Don’t Let Fear Dominate Your Thinking

I’m doing a one hour CEO roundtable on an “about weekly basis” with each of the Techstars classes. Yesterday I did a face to face with the Techstars Boulder CEOs (they are across the hall from my office) and then I did my meetings with the Techstars Chicago CEOs and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator CEOs by video conference.

This is a new experiment for me. I’m trying a different approach to mentoring the Techstars teams this year. I’m still a lead mentor for two of the Boulder teams (Kato and SnowShoe) but for all the other programs, including Boulder, I’m trying a weekly one hour CEO only session.

One of my big goals is to generate more peer interaction between the CEOs of the various companies. We do this aggressively within the Foundry Group portfolio and it’s one of the really powerful things about Techstars. But historically it’s been adhoc and random, rather than in an organized way. This is an effort to get the CEOs to really bond with every one of the other CEOs during the program.

So far the experiment is working great from my perspective. I’m stunned by the depth of the conversation and I can see the relationship dynamics being very broad as well as intellectually and emotionally intense.

Each of the three meetings yesterday were totally different, as Techstars Boulder is in week 8, Techstars Chicago is in week 4, and Kaplan EdTech is in week 2. As I was taking a shower this morning, I kept thinking about the rant I went on during the last 10 minutes of the meeting with the Techstars Chicago CEOs.

By week 4, a team is deep in things. The stress is showing. Everyone is tired and working at their max capacity. They’ve been exposed to a wide range of mentors and lots of conflicting data. Stuff is breaking all the time. Everything is uncomfortable and – in some cases – distressing.

In reaction to a particular conversation, I strung together quotes from three of my favorite books about entrepreneurship. The rant went as follows:

  • It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt in Atlas Shrugged
  • Fear is the mind-killer.” – the Bene Gesserit is Dune
  • “Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all.” – Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I used the quotes as the anchors on a longer rant, but I did it extemporaneously. I hadn’t realized how nicely these quotes fit together until this particular moment, prompted by the particular situation. In hindsight, the only quote I forgot was my favorite of all time – “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda.

And – it reminded me that three books should be on every Startup CEO’s reading list along with Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO.

  • Sounds like TechStars could use some Jerry Colonna mindfulness/meditation sessions early on in the process and then refreshers around week 8.

    • RBC

      yes, wonder how this fits with Jerry’s idea of doing CEO retreats … he mentioned it in the interview you posted last week

    • Indeed! They Techstars NY gang gets this. Time to spread the love around.

  • MoonPieMike

    > “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda.
    🙂 Screen grab from almost 2 years ago when I was proto-typing the B9Creator.

    • Awesome! That should be a built in WPC function.

  • Anna Lowry

    I keep coming back to the notion that the only fear worth having is one of being afraid. It tends to keep all the other ones at bay.

    I enjoy coming across and reading your posts. Am going to spend some more time going through them.

  • Brad – Any post quoting Dune (the greatest book of all time) gets top grade in my book. However, would it be better to say “Don’t let Emotionalism Dominate Your Thinking”? After all, fear is only one side of the coin. Hope is the other. Both emotions deal with the future and the unknown (and our dislike of the unknown as humans), and both are emotions that can lead to poor decision making and bad management.

    Especially in the context of early stage ventures, I would think controlling both fear hope are equally important. And I do mean controlling, not suppressing, since we are all human and cannot control our root emotions.

    And thus I would argue that this Dune quote is more relevant…

    “Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”

    • Another great dune quote. I’m watching Battlestar Galactica with Amy right now (I can’t believe I never watched it before) and this definitely applies.

  • Couple things to say. First, I am a Rand fan but of all her material that I’ve read (several of her books, not everything), this is the only quote that I really ever had a problem with. While I understand what she’s getting at, I just don’t agree with the basic statement. Suffering is important. Like pain its there for a reason. What’s really important is our response to suffering. Sometimes you need to react like Galt and shrug it off (no pun intended). But like pain, sometimes its a signal you need to listen and make changes in response to.

    Second comment is more of musing than anything. In all my time as an entrepreneur (10+ years now on and off) I’ve had this sort of gnawing about the titles associated with the people at the “top” of startup companies. When I think of a CEO, I think of people that are running billion dollar companies with thousands of peoples jobs depending on their vision and strategies. With respect, somebody who has idea their trying to implement with a couple or maybe half a dozen people in a startup or worse, an accelerator, is not a CEO in that sense. They may get to revenue and a bunch of employees at some point in the future, but they’re basically team leaders at this point. What I’m getting at is that it seems like pasting grandiose titles on people at this point can be counterproductive. It makes them seem like bigger fish than they really are and maybe puts more pressure on them than their should be. Somebody who is trying to make something from nothing has enough pressure on them to just get things working and get something sold without all this trumped up hooha about the list of stuff that’s in the contents of the Startup CEO book. At the place they are its product product product. The rest is just fluff and buff, including IMHO, the titles. *Ducking* 😉

    • RBC

      haha “shrug it off”. Nothing like a good pun!

    • While I agree with you as a general rule, I think Galt’s quote was instigated by the fact that his rationale and environment were so (almost caustically) pure that the only cause of suffering considered was that which was imposed by the irrationality of others. He was always at the top of his game. He was never shrugged off by people he could benefit from, simply because they always recognized his value. So, in his particular case, suffering was indeed unimportant, as were the people that caused it. Ayn Rand was incredibly idealistic. The ideals in the book are great as principles, but break down as a strict set of rules.

      In our case, interpreting any failure (and any associated suffering) as a success of learning is indeed critical to progress. This outlook could even prevent the suffering, bringing us one step closer to the ideal.

      • This is a well written reply that describes Rand’s intent very well indeed, kudos. I do think however, in the context of Brad’s post that I’m not sure its a good quote to pull out in the sense that he’s got a group of starry eyed accelerator folks trying to get a product done and demo’d. I just wonder whether telling them to ignore suffering is a good idea. While it makes for a good rah rah speech, I think the potential for harm is as high as the potential for good. Just MHO.

        • Re: “Starry eyed accelerator folks” – I don’t care whether the person is a first time entrepreneur or a 40 year grizzled veteran of 8 startups. The ideas apply to both.

    • Duck indeed! I think Joseph Weaver did a great job of answering the quote below, so I’ll focus on the title / CEO thing.

      I fundamentally disagree with you. Every startup ultimately needs “a boss”, just as every team needs “a lead.” I don’t care what the word is – we could call them “team lead”, “chief”, “king papaya”, or whatever. It turns out that CEO is the nomenclature that our society is currently using, so it applies at any level.

      I find that anyone who is attached to the title at a young company probably has a different set of issues. Saying “I’m doing CEO things” but then not being able to define what that is often is an indicator of this. Fortunately, it’s easy to refer people to the great post by @fredwilson –

      “A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”

      It doesn’t matter whether you are a 500,000 person company or a three person company.

      • I would add: removes barriers to getting things done, makes sure the non-fun detail stuff gets done.

      • Let me ask you a question based on my own experience. At a previous startup (10 years ago now), I was the CTO. I led a team of about 15 or so engineers through a design and development activity. We had no revenue at that time and a few million in the bank from VCs. In my last job, I led (technically) a team of nearly 60 engineers on the redesign of a product that generated $250mm per year and had been doing so for more than a decade before I got there. My title was Principal Engineer. Which title was more appropriate, if either?

        • It doesn’t matter.

      • Nick Ambrose

        100% Agree. What I have seen far far too often (not at the CEO level but at the team level certainly), is a leader is “appointed/grown” and very often (especially in the grown case) is given the responsibility to get things done but not the authority.

        Then people wonder why things don’t go well.

        One of the exact issues we have here right now but has been pretty consistent for my experience

  • “They’ve been exposed to a wide range of mentors and lots of conflicting data.”

    I think you and I briefly commented on that point previously. I’m sure that each mentor is worth their weight in gold, but how do you help these startups see through the fog of advice when there are diverging mentor opinions?

    • Critical thinking, good judgment, and self-trust will handle these situations. Fact-checking is important – experiences offered should be taken for neither granted nor gospel.

      Focused long-term goals are like high-beam headlights. The best actions will be ones that taken into consideration all available information, but an entrepreneur cannot expect to be a front-runner while perfectly following in someone’s footsteps.

    • That’s part of the magic of Techstars. They learn to deal with mentor whiplash and realize that they have to view all the inputs coming at them as “data” which they have to process – and make the ultimate decision.

  • I like the third quote “Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all.” It is a real blockage for many people!

  • This is huge. I think gumption and persistence are two sides of the same coin. For every fear overcome, the outcome could potentially be negative. The corollary should therefore be, “Don’t let failure dominate your drive.”

    • I love the concept of the gumption trap. And fear actually just makes the gumption trap even stickier. So when fear is the motivation, the gumption trap is harder to escape.

  • classic Atlas Shrugged quote. a fav of mine as well

    i see fear creep into people’s thinking all too much… it’s a natural human emotion, but beyond the initial hit to the gut – the instinct of fight or flight – it’s worthless

  • Agree that fear as the dominant mental state is poisonous. The least efficient stages of my company were stasis from just being overwhelmed by how much there was to do, grappling with too many important decisions and second guessing each, and similar. Yet, it’s interesting how many successful people cite fear of failing as one of the biggest drivers. And I also think there is a sense of urgency (urgency to be relevant, urgency to improve and evolve, urgency to have the best available information) that can be born of that type of fear that is healthy and productive. There is a class of entrepreneur that is a litte TOO relaxed, where regardless of how smart they are, they just don’t have that urgency. Seems like if you really have a great opportunity, fear of not capitalizing on it is rational and necessary.

  • Thank you so much for the Zen quote. When I first read the book it screamed at me as it’s the trap I would find myself in far too often, and as I’m currently leaving one position and in the quest for one that is more meaningful and life-fulfililng, it’s a challenge far too often lately to just say “Screw it” and stick with the old status quo instead of looking to the future. Thanks again for the kick in the ass and reminding me about the gumption trap. It’s too easy to forget it’s there at times.

  • Chris Heivly

    Leave it to you to poke at a theme I can’t stop thinking about in our program here in Durham.
    I am not sure we can stop fear from entering our thinking. It is natural for founders to think about everything almost compulsively. It is the leap from fear thinking to letting fear dominate your decisions which is when things go bad. Fear of failure is the big one. Making decisions to keep your company alive is letting fear dominate your decisions. This impacts product, fundraising, hiring or not hiring. What we attempt to do is provide enough fear processing tips & tricks to minimize fear-based decisions. Call it Fear 2.0. 😉

  • Леша Кинов

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