First, a quick aside: I wrote the majority of this during the MLK Day weekend. It seems more imperative this year than others of recent memory to remember and celebrate MLK for who he was and his mission. So before moving toward this essay, I’d like to present two things. A super uplifting tweet, when we could all use one. Also, the quote he ends this tweetstorm with:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m thinking more acutely on this because of what I saw reported to have taken place where I grew up. I’m still processing this.
Now, onto the planned programming.
A trait that sets successful entrepreneurs ahead of others is a bias toward action. I’m failing to find the piece that had this stated in research, so you’ll have to take my word for it. This trait leads people to be statistically more successful as entrepreneurs because they will get up and do something about a given situation. I imagine the same would be said for many successful people in any organization.
This bias toward action is something Fred Wilson looks for when investing in an entrepreneur:
“I believe that in startups, like venture investing, the cost of making a bad decision is not nearly as great as the benefit of making a good one. So I like action oriented leaders.”
Fred unpacks this some:
- Perfect is the enemy of good.
- It isn’t the goal to just throw things at the wall hoping something sticks, there does need to be insight and strategy behind the action.
- Hiring more and more frequently means getting the very best people, but it also means firing people more often. A strong hire vastly outweighs the costs of a bad one.
You can make a bad decision and walk it back or fix it. But inaction or an act of omission can cripple you.
Is this advice of any use outside of business?
Of course, it is, and I think it is all intertangled. I’m reminded of, or sparked by, two other pieces. One which was written in the context of business, but is much more about life. And, one written in the context of relationships, but what is business, but relationships?
I’ve never read this column in the Wall Street Journal previously, but this entry I liked. There’s a paywall, but the broad ideas are below as it relates to your relationship with your significant other:
- Assume the Best
- Never take the negative assumption. Always assume your partner’s situation and intention are in your best interests. Haven’t gotten a call back in a while? Do not assume they are dead in a ditch or ignoring you to work late, or behaving badly without you.
- Prioritize Your A-Team
- A) Family and close friends. B) Friends and professional network. C) Acquaintances. The article argues to prioritize in that order, for your health.
- Mutual Spoilage
- A husband and wife team explain this as a friendly competition between themselves. They bias toward action: if they see dishes need doing, or garbage needs taking out. They go for it. They don’t mention it (no credit-taking is allowed). The only goal is to compound kind acts within the relationship on a daily basis. Everyone in the house benefits right down to the cat and dog.
- Be Easy to Love
- This one is all empathy. Walking in the other’s shoes. Taking their perspective. Which is difficult and why so many of us suck at it. It’s best for me to quote directly: “Hubby not a naturally romantic guy? Learn to recognize the ways in which he expresses his devotion and tell him out loud how much you appreciate it.” “Everyone is on a journey that only they can fully recognize,” Ms. Sylvester says. “Don’t make the mistake of filling in their gaps with your story.”
- Fuck It Bucket
- Not everything deserves your precious attention. Sad political news? Cubbies lost? Tragedy on the news you have no power in changing? – All these go to the Fuck It Bucket. You simply move on. The 81-year-old explained his method and added that he sorts his information, addressing issues that are important—his wife’s decline from Alzheimer’s or charity work, for example. Everything else? “F— it and into the bucket.”
My thoughts as it relates to the above:
- This is broadly applicable. Something you should practice not only with your partner but relationships at work too. By acting the opposite way, and worrying without need you are creating tension where there shouldn’t be. You are what you eat, you become what you tell yourself you are. If your narrative is always the worst of what your partner, coworker, manager, etc could be up to, you may just start believing it. You are setting a default. More on defaults soon.
- We all know people who need reminding of this, specifically when someone is on a chase. Sale of a company, big dissertation, etc. Easy to get wrapped up and forget what’s truly important.
- Sounds extreme at first, right? But imagine your household if this was how everyone behaved. I’m not a parent, but wouldn’t children take and follow these kinds of queues and defaults? At least until they’re teenagers? (I can hear many laughing at me)
- Is it too much to say this alone may be the biggest success predictor for a happy marriage? Self-awareness and active practice of empathy. I’d argue they’re huge predictors of success and happiness in all of life. So what’s holding you back from trying, from getting better? You might just see a behavior change in others by extending the olive branch or setting the example.
- Live and let live. Know what’s within your power and what isn’t. Stay present. Have your behavior speak for itself. Only somewhat related, I’m reminded of Tom Cruise playing Vincent in the movie Collateral at a pivotal and stressful moment: “Okay, look, here’s the deal. Man, you were gonna drive me around tonight, never be the wiser, but El Gordo got in front of a window, did his high dive, we’re into Plan B. Still breathing? Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.”
And for the bit written about business but applies broadly to life? Paul Graham has some incredible essays, some of which get very lengthy. This tight piece is perfect and short, leaving me no room but to leave it here for you.
A palliative care nurse called Bronnie Ware made a list of the biggest regrets of the dying. Her list seems plausible. I could see myself—can see myself—making at least 4 of these 5 mistakes.
If you had to compress them into a single piece of advice, it might be: don’t be a cog. The 5 regrets paint a portrait of post-industrial man, who shrinks himself into a shape that fits his circumstances, then turns dutifully till he stops.
The alarming thing is, the mistakes that produce these regrets are all errors of omission. You forget your dreams, ignore your family, suppress your feelings, neglect your friends, and forget to be happy. Errors of omission are a particularly dangerous type of mistake, because you make them by default.
I would like to avoid making these mistakes. But how do you avoid mistakes you make by default? Ideally you transform your life so it has other defaults. But it may not be possible to do that completely. As long as these mistakes happen by default, you probably have to be reminded not to make them. So I inverted the 5 regrets, yielding a list of 5 commands
Don’t ignore your dreams; don’t work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy.
Which I then put at the top of the file I use as a todo list.
What are you omitting? What can you invert, or ask differently to achieve a better result? Are you biased towards action and can you make that behavior contagious? Will you let go of what you cannot change and only focus on what you can? Are you putting your best foot forward, even if it isn’t perfect?
Believing you’re not, will get you just that result. Thinking you’re unchangeable, will foster stillness. We do not live in a fixed world, nor are you a fixed being. Saying: “I was never a good _____.” Isn’t a workable excuse, especially if it is something you need or wish to be better at. You simply might have a tough path of practice ahead, but change is within you should you seek it. Want to be someone who defaults towards action? Start practicing. Make mistakes. Keep moving.
I’m thinking a lot about this post from Chenmark Capital as I consider what else to do with this one crazy life I have. The team at Chenmark also celebrates iteration, a bias towards action, they also read, think, and write frequently on what behaviors they have or are missing that will make them better at what they do. They left a life of New York City finance for trying something new and living in Portland, ME. They are looking at opportunities through different lenses than most. That differentiation and contrarianism, the asking of the inverse, and time spent working on thoughtful questions are all things I hold in high regard.
The photo above is from Florence, Italy in July. Behind me is an incredible and ancient cityscape at sunset. This is the inverse.
Thanks for reading
Also published on Medium.