – coupled with having getting rid of all your non-startup friends, then you can really sit in a depressing circle with similar friends all discussing how bad and hard you feel.

What you should do on the other hand is not only be Mr. Startup, but also be Mr. Fitness, Ms. Dancer, or whatever you may have of interests. These may seem like distractions when everything go according to plan, but once things start to get hard and against the plan they can keep you somewhat sane.

Let’s say you have had a very bad day because all the sales you tried this day failed, you feel somewhat down but still go out the door to join the weekly swim-session and your mates there. You are not that much in the mood for talking, because of this burning feeling inside of failure. Then comes the timing of your 50 meter crawl. You just propel all your anger out in each stroke and low and behold you end up beating your lifetime best, which you have tried to do all year. Now this is a good day! What before looked to be a bad day ends up being a good one. Your business-ego may have taken a beating, but as your swimming is completely un-related it does not in anyway dilute the awesome feeling of reaching a personal best.

The above could have been anything from you being a good spouse, sprinter, weightlifter or whatever. Then entire point is to not derive all your sense of worth from one source.

I nearly wrote of my gymnastics, because the cost would take a few weeks of cash away in a time where we were running on empty in my start-up and had no direct source for future income. But as I thought about it, it just made me so sad to think of all the good times and people I would miss by saying no to gymnastics. I luckily came to the conclusion that a happy and sane version of myself would out-work and out-smart a slightly depressed version of me, by way more than what I would save by saying no. The people I am around during gymnastics is by no means going to help my company – but that is somehow part of the point. It makes me relax and think of other things which makes me way more productive when I return.

Your main priority, whether you are a CEO, a father or an athlete is keeping yourself sane and feeling great – once you do that, you can perform at your best.

You evolve – so do your goals

Goals – you have got to have goals – right!? Especially in this century of self-improvement. You can’t be drifting along figuring out what to do as you go along.

I do not think goals are the big solution to all your problems or that they are the universal solution to all your problems – but a few years ago I went from no real goals to set some rather clear goals and this will be about how they have sort of evolved.

Probably 4-5 years ago I started altering my way of life in a direction I had been absolutely sure I was not going in. I had told both myself and others that I was absolutely comfortable working a good paying job without to many obligations in order to earn money I could spend in my spare time. In other words work 8 hours a day 5 times a week to enable myself to do pretty much what I wanted in my spare time.

I worked as a computer programmer at a very large company, had done so for quite a few years and made enough money, to not really worry about normal living. My day job allowed me to do the things I wanted in my spare time – and I felt great about it. Or I did not love my job, I just saw it as a means to and end. I had no aspirations to end up becoming a leader or anything that would give me more responsibility. And further more I regularly said that I had absolutely no plan on doing anything that would take away my spare time, leave me with a lot of responsibility or long days at work. I held this belief until somewhere in my mid-twenties.

Trying to look back, I am not really sure what lead me in the opposite direction. It might be a quite hard break-up with a girl that led me down a trail of self-improvement or maybe its a natural part of what, if I remember correctly is named as the ”odyssey age”. Nevertheless I started a journey that led me just about a totally 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

I started thinking about goals for the future – not as goals for my training – but for what I wanted to do with my life. I got quite inspired by stoicism, read numerous self help books and finally had what I scribbled down on a piece of paper as my goals for the next 5 years. I had originally 3 goals written on that piece of paper I always carried around with me. Within a year or two is was down to 2 goals.

I removed ”Location Independent” from my goal card. It was probably somewhat spawned from reading The 4-Hour Workweek, and resonated well with me in the beginning. I always loved traveling and still do. But what came to my realization was that I may have a fun time living in Burma, but if all my best friends and family are in back in Denmark, then I will not be happy. I have a huge network of friends from almost all periods of my life and they just meant to much for me to have location independence as a definite goal. Money and freedom to travel – YES. Location independence – not really needed.

The last two goals are totally materialistic. One is an amount I have set as a goal for yearly income and the other is a ”specific object” that I really want to try and own. But come very lately these goals were somewhat moved to the side or at least pushed down.

For the last almost 3 years I have worked on a startup together with my dad. We have developed some software that can give a totally unique overview of the combined effects of any number of drugs. The last 2 years have been full time and so far we are bootstrapped and working hard.

As you can probably imagine this is like the total opposite of what I wanted earlier in life. It is just about exactly what I said I would never want – and now I love it. The prospects are rather promising and would totally enable the fulfillment of the two goals I had left on my goal card. So no need to change them.

But then recently I had to or at least chose to do an consulting assignment to secure a little more capital for our company. No apparent diverging away from my goal on that part – but what surprised me a little, was the hourly wage they were willing to pay for my time. If I totally focused on my two goals – I could obtain them by working as a consultant – and probably with more certainty than working on my startup.

This could be a sign that I needed to reconsider my involvement in the startup – because is it really the best way to reach my goals – OR – are have my goals really evolved so much that they need to be changed once again.

Luckily for me, it is quite easy to answer. I am so certain that I want to spend all my energy and money on trying to succeed with my startup. It needs to be on the top of my goal-card. The other two goals still apply, but they are of less importance than successfully building a company from the ground up – and a company that will have a huge impact on a lot of peoples lives once successful. I therefore had a quite obvious reason to change my goals.

But everyone changes, and the goals you had yesterday may not be the most important goals for you today. Changing your goals is not giving up – you need to be very true to yourself about what your top priorities are and then move towards them. As Neil Gaiman said in his amazing commencement speech(which if you have not seen – you should!) Keep moving towards your mountain – measure your decisions up against whether they move you closer to that mountain.

On the shortness of life – Seneca

I can’t really remember whether this actually was the first philosophical text I read out of own will. It’s at the very least among the first and the one that lead me down the path of stoicism. You may already know this essay by Seneca. But if you don’t, you should seriously consider spending the 30-45min reading it in its entirety.

Just to give you a little taste of what Seneca says in this essay, I will give you a few quotes that really struck me when I read it.

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

And along the same lines:

Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count.

My suggestion would be that if you do not want to read the entire essay, then read part 1 and part 3. That’s where the above quotes are from and that’s in my opinion the most easily digested and actionable of the entire essay. I read it here for the second time in the morning and it was a sure kick in the butt for me to get shit done.

You can find the entire essay here: On the shortness of life but as the formatting is really horrible, I would suggest that you save it to Instapaper or some other readability app.

If you enjoy what you read, I would strongly suggest to purchase Letters from a Stoic. That was exactly what I did after the first time I encountered “On the shortness of life”. The essay really resonated with me and I had to read some more from this Seneca – and I wasn’t disappointed!

I actually think I am in the midst of reading Letters from a stoic for the third time. I remember having it with me on my month of solo travel in Myanmar, where I really loved it and especially its style with short easy to read chapters. But I may very well have read it once before that.

All is to say; I can honestly can’t recommend that book enough. If you like what you read in “On the shortness of life” you’ll love the book.

Books on psychology, our irrational mind, thinking and decisions

DSC_0008There are several books on the topic of decision-making, a lot more than I will ever read, but here are a couple of recommendations if the topic is of interest to you.

If you aren’t interested – maybe you should be. “Surprisingly” we are not as rational as we might think. Our feelings, perceptions and mood along with other factors plays a far greater role than we would like them to. In a “perfect” world we would not have two opposing stands on the same topic just because of different wording. Or be “tricked” into making a different choice just because of a simple marketing trick.

Check this example from Predictably Irrational.

The Economist runs a campaign with the following options:

  1. Internet-only subscription $59
  2. Print-only subscription $125
  3. Print-and-Internet subscription $125

Dan Ariely(the author) runs an experiment on 100 students at MIT and this is what they opted for:

  1. Internet-only subscription $59 – 16 students
  2. Print-only subscription $125 – 0 students
  3. Print-and-Internet subscription $125 – 84 students

You would most likely also have chosen the 3. option and with good reason. That seems the best deal. But were you somehow influenced by the mere presence of the Print-only option, which of course no one with a sane mind would choose? If that option did not influence the selection, the removal of it would of course yield somewhat the same spread of selections. He then ran the same experiment, but without the Print-only option and this is how people opted:

  1. Internet-only $59 – 68 students
  2. Print-and-Internet $125 – 32 students

If people chose rationally this would of course not be the case, but as the example clearly shows a presence of an option that no one would consider, totally alters the decisions and trust me marketers knows this!

But why do we do this? The “decoy” acts as something to compare option 3 with. We are not sure whether we want internet or print, but with the Print-only option we have a comparison that makes Print-and-Internet a good deal.

This can be deployed by real estate agents trying to sell you a house showing you 3 houses; first one a bit out of town, second one in the city and third another one in the city but who needs some repair done and is in poorer condition than the other house – this would as our example shows, make you more likely to opt in for the good condition city-house. And the applications are numerous; vacations, cars, computers etc.

So if you want to be a bit more aware of how your decisions are shaped and make more rational decisions, you should definitely give one of these books a read. But which one?

How We Decideis by far the one of them who made the least impression on me. Not that it is a bad book, there are some good examples in it, but not just as many “aha” moments or “I could have done that” as in the others. It just did not engage me quite as much as the others. I read it first and found it interesting but with the other options available I would go for one of those.

Predictably Irrational(PI) is by far the most entertaining and engaging. It is so easy to relate to most examples and it is very well written. It is a hard-to-put-down type of book. It is not as thorough as Thinking fast and slow. But if you are not really sure how entertaining it is to read about psychology and your own mind, I would highly recommend to start with Predictably Irrational.

Thinking, Fast and Slowis, as mentioned above, the most thorough. It is not as easy readable as PI in the way that it makes you think so much harder and sometimes presents rather complex theories and ideas. It digs a lot deeper than PI, and has way more material. PI even quotes some of Daniel Kahneman’s discoveries. My recommendation would be to start with PI and if you are hungry for the hardcore stuff go buy Thinking fast and slow. You could read it as your first psychology book on decisions, but then you should be very very curious otherwise it might seem a little to theoretical. PI is an engaging read for almost everyone – Thinking fast and slow is an engaging read if you find the topic engaging I would say.

I am always open to new book recommendations, so please let me know if you have any or if you have comments about the books mentioned.

Happy reading!