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I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 1975 when I was about 10 years old. I’ve read it several times over the last 35 years, but probably hadn’t read it in over a decade. My first business partner, Dave Jilk (now the Standing Cloud founder / CEO), gave it to me as a birthday gift last week.
I just read it again and it was as powerful, inspiring, and enlightening as I remembered it. I’m often asked what books I’d recommend to an entrepreneur (especially an aspiring entrepreneur). There are two: Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Whenever we are in the upswing of an entrepreneurial cycle, like we are right now, I start seeing all kinds of weird stuff appear. Random people, who get notoriety for themselves, blow up. The media is aggressively negative presumably in the quest for getting readership. Entitlement behavior runs rampant. The quick buck artists appear. Money becomes a central topic of many conversations. Established companies and government suddenly wake up to the power of innovation and try to co-opt the energy. The word bubble becomes so popular that a bubble builds around using the word bubble.
The great entrepreneurs just keep building their companies. They focus relentlessly on their products, their customers, and their people. They create things that delight, take chances, make mistakes, and iterate as they, and their organizations, get better. They just keep at it and the very best ones shut out and ignore all the noise. And they learn, and learn, and learn.
Just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Young Jonathan realizes he is different and then outcast, but he discovers himself. He then discovers others like him, including his great mentors. He learns, experiments, tries new things, makes mistakes, and learns. And learns. And then he becomes the mentor and teaches other young seagulls to discover themselves. Throughout, he does what he loves the most – he flies, and practices, and learns.
If you are an entrepreneur, take one hour out of your day this week and read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And then spend another hour, alone, thinking about it. I assure you that it’ll be worth the time.
A few weeks ago a guest post titled Minimum Viable Personality appeared on Fred Wilson’s blog. The author was a Giant Robot Dinosaur who has been dishing out wisdom in all caps in the comments on Fred’s blog for a long time. I’m a huge fan of FAKEGRIMLOCK, occasionally commenting on his comments, but often laughing out loud or smiling with recognition of their brilliance when I saw them. And, I grinned with relief when I finally made his #NOEATFRIDAY list.
Recently, while pondering how Yoda would deal with Optimus Prime, I got a tweet from FAKEGRIMLOCK asking if I wanted a guest post from him. Without hesitation I said yes. Following in all its awesomeness (with illustrations), is another missive from my favorite Dinobot.
BE ON FIRE
WORLD FULL OF IDEA. ALL NEED IS BRAIN. MOST HUMANS HAVE BRAIN.
IDEA BY SELF IS COLD. JUST SIT THERE. DO NOTHING.
IF WANT DO SOMETHING, NEED FIRE.
NEED BE ON FIRE.
WHY BURNING MATTER
MAKE STARTUP HARD. IT HARD BECAUSE YOU WRONG. YOU FAIL.
FAIL COLD? GO HOME. QUIT.
YOU NOT QUIT. YOU BURN. FAIL IS FUEL. MORE FAIL, MORE BURN. BURN FAIL UNTIL ONLY WIN LEFT.
THAT WHY BURNING MATTER. NOTHING STOP PERSON ON FIRE. NOT SLEEP. NOT SICK. NOT BROKE. NOT BULLET. NOT END OF EARTH.
FIRE MAKE SMOKE
ANGER IS SMOKE. FIRE DESTROY. DESTROY MAKE NEW THINGS GROW. COLD PEOPLE HATE FIRE. NO ONE WANT TO BE FERTILIZER. FIRE NOT CARE.
LOYALTY IS SMOKE. PEOPLE FOLLOW FIRE, GET HOT. NOTHING STOP PERSON ON FIRE. PERSON ON FIRE WRAPPED IN HOT CROWD? THAT FIRE CHANGE WORLD.
WIN IS SMOKE. PERSON ON FIRE NOT CARE ABOUT WIN. NOT CARE ABOUT MONEY, FAME. WIN HAPPEN WHEN BUSY DO THINGS THAT MATTER. THINGS ON FIRE.
WHERE IS FIRE? LOOK FOR ANGER. MIDDLE OF ANGER IS CHANGE. MIDDLE OF CHANGE IS HOT CROWD. MIDDLE OF HOT CROWD IS WIN. MIDDLE OF WIN IS FIRE.
HOW MAKE FIRE?
WORLD IS BROKEN. FIX IT.
RIGHT IDEA HARD. RIGHT IDEA HURT. RIGHT IDEA IS HOLE IN WORLD.
RIGHT IDEA MAKE BURN INSIDE TO FIX. CAN TAKE DAY OFF FROM IDEA? IT WRONG ONE.
FIND IDEA THAT BURN, GRAB WITH BOTH HANDS, NEVER LET GO.
THAT HOW MAKE FIRE.
YOU MUST BURN
EVERYONE THINK WAY TO STARTUP IS TALENT + IDEA + MONEY.
STARTUP NOT ABOUT MAKE THING, SELL THING. STARTUP ABOUT CHANGE WORLD.
WORLD IS COLD. YOU MUST LIGHT WORLD ON FIRE.
YOU. MUST. BURN.
In order to stay on the #NOEATFRIDAY list, I promised FAKEGRIMLOCK that this would be licensed under Creative Commons. Anyone can do anything they want with this, including FAKEGRIMLOCK (as long as no infinite loops are created.)
Last night I had the pleasure of talking at a dinner at Emily White’s house. Emily is on the board of the National Center of Women & Information Technology with me, is ex-Google, currently at Facebook, and with her husband Brian are amazing hosts. We had a fascinating group of NCWIT board members as well as a bunch of local entrepreneurs and members of the bay area entrepreneurial ecosystem who had a connection either to Emily or to me. The environment, food, and evening was delightful, and I led a discussion about a wide variety of topics after doing a 30 minute space jam in answer to Emily’s lead off question of “So Brad, what’s on your mind?”
We covered a lot of stuff around entrepreneurship, creators, the magic of doing things, the importance of asking “why”, and my belief that we are in the midst of a massive societal behavior shift. One of the questions that a long time friend asked was something like “My daughter is in high school and worries about the path she needs to be on to make sure when she gets out of college that she gets a good job. If you were me, what would you tell her?”
I don’t have kids so I don’t really feel qualified to answer this from a parents perspective, but I answered it with a story of three key things my dad said to me between the ages of 10 and 17 that had a profound impact on what I’ve done and how I live my life.
Age 10: You can do anything you want: My dad is a doctor. He came home for dinner every night but would often go back to the hospital in the evening (and on weekend) to do rounds and visit patients. Until I was 10 I’d often go with him. I loved hanging out with him, would bring a book, and plop down at the nurses station and read while I waited for him to go about his business. At 10, I decided I had no interest in being a doctor. I didn’t like the way hospitals smelled, I didn’t like the noise and the chaos, and I lost interest in all the doctors I was meeting. I remember telling my dad that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I blurted it out – think of a very nervous 10 year old just spitting out “Dad – I don’t want to be a doctor.” I remember my dad looking me in the eye and saying very clearly, “Brad – that’s ok – you can do anything you want to do.”
Age 13: We didn’t want to discourage you so we were supportive: When I was 10 – 13 I was a serious tennis play. I played all the time and was on the Texas junior tennis circuit. I was pretty good – consistently getting to the quarterfinals in singles and occasionally the semifinals. When I turned 13 I bought a computer for my bar mitzvah. I also hit puberty and discovered girls. I lost interest in tennis. Recently I was talking to dad about this and wondered what he thought at the time. He said that he and my mom were supportive of my tennis, but were relieved when I decided to quit playing. They were sick of schlepping me around Highway 80 and other places in Texas to spend the whole weekend watching me play, scream and yell, throw my racket, and then mope when I eventually lost. He said “I didn’t want to discourage you, so we were supportive, but we were relieved when you went down a different path.”
Age 17: Give it a year: My first two months at MIT were awful. I was homesick – all my friends, including my girlfriend, had gone to UT Austin. I got a 20 on my first physics test and went in my room for an hour and cried. I was completely overwhelmed by Cambridge and Boston – the people, the dirt, and the hustle of the city. The fraternity I lived in was filthy. The early winter chill startled me. And I thought Dallas, where I grew up, was the greatest place on early. My parents came and visited me in mid-October for a weekend. We were walking around on a crisp fall day in Concord, MA when I told them I hated MIT and wanted to drop out and go to UT with all of my friends. We talked to for a while – with my parents mostly listening – and then my dad said “You’ve only been here two months. Give it a year. If you still hate it after a year, switch to UT. But give it enough time to really understand it.” I ended up staying at MIT, getting two degrees, dropping out of a PhD program (I finally got to achieve my desire to drop out), and – while many of my days at MIT were brutal, I ended up loving the experience and treasure the impact it has had on my life.
I’m really lucky to have parents who have been awesome and incredibly supportive of me. When I reflect on the things that shaped the path I’ve taken, it was often short little one liners like these at a critical moment. My dad was just magical with his timing and his message. I can only hope I can be as good as he is.
My friend Dov Seidman, the CEO of LRN, has a new edition of his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything out. In this copy, the forward is by President Bill Clinton, who has firmly embraced Dov’s philosophy of HOW.
We’ve been investors in Dov’s company LRN for the past decade and over the last five years I’ve gotten to know Dov and his wife Maria pretty well. They are a dynamic entrepreneurial couple, as Maria is founder / CEO of a new company called Yapp. In addition to being hard at work creating their companies and raising a family, they both live incredibly principled lives. How they do this is embodied in Dov’s philosophy about HOW.
Ever since I’ve know Dov, he’s talked about the importance of HOW. Not what, not why, not how much – just simply HOW. We’ve had our share of long conversations about a variety of topics, but they all come back to the HOW of things.
Dov believes that HOW is everything. It’s not what you do that matters, but how you do it. LRN exists to help businesses understand and incorporate this concept, as the historical approach to business has been all about “how much”, and if you read, ponder, think carefully about, and internalize Dov’s writing and philosophy, you quickly realize that “how much” is irrelevant when lined up against HOW as a construct.
While this applies to business, it also applies to life. My favorite part of working with and talking to Dov is just letting our conversations go wherever they want. While we occasionally stay focused on business, we often drift into wide ranging discussions about our individual lives, HOW we address things, and HOW it all works, and HOW we think about it.
Sure, there is plenty of why and what and where and who in our conversations, and I continue to be a very strong believer in the use of the five whys (continually asking why to get to the root cause of things), but I’m also a deep believer in asking about and focusing on the HOW.
I have dinner with Dov on Monday night and am looking forward to it very much. In the mean time, I encourage you to get a copy of How, read it thoughtfully, and think hard about the HOW in everything you do.
I had several conversations with entrepreneurs this week who were struggling with a specific issue that had plagued them for a while. In each case these are strong, capable entrepreneurs who I’ve known for a long time. As with all entrepreneurs (and humans), they have strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. In each case, I felt like self-doubt had crept into their brains around the specific weakness they were struggling with.
On the way to the airport, I had call with another entrepreneur that I work with. Same tenor – something that he’s struggled with for a while was causing him to lose confidence. We talked most of the way to the airport and by the end of the conversation, it was clear that, while this is an issue that has been a struggle for a while, it’s one that this person has actually done a good job on, but just has never crushed it. The frustration – over a period of time – started to morph into self doubt.
When I realized this, I gave him some specific suggestions, using the frame of reference of “inquiry.” This is how I deal with my own self doubt. Whenever I find myself struggling with something that I think is important, I go on an inquiry to learn as much as I can about the issue, figure out what I’m struggling with, figure out a solution that works for me, and then implement it. I’ve done this numerous times in my life – sometimes the inquiries are short (24 hours); other times they last a decade or more.
When I thought about what might be generating this self doubt in otherwise successful, smart, and intellectually / emotionally strong people, I realized that the context that we are in is often a driver. Suddenly lots of companies are having what appears to be success and rapid growth. If you are an entrepreneur and you are not running one of these, even if you are experienced and successful, it’s easily to start to doubt yourself. This is especially true when you find yourself in a bumpy spot in your business.
Perspective matters a lot at these moments. I’ve had a lot of successes and failures. Whenever I fail at something, I just get up, try to learn something from it, and try again. But I don’t benchmark myself against others – I don’t care where I am on any particular list, I don’t care what other people are saying, I don’t care what is written about me (good or bad). I just try to learn from each experience and get better. And, when I realize that I’m doubting my ability to do something, I double down on the notion of figuring it out and use an inquiry to get me there.