The theme for this month’s collection of quotes for entrepreneurs is managing uncertainty with imagination, knowledge, and kindness.

Quotes for Entrepreneurs March 2020

I collect these quotes for entrepreneurs from a variety of sources and tweet them on @skmurphy about once a day where you can get them hot off the mojo wire. At the end of each month I curate them in a blog post that adds commentary and may contain a longer passage from the same source for context. Please enter your E-mail address if you would like to have new blog posts sent to you.


This month’s collection of quotes for entrepreneurs address managing uncertainty with imagination, knowledge, and kindness.

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“True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.”
Winston Churchill

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“Lists bring order to the chaotic universe. I love making lists. Whenever I need to figure out my life, I make a list. A list gets all of your ideas out of your head and clears the mental space so you’re actually able to do something about them.

When I am overwhelmed, I fall back on the old fashioned to-do list. I make a big list of everything that needs to get done, I pick the most pressing thing to do, and I do it. Then I cross it off the list and pick another thing to do. Repeat.”

Austin Kleon in “Keep Going

I used this in “Austin Kleon on Making Lists: To-Do, Ideas, and Do’s & Don’ts

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“I am living through my third ‘reset’ in Silicon Valley. Reputations are built in hard times, not the easy times. If you shake a hand, sign your name – stand strong, or your word is no good. Otherwise you are a transient that only wanted the easy take. And you should move on.”
Bill Gurley (@bgurley) Mar 16 tweet

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“Checking on a couple friends and neighbors is more productive than worrying about the fate of the world.”
John D. Cook (@JohnDCook)

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“What do people do when they’re acting like entrepreneurs?

  1. They make decisions.
  2. They invest in activities and assets that aren’t a sure thing.
  3. They persuade others to support a mission with a non-guaranteed outcome.
  4. They embrace the work of doing things that might not work.”

Seth Godin in “The four elements of entrepreneurship

Essentially an entrepreneurial mindset embraces ambiguity and uncertainty as opportunity. It looks at variance as enabling progress and improvement.

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“The problem I consistently see is companies applying a reduce variability language and playbook to the embrace variability game of thinking.”

L. David Marquet (@ldavidmarquet)

Marquet’s essay “Red Work Blue Work” offers some insights into what he means by “reduce variability / embrace variability” thinking.

  • Red work is about reducing variability: execution and avoiding errors.
  • Blue work embraces variability: decision making to achieve excellence, not just executing and avoiding errors.

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“Separate generating ideas, explaining ideas, exploring ideas, and evaluating ideas.”
Esther Derby in “Best Argument Not Equivalent to Best Ideas

Lisa Solomon has suggested you need three separate meetings:

There are really only three kinds of meetings:

  1. Building understanding: enabled each participant share relevant information to build a common understanding for clarity.
  2. Shaping choices: explore potential options, choices that are concrete discrete possibilities that we can analyze and test.
  3. Making decisions: only possible after we have a common understanding and clear choices framed.

from a TEDx Talk she gave, see “Lisa Solomon: Effective Meetings Choose One of Reaching Understanding, Generating Options, or Making Decisions

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“Ideas are elusive, slippery things. Best to keep a pad of paper and a pencil at your bedside, so you can stab them during the night before they get away.”
Earl Nightingale

I carry 3×5 cards for the same reason. I write down other people’s good ideas as well. It takes a lot of good ideas–some old and some new–to make something new and useful happen. Often you have to let go of some obsolete ideas that are misleading.

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“Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety ’til I sank it

There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine, yeah”
Indigo Girls in “Closer to Fine”

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Risk has three parts: The odds you will get hit, the average consequences of getting hit, and the tail-end consequences of getting hit. How people respond to risk is heavily influenced by the tail-end consequences of getting hit, even if it’s the least probable outcome.”
Morgan Housel in Corona Panic

It’s not a bad strategy to work on reducing the worst case outcome in addition to lowering frequency (odds of getting hit) and mitigating impact (average consequence). In fact, insurance is a mechanism for reducing worst case outcomes that increases average consequences and it’s often a good strategy. Entrepreneurs often make a different mistake, looking at the best case outcome instead of how to survive the worst case.

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“Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.”
W. Somerset Maugham

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“A good time to remember that the most important part of a plan is planning on your plan not going according to plan.”
Morgan Housel (@morganhousel)

If you cannot think of three things that are likely to go wrong, then you have not given it enough thought. I ended my post “How to Tell When Your Team Has a Workable Plan of Action with this quote:

“When we think about what might go wrong, we’re more likely to design something that goes right.”
Seth Godin in “Good Design (and serial numbers)

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“There’s nothing written in the Bible, Old or New Testament, that says, ‘If you believe in Me, you ain’t going to have no troubles.'”
Ray Charles

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“Getting money is not all a man’s business; to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.”
Samuel Johnson

“Kindness is good business” was the four word summary of Johnson’s aphorism. Here are two other folks this occurred to (I am sure there are many others):

“Our accomplishments in quantity distribution and services have been made possible by the voluntary cooperation of thousands of mature individuals. We present them to you, both as a practical manifestation of the brotherhood of man and the fact that kindness is good business.”
Ethel Percy Andrus  in testimony on health needs of aged and aging before the US Senate in 1960. (Google Books)

Andrus founded the California Retired Teachers Association and the AARP.

“The good news is that genuine kindness is good business. This back-to-basics, Golden Rule approach works.”
Dr. Helen Gelhot in “Developing a better business bedside manner” (May 5 2004)

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“Startups don’t win by attacking. They win by transcending. There are exceptions of course, but usually the way to win is to race ahead, not to stop and fight.”
Paul Graham in “Mean People Fail” (2014)

This reminds me of a quote by Buckminster Fuller I collected back in 2009:

“You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Buckminster Fuller

This is a key concept in competing against either the status quo or existing products. Ultimately you have to obsolete them if you want to win. This normally includes the need to remix and re-purpose the assets available in the current environment, which leads to this second quote by Fuller: “Don’t fight forces. Use them.” I have used this in two different blog posts:

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“You have a chronic anxiety level connected to a hyperactive mind that’s plugged into an analytic level of consciousness. There’s no rest or rhythm. It’s all high-pitch. There’s a continual idiosyncratic intensity that’s exhausting.”
Susan Shapiro in “How I Got My Shrink Back”

The quote is her therapist’s diagnosis of her condition and an explanation for why he called her “his most taxing patient.” I thought this paired well with Andrew Grove’s “only the paranoid survive” as guidance for entrepreneurs.

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“As in a game of cards, so in the game of life, we must play what is dealt to us, and the glory consists, not so much in winning, as in playing a poor hand well. ”
Josh Billings

This is the “plain English” version of

“As in a game ov cards, so in the game ov life, we must play what is dealt tew us, and the glory consists, not so mutch in winning, as in playing a poor hand well.”
Josh Billings on Ice, and Other Things (1868), Chapter XXIV: “Perkussion Caps”, p. 89; republished in The Complete Works of Josh Billings (1876), Chapter 141: “Ods and Ens”, p. 248.

h/t Garson O’Toole in “Dealt

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“Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.”
George Santayana

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“Remember that life is neither pain nor pleasure; it is serious business, to be entered upon with courage and in a spirit of self-sacrifice. ”
Alexis De Tocqueville

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“There is a big difference between using math descriptively to do an accurate forecast of how bad things will be, and using math to identify operational leverage points to change the outcome. In my experience many engineers are biased towards the latter, and many scientists towards the former.”
Donald Reinertsen (@DReinertsen)

This advice applies generally to startup planning models, Reinertsen was focusing on South Korea’s response to Covid-19; here is more context

S. Korea understands math. Identify a potential spreader fast, they cause fewer infections & you identify their contacts earlier. Initial US testing from CDC (UC Davis Feb 19) took 7 days. Does 1400x faster matter? Look at evidence. S. Korea new cases Mar 3=851 Mar 18=93. R0<<1!

Don’t underestimate key role of early contact identification. With speed you identify contacts earlier in their incubation period & create an exponential reduction in their transmission. (less viral shedding?  fewer tertiary contacts). You might even drop tertiary cases to zero!
Donald Reinertsen (@DReinertsen)

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“It’s not the media’s role to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. It is upon us consumers to realize that news is not very useful for understanding the world.”
Hans Rosling

h/t Rama (@ramatadi12)

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“I don’t know anything about luck. I’ve never banked on it, and I’m afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else; hard work and realizing what is opportunity and what isn’t.”
Lucille Ball

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“Maturity is the ability to think, speak and act your feelings within the bounds of dignity. The measure of your maturity is how spiritual you become during the midst of your frustrations.”
Samuel Ullman

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“Most people are more comfortable with old problems than with new solutions.”
Charles Brower

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“Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A lot of things that have not been done before will be accomplished in the next 3-6 months to get us to a new normal.

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“There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it.”
Charles F. Kettering

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“Uncertainty amid danger feels awful. So it’s comforting to have strong opinions even if you have no idea what you’re talking about, because shrugging your shoulders feels reckless when the stakes are high. Complex things are always uncertain, uncertainty feels dangerous, and having an answer makes danger feel reduced. We want firm answers when things are the most uncertain, which is when firm answers don’t really exist.”
Morgan Housel in Corona Panic

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“There is no law of progress. Our future is in our own hands, to make or to mar. It will be an uphill fight to the end, and would we have it otherwise? Let no one suppose that evolution will ever exempt us from struggles. ‘You forget,’ said the Devil, with a chuckle, ‘that I have been evolving too.'”
William Ralph Inge

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“When we speak of efficiency / robustness trade-offs, we’re really talking about efficiency under two regimes: ideal circumstances vs less-than-ideal circumstances.Robustness is not an alternative to efficiency. It’s a longer view of efficiency.”
John D. Cook (@JohnDCook)

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“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”
Paul Coehlo

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At the beginning of the month I picked a theme for the March 2020 collection of quotes for entrepreneurs: “managing uncertainty with imagination, knowledge, and kindness.” But by the end of the month it was clear that the single largest source of uncertainty was the Covid-19 pandemic. I found this set of six questions by Brooke Anderson very helpful for managing what is still under your control.

Six Daily Quarantine Questions

  1. What am I grateful for today?
  2. Who am I checking in on, or connecting with, today?
  3. What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
  4. How am I getting outside today?
  5. How am I moving my body today?
  6. What beauty am I creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?

Six Daily Quarantine Questions by Brooke Anderson

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