Tenacious and Oblivious

I’ve often said that two emotions that are irrelevant for an entrepreneur are fear and anxiety. My favorite quote from Dune is “Fear is the mindkiller” and many people get confused and don’t understand the difference between panic and urgency (where panic is just a more extreme version of anxiety.)

Several weeks ago I spent an evening and a day in Colorado Springs. I participated in a number of entrepreneur-related events, but my favorite was a talk that I gave to a freshman class at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with John Street. John is a long time friend and one of the first entrepreneurs I met when I moved to Boulder (I actually met his wife Mary through YEO’s Birthing of Giants program in 1993 when I was still living in Boston.) In addition to being a good friend, John is a very successful entrepreneur who has had plenty of ups and downs and ups, but has perserved through it all and created several important companies.

The class that we spoke to was a freshman seminar about “Being Your Own Boss.” John and I quickly told our stories and then spent the majority of the time answering questions. One of them was something like “what characteristics have made you successful.”

John went first and stated the two most important things about him were that he is “tenacious” and “oblivious”. Having known John for many years, tenacity defines him. He simply does not give up. While he can appear stubborn, he’s a learning machine, open to any feedback, constantly asking questions – especially when faced with challenges, and searching for better approaches on his quest to solving any problem he encounters. I view this as a perfect example of a tenacious entrepreneur.

I was puzzled by oblivious until John explained it. He said that he’s oblivious to why something can’t be done, or why something is difficult, or why someone doesn’t want something to happen. That made perfect sense to me and is a characteristic of many of the great entrepreneurs I’ve worked with over the years.

I followed up John with my rant on fear and anxiety. I explained that these are normal human emotions that often are helpful, especially when you are in physical duress (fear = fight or flight) or struggling to understand something new or uncertain (anxiety). However, when viewed from a business perspective, my view is that “fear is the mindkiller” and “anxiety slows you down at a moment when you should increase your urgency.”

I added two new thoughts to my view of what makes a great entrepreneur – tenacity and obliviousness. Think of your favorite entrepreneurs – do these apply?

  • http://absono.us whitneymcn

    Tony Haile wrote a wonderful post recently — Four things I learned on a round-the-world yacht race (http://www.tonyhaile.com/2011/09/25/four-things-i-learned-on-a-round-the-world-yacht-race/). 

    The first lesson he discusses is “the opposite of fear is not bravery, it’s initiative”. I’d never thought of it in quite those terms before, but it’s a perfect formulation.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    I guess I think of them as persistence and a permanently positive attitude.
    I don’t really know if you can survive otherwise. 

    And unless you are a lawyer or trader (basically in a job where pessimism helps).. I daresay these 2 help in whatever you do..

  • Bryan Batten

    Hi Brad,
    This is a great post and one that I hope many of those people out there that greatly want to start something on their own and have great ideas read. I am in about month 10 of getting my start-up going and that “fear” was certainly present, but if it weren’t for the unknowns everyone would be doing it and great entrepreneurs most likely would not be as drawn to start ups.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Thanks! Keep on putting the fear in the little box hidden back in the dark recesses of your closet that it belongs in.

      • http://twitter.com/robert_hatta Robert Hatta

        Some of us don’t have any room left in that closet…

  • http://www.eliainsider.com Elia Freedman

    I like those words. In particular, I like tenacious. One of the most biting comments I ever got from an advisor is when he said I had given up. It stuck in my craw. I don’t give up. There is always a way through the wall.

    One other word I use a lot to describe good product people is ignorant. I am proud to be so and attempt, every day, to be a little less so. By understanding that I am ignorant and able to admit it, it leaves me open to ask “dumb” questions: why is something not possible? Why does a customer do something one way or the other? Etc. And I think asking dumb questions and questioning things that others accept as fact leads to amazing products and awesome customer experiences.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Ignorant and oblivious seem similar in this context. Ive always felt ignorant was pejorative but you do a nice job of making it work here.

      • http://www.eliainsider.com Elia Freedman

        They are similar but here is why I prefer ignorant. I would never want to be called oblivious. Oblivious is “unmindful, unconscious, unaware.” What horrible traits for running a start-up. Oblivious is the underlying story behind countless blond jokes. And being a joke is something no start-up strives to be. I guess you can strive to be less oblivious but that isn’t obvious to me.

        Ignorant is “lacking knowledge.” The word is horribly abused. We are all ignorant and striving to be more knowledgeable is something we all can attain to be.

  • http://twitter.com/robert_hatta Robert Hatta

    Tenacity is such a fine line and you’ve described it perfectly.  All too often, what people describe as tenacity is really an unwillingness to consider alternative perspectives and outside input.  Likewise, what you’ve described as obliviousness also gets mixed in with irrational optimism.   Within both essential qualities (which sound like extreme traits) are delicately balanced sub-elements. 

    I hate the name of that class, BTW.  Entrepreneurship rarely equates to “being your own boss”.  Entrepreneurs are always reporting to someone, whether it’s investors, board members, your customers, your partners, your family, your employees. 

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I don’t think the class was about entrepreneurship. It was a freshman seminar that covered a lot of ground around “taking charge of your own life”. We were just one of the classes – presumably with a focus on entrepreneurship.

  • http://petegrif.tumblr.com/ Pete Griffiths

    IMHO ‘oblivious’ is especially important for those people working on launching a new product category. And one of the most intriguing things is how different societies respond very differently to entrepreneurs notwithstanding their tenacity and ability to ignore naysayers – the US and the UK are, for example, very different in this regard.

  • JamesHRH

    What a great post!

    I think the key is for every entrepreneur to know what it is that puts fear and anxiety in the basement and puts them in the killer mode.

  • http://www.misterluna.me Kenneth Luna

    Hey Brad – thanks for the great post.  As a young adult eager to get his start-up off the ground, it feels good to see that being tenacious and oblivious at the same time doesn’t equal crazy.  :)   

    I have a question though; where do you think ‘solitude’ comes into play?  I feel as though all great entrepreneurs have felt misunderstood and alone at some point throughout their experiences.  Accepting that feeling I think is very important.   

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Insightful. Yes – solitude is an interesting and important characteristic of many (not all) of the great entrepreneurs I know.

  • http://twitter.com/brianylim Brian Lim

    I humbly submit “robustness” 

    robust (Wiktionary): Resistant or impervious to failure regardless of user input or unexpected conditions. 

    Obliviousness could be powerful if you’re the nerd working on solving the difficult problem, but a real problem if you’re the crazy visionary boss without a good foothold on reality. 

    Prof. Joe Lassiter once told me that perseverance is an overrated quality of an entrepreneur. I’ve thought about this for weeks because it didn’t seem right, but I found peace with this statement with a conditional “when the entrepreneur has lost the faith”. I’ve seen a number of peers who appear to have lost the passion for their company’s value proposition, but perseveres because they are oblivious… this might have described me at a prior company. 

  • http://twitter.com/brianylim Brian Lim

    I humbly submit “robustness” 

    robust (Wiktionary): Resistant or impervious to failure regardless of user input or unexpected conditions. 

    Obliviousness could be powerful if you’re the nerd working on solving the difficult problem, but a real problem if you’re the crazy visionary boss without a good foothold on reality. 

    Prof. Joe Lassiter once told me that perseverance is an overrated quality of an entrepreneur. I’ve thought about this for weeks because it didn’t seem right, but I found peace with this statement with a conditional “when the entrepreneur has lost the faith”. I’ve seen a number of peers who appear to have lost the passion for their company’s value proposition, but perseveres because they are oblivious… 

  • http://over40innovator.blogspot.com Roger Toennis

    My favorite Ghandi quote is appropriate to this as it covers tenacity and resilience (i.e., the state of being oblivious to the status quo as preferred).

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”            – Ghandi

  • http://www.tresendas.com/ Allen Price

    As an older entrepreneur, I face down fear every day. If I fall on my face I can’t crawl back home to the room I grew up in and let mom and dad feed me while I lick my wounds. I have my own family, my own house and and the “will I be able to afford retirement” questions loom closer by the day. Fear is not only the mindkiller, it can bring complete paralysis if you let it. The only solution I’ve found is to keep moving forward one step at a time. I’ll freely admit I wasn’t schooled in tenacity as a youth but I’ve learned over the years that having a passion, a real passion, is the fuel of tenacity and tenacity is the killer of fear.

    BTW, a great article in the NYT Sunday magazine from 9/18 called “The Character Test” talks about this stuff. They ID’d 24 characteristics of success. Too unwieldy, they highlighted the top 7. Of those, the single characteristic most likely to predict success is “grit” about which they say: “people who accomplish great things often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.”

    I’m digging Elia’s comments about “ignorant” vs “oblivious”. I, too, used to think of ignorance as a pejorative but he’s right: “knowing what I don’t know” is the key to improvement. Obliviousness is more akin to “not knowing what I don’t know” and that can be deadly.

  • Bill

    This discussion brings back memories of studying Wittgenstein and his work on the philosophy of language… which is usually best done over a few beers. I recently read The Monk and the Riddle by Randy Komisar, and thought he provided useful input on what he looks for in entrepreneurs. 

    In particular, his distinction between passion and drive seems relevant in the context of the term tenacity. It may seem like minutia, but Komisar notes that drive means hard work, persistence, and tenacity (as mot people use the term), but that passion means you are not only committed to achieving success; you also care deeply about the problem you are solving. It’s like saying you have drive PLUS a personal interest in the outcome that goes beyond dollars and cents.

    So I guess I’d like to steal from Komisar and suggest that you replace “tenacity” with “passion”, because without a personal connection to the business/idea, pursuing it indefinitely just to achieve financial success almost seems depressing in the greater context of life.

    Great post — thanks for sharing!

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  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    I met John Street back when MXLogic was just getting going.  While our meeting was brief, I was impressed w/ couple of his questions. Small world etc.

    That aside, fear – in this context RE: starting or running a company – is a mother fucker.  In the ‘physical’, I have almost zero fear (ask me abt my motorcycle jumps, drag racing, cellphone tower climbing etc), but this other kinda fear can be paralyzing.  

    Face it, deal w/ it and move on.  What worked for me was ack’ing it to folks I trust, asking them for ideas on how to get past it, and then doing the work to deal w/ what was behind the fear (for me, it was screwing up other people’s lives if they joined me + then my startup failed again like it had in 2000).

    Unsurprisingly, this worked.

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