I had an unfamiliar physical pain recently. It was sharp, sudden, and unexpected: I ended up talking to my doctor about it. I have been trying to understand why it was more frightening, even though it was less painful than many other problems I have experienced.
I think with unfamiliar pain you are not sure what’s going to happen next, and it’s this anticipation that can weigh on you. I’ve written about startups requiring a parallel self-improvement project by the founders. It’s been my experience that most teams change, or actually follow through on significant changes, in response to pain and the clear prospect of more pain.
I think it’s often the unfamiliar pain of failure that spurs entrepreneurs to real change.
But I have also seen it paralyze individuals who have been very successful in other settings, for example: as a college or graduate student, as an individual contributor in a corporation, or as a first level manager in a corporation. When they embark upon an entrepreneurial venture, it may take a while to understand that running their own business, and the required business to business selling, is very different from lobbying for support or budget for an internal project.
This sense of lost competency is not only painful but unfamiliar and frightening. It’s as if you’ve stepped into an elevator, punched your floor and instead of going up felt a short drop of two or three feet: you are not sure if you are going to be able to get out of the elevator easily, much less get to your upper floor.
As an entrepreneur you may find yourself failing in ways that you haven’t anticipated. You may have been an A student. Perhaps you were a well respected technical contributor or manager in a corporation. Eric Hoffer had a perspective on this that I find very useful to remember:
Our achievements speak for themselves. What we have to keep track of are our failures, discouragements, and doubts. We tend to forget the past difficulties, the many false starts, and the painful groping. We see our past achievements as the end result of a clean forward thrust, and our present difficulties as signs of decline and decay.
And I think it’s this fear of decline and decay from unfamiliar pain that you have to confront very directly. This may be complicated by events in the economy and setbacks that neighbors, friends, and extended family may be experiencing. You may be contemplating a new initiative that you are not comfortable with: signed up to speak in public, staff a booth at a trade show, write a white paper, go into a roomful of strangers and network, put your name and bio up on a website and publicly commit to a new startup, go on a sales call, complete your first sales negotiation…
I don’t know how to tell you how to lose the fear of unfamiliar pain, I am not even sure you can.
I do have some suggestions for how to anticipate and minimize it.
- Set some deadlines in advance: if this doesn’t improve or happen by this date I am going to make a change (e.g. trying the same old thing is not working).
- If you hit the deadlines without improvement make a change.
- If that change doesn’t work, make another and continue forward.
- Talk to other people who are facing the same challenges and compare notes.
- Get professional assistance.
- Read, but read with an intent to take action.
If you don’t have a kitchen cabinet or board of advisers that you are accountable to, I would encourage you to create some mechanism for independent outside advice from folks with relevant experience. I have several other independent consultants that I compare notes with, we also take turns
kicking each other in the ass encouraging each other to make hard decisions and do the things we know we need to do that are getting neglected. We having a meeting with all of our partners together for the first time in early December. I hope to use this as both a joint planning and joint accountability mechanism.
3. Control secondary pain. This is, I think, related to Sean’s “unfamiliar” pain. I’ve found that there are often two pains or discomforts associated with any given unpleasant situation. First, there’s the pain itself. I stub my toe, and my toe is sore. Pain, plain and simple. But then there’s the pain I experience because of the existence of the first pain. “Oh no, I’ve stubbed my toe. Maybe it’s broken. Maybe it’ll get gangrenous. Maybe it’ll get infected and I’ll die. My wife and kids will be destitute. Ahhhhh!!” The key difference between the two pain types is that while you may not be able to control the first pain, you can very often control the second. Moral outrage is a good example. A large client pays slowly. They know you can’t afford, and don’t want to enforce the clear contract payment terms. So they cheat by paying late. They said they’d do one thing, and then they blatantly break their word. The first pain – the hit on your cash flow is real. And, within typical operating constraints, there’s not much you can do about it. But the second one – the anger at the very fact they are cheating – is almost all in your head. With practice, it can be controlled.
I have also come across a good quote from Marcus Aurelius on unfamiliar pain that has some good advice on managing pain: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
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