Quotes for Entrepreneurs Curated in August 2023

The theme for this month’s collection of quotes for entrepreneurs is persevering with a focus on the positive.

Quotes for Entrepreneurs Curated in August 2023

Theme for this month: persevering with a focus on the positive.

Gandalf Quote: 'The wise speak only of what they know.'

“The wise speak only of what they know.”
Gandalf to Wormtongue in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Two Towers” [Archive]

More context: It’s from Chapter 6 The King of  the Golden Hall. Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas have arrived before Theoden, but Wormtongue has interposed himself.

Wormtongue: “Who are those who those that follow at your tail? Three ragged wanderers in grey, and you yourself the most beggar-like of the four!”
Gandalf: “The courtesy or your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Theoden son of Thengel. Has not the messenger from your gate reported the names of my companions? Seldom has any lord of Rohan received three such guests. Weapons they have laid at your doors that are worth many a mortal man, even the mightiest. Grey is their raiment, for the Elves clad them, and thus they have passed through the shadow of great perils to your hall.”
[Wormtongue offers more insults.]
Gandalf: “The wise speak only of what they know. […] I have not passed through fire and death to bandy words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.” He raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight became blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Two Towers” [Archive]

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“Novelty for the beginner comes in one form, and novelty for the expert in another. For the beginner, novelty is anything that hasn’t been encountered before. For the expert, novelty is nuance.”
Angela Duckworth

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“It sometimes happens that good intentions produce negative consequences. But if they continue in spite of evidence and feedback, at some point they can’t be called good intentions anymore.”
Luca Dellanna

For some related thoughts see his “The Dynamics of Risk Taking.” If your intentions are good then you will adjust your methods based on the results you are achieving (or failing to achieve).

Damage is the feedback used by adaptive entities to determine what is required to survive the environment.

Behavior is largely a reactive response to damage or to threats which caused damage in the past and might cause it again in the future.

Neither wisdom nor experience can be transferred from master to student; only knowledge. The difference is damage. Wisdom and experience are knowledge filtered through the lens of damage. Smart theories can break under the test of practice. Damage is needed to filter what is erroneous from what is correct.”
Luca Dellanna in “The Dynamics of Risk Taking.”

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“Every successful enterprise requires three men–a dreamer, a businessman, and a son of a bitch.”
Peter McArthur (1904)

I used this as an interstitial quote in “In Good Soil: Goal-Driven vs. Muddling-Through Strategies

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“A CTO who talks to customers every week will substantially outperform one who does not leave her “workshop” even though in the near term it may not feel that way. Assumptions accumulate: some will be incorrect and compound unless tested against the customer’s operating reality.”
Sean Murphy (from a recent email to an early stage team doing customer development)

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“I live in the ruins of the person I was, but I am still here.”
Ashleigh Brilliant

Its my birthday this month so this quote speaks to me. It reminds of this one by Robert Louis Stevenson that I first curated in 2008 and then used in Mark Twain on a Dumb Sense of Vast Loss.

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

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“Negative art is a bad business risk. The work you do will attract a particular audience. The audience that wants bitter, angry art isn’t going to come to you for happy, bouncy art. So what happens when you are no longer bitter and angry? They abandon you because they are not getting what they have come to expect from you.

You have to remember you are teaching people what to expect from you. You have to be comfortable delivering whatever that is.”

M. C. A. Hogarth in Chapter 11, “Negative Art,” in “Three Jaguars

See also “M. C. A. Hogarth on Business for the Right-Brained

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“Don’t apologize if you don’t sincerely feel it. Don’t follow the crowd if you don’t actually want to be a part of it. Don’t give advice if you don’t personally believe it. In a world that encourages you to do whatever it takes to make it, be someone who refuses to fake it.”
Kyle Creek (@sgrstk)

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“Since code and the software that we build is inherently ever-changing, there is a race to make sure it can have a big effect. Because if you are trying to make a difference through software, you end up trapped by the conclusion that your software product must affect as many people as possible as quickly as you can before it becomes obsolete. Therefore, tech companies scale massively, even though they are built on top of this fragile and ephemeral substance. And, as a result, we are left with the warped priorities of tech startups and their cultures. They move too quickly, break things, fail to maintain what they’ve built, and leave the world strewn with the results of these fast and ill-considered decisions. […]

We need a shift in perspective that recognizes the role and niche of different types of software. Some software can and should exist for the long-term, but in order to do so in a healthy way, it requires a culture of maintenance, rather than simply innovation. This perspective ensures that long-term thinking is embedded in the world of technology and the companies that exist around it.”

Samuel Arbesman in “Long Term Thinking in the World”

I think it’s more a question of “pacing layers,” a concept I explored in my chalk talk on “How Buildings Learn” and my 2016 interview with Jerry Weinberg.  David Schmudde left a comment on Arbesman’s article that suggests the same approach:

“Perhaps a slightly more optimistic view from a systems perspective.

Computer science is the discipline of breaking down problems into smaller and smaller parts. Each level of abstraction has its own specialty but someone needs to know how to combine these parts. And someone, in turn, combines *those* parts. Turtles all the way up.

Within each level, there are small details and large inter-dependencies. So maybe each level of abstraction needs different kinds of minds (and time frames) to become robust?”

David Schmudde in a comment on Arbesman’s “Long-Term Thinking in the World”

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“The commerce of mankind is not confined to the barter of commodities, but may extend to services and actions, which we may exchange to our mutual interest and advantage. Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I should labor with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow.”
David Hume in “A Treatise of Human Nature; Book 3 “of Morals” (Section V: “Of the obligation of promises.”) [1740]

If only it were that simple. Hume immediately continues with an example where social capital is lacking:

“I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labor with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labor alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.”
David Hume in “A Treatise of Human Nature; Book 3 “of Morals” (Section V: “Of the obligation of promises.”) [1740]

Teams that lack morale, communities that lack trust, and societies that lack social capital are never able to reach the positive outcomes that collaboration enables.  It takes trust-building and a long-term view to knit together effective teams, communities, and societies.

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“Relationship tip: when your partner makes an awful but innocent mistake (leaves their phone in the cab, forgets their passport when heading to the airport for an international flight, drops and shatters a beloved item, gets in a fender bender, etc.), don’t get mad at them. It makes no sense (it was accidental) and it accomplishes nothing except supplementing an already bad situation with an unnecessary fight.

Instead, make the best of it. This turns those moments from relationship-damaging to relationship-building.”

Tim Urban @WaitButWhy

Applies to teams as well as married couples. Related quote from Jordan Peterson

“Life can be miserable: don’t add unnecessary misery to inescapable misery. Don’t let tragedy become Hell. Confront obstacles to your plan and explore them for opportunities. Be the useful person at a funeral, comforting others. Be the reliable person who can sustain a major loss without collapsing.”
Jordan Peterson in “Be the Reliable Person at a Funeral

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 “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?”
Closing lines spoken by Matt Damon as Mark Watney  in the movie version of Andy Weir‘s  “The Martian

h/t James Pethokoukis; reminds me of this quote by Stanley Kubrick I first used in “Chess Quotes for Entrepreneurs

Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.
Stanley Kubrick quoted in Kubrick by Michael Ciment

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“People have to give a damn. They have to care and be committed to the common cause. If they do, over time they’ll get better and better. Don’t try to meet some arbitrary standard of excellence. There is no creativity or surprise upside in that pursuit.”
Ho Nam (@HoNam) Partner at Altos VC

This is a great insight: creativity excellence is co-created and flows from exploration and learning. You have to be open to surprise and put it in harness. I also like their “Founder Oriented” pledge:

The world’s most iconic companies have been built and run by founders. We prefer to partner with managers who have an ownership mentality–leaders with a vision for the future, who have an eye on the bottom line and create value for all stakeholders.
Altos VC “Founder Oriented

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The “China Model” is seriously out of touch with reality. China’s growth over the last 40 years came from marketization, entrepreneurship, and three hundred years of Western technology accumulation, not the so-called “China Model.”

Using the “China Model” to explain the success of the last 40 years is detrimental to China’s future development. Self-deception leads to self-destruction. Blindly emphasizing the China Model will lead to stronger state-owned enterprises, expanded government power, and dependence on industrial policy. this will lead to a reversal of the reform process and eventually the economy will stagnate. […]

Imagine seeing a person without an arm running very fast. If you could conclude his speed comes from missing an arm, then you naturally will call on others to saw off one of your own arms. That would be a disaster.  […] Economists must not confuse ‘in spite of’’ with ‘because of.’”

Weiying Zhang in “Ideas for China’s Future” (Chapter 25 “There is No China Model“)

h/t Dominic Pino See also Rainer Zitelmann (@Zitelmann_en) “Explaining China’s Economic Miracle

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“For business reasons, I must preserve the outward signs of sanity.”
Mark Twain, letter to William T. Stead (Jan-9-1899) [collected in “Mark Twain’s Letters 1886-1900 Volume IV]

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“We tend to think of memory as a camera or tape recorder, where the past can be filed intact and called up at will. But memory is none of these things. Memory is a storyteller, imposing form on a raw mass of experience, creating shape and meaning by emphasizing some things and omitting others. It finds connections between events, suggesting cause and effect, makes each of us the central figure in an epic journey toward darkness or light.”
Tobias Wolff in “War and Memory” (New York Times April 28, 2001)

h/t Joseph Stirt “Quantations

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“My son, everything works out in the end.
If it didn’t, it’s because it hasn’t come to an end yet.”
Fernando Sabino recounting a conversation with his father in “The Checkerboard”

h/t Quote Investigator; reminds me of Stockdale paradox

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“Chess lies on the boundary between the tasks best accomplished by careful coordination and design–the strengths of planning–and those best accomplished by experiment and adaptation–the strengths of markets.”
John Kay in “Business Lessons from Chess Grand Masters

This is a thought provoking essay with a number of good insights:

  • The rules of chess are well-defined and uncomplicated, there is a single opponent and rarely more than a handful of legal moves. But chess is still too subtle to be defined by a single narrative and too complex for models to be more than illustrative. People who hold to a single idea, or a fixed design, generally lose in chess, as they lose in battle, in business and in economics. Great chess players apply a variety of principles, they sense patterns, they hold a formidable range of models and analyses in their mind without being a slave to any of them.
  • Planned regimes have often succeeded when they have ploughed resources into the achievement of narrowly defined objectives. [..] If chess was the battleground between free enterprise and state planning, state planning won. [But] Planned economies were unable to cope with the diversity of consumer needs and the constantly changing requirements of modern technology.
  • As in chess, so it is in business and finance. We cope with an uncertain world through incremental and mostly unsuccessful innovation, not through extensive visions of the future.

Chess is useful training for developing your planning muscles because it’s a case of perfect information. But in the real world competitors develop new capabilities–new moves for existing pieces as well as entirely new pieces that can combine existing and novel moves. Startups can also discover the new markets are don’t conform to the standard board, with new shapes, new relationships between edge squares, and new types of squares. New markets can feel more like a game of Fairy Chess–often with the visibility limitations of Dark Chess or even Kriegspiel–where you need to discover the board, the location of the pieces and their capabilities.

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“The trick to succeeding is to stop thinking there’s a trick to everything.”
Robert Brault

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“We cannot have a validated value proposition without a validated customer segment.”
Tristan Kromoer (@trikro)

h/t Étienne Garbugli (@egarbugli); This is good, it’s a combination lock, you must determine customer-need-value-features-message all in sync. It’s at least four equations four unknowns, early adopters will decode a poor message but mainstream need a clear value proposition (message) to consider your offering.

We like to use the analogy of a combination lock to describe the early startup learning process: there are four key aspects of your product that need to be in sync: “Need-Impact-Customer segment-Message.” Fundamentally, this startup combination lock requires four correct settings to open. To keep it open as your product and customer needs evolves they need to stay in sync.

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There are 3 anchors of a triangle that I’m always working on for growth:

  1. Self awareness: reflecting on my blind spots, discomfort, biases, how I relate to other.
  2. Data & Systems: Collecting evidence & understanding how the business works
  3. Craft: My tactical how-to’s.

Hà Phan (@hpdailyrant)

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“Mistakes are natural. Mistakes are how we learn. When we stop making mistakes, we stop learning and growing. But repeating the same mistake over and over is not continuous learning–it’s not paying attention.”
Wally Amos in “Watermelon Magic

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“Entrepreneurs must learn to tolerate a high level of uncertainty while holding themselves accountable for the results of their decisions. ”
Sean Murphy in “What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Physicians

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“Who does the work?
Who bears the consequences?
Who reaps the rewards?
When the incentives are aligned, it’s the same person.”
James Clear (@JamesClear)

This is a good principle, be careful of those without skin in the game. In larger firms it should at least be the same team. You may be better served to hold teams accountable depending upon circumstances. We talk about individual contributors, but most knowledge work requires a team-level effort to create value for a customer.

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“I don’t think there is anything I have done that I wish I hadn’t done. Because I learn from everything I do. I’m in school every day. My diploma will be my tombstone.”
Eartha Kitt quoted in “It’s Been a Long Time But…Eartha’s Back!” by Lon Tuck Washington Post Jan-19-1978

This reminds me of this quote on “true remorse” by Mignon McLaughlin:

“True remorse is never just a regret over consequences; it is a regret over motive.”
Mignon McLaughlin

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“The quality in human nature on which we must pin our hopes is its proven adaptability.”
Arnold Toynbee in “Cities on the Move” (1970) [Archive]

This is taken from the concluding paragraph to the book. Here is more context:

The quality in human nature on which we must pin our hopes is its proven adaptability. This has been demonstrated impressively under the test of the apocalyptic events that mankind has brought on itself within the lifetime of people, now still alive, who, like myself, have turned eighty. Human adaptability has also been revealed in an earlier technological, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual revolution which our ancestors did succeed in surviving, though it was an even more radical revolution than the one by which we, their descendants, have been overtaken in our time. About eight thousand or perhaps ten thousand years ago, our ancestors transformed themselves from vagrant food-gatherers, hunters, and fishermen into sedentary tillers of the soil and breeders and shepherds of livestock. Their survival of this previous testing transformation is a precedent that offers us grounds for hope that we, in our turn, may be going to survive our own ordeal. Our experience feels severe, but our knowledge of our ancestors’ ordeal tells us that it was still more severe than ours is. Since our ancestors rose to the occasion, we, their descendants, are presumably capable of emulating them if we display the courage, vision, and inventiveness that were our ancestors’ salvation.”

Arnold Toynbee in “Cities on the Move” (1970)  [Archive]

Arnold Toynbee lived from from 1889-1975; he was born a year after my grandfather. We think we live in an era of accelerating change but when you must consider what he is writing about  in “the test of the apocalyptic events that mankind has brought on itself within the lifetime of people, now still alive, who, like myself, have turned eighty.” The invention and widespread use of the automobile, electrical lights and appliances, airplanes and air travel, running water to the home, municipal sewage plants, the industrialization of war and the massive slaughter of the two World Wars, the atomic bomb, reliable birth control, reliable medical treatment including vaccines and antibiotics.

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537. Our advice is that every man should remain in the path he has struck out for himself, and refuse to be overawed by authority, hampered by prevalent opinion, or carried away by fashion.
Goethe “Maxims and Reflections

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Q: How long have hot dogs been $1.50?

A: Since we started. Well, we were open a year and a half before we put a hot-dog stand in at the original downtown location. It’s been a buck-fifty for a hot dog and a coke.

Q: If that price ever goes up, what will it mean?

A: That I’m dead. It’s amazing how creative we have been to figure out ways to keep the price down.

Q: Why is it a big deal for you?

A: Because everybody talks about it. People look at that hot dog and say a buck fifty, this is unbelievable. It’s the same thing you’d spend $7 or $8 at the ballpark for and not get the same quality dog. It’s one of the things that we’re known for. When you get customers who are that delighted with something, it’s worth your time and energy to make it work.

Jim Sinegal in 2009 interview in Seattle Times

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“Art is first nothing, then something.
If there is a trail, you have taken a wrong turn.
Believing our way, we find.”
William Stafford  in “The Sound of an Axe”

I have put these three aphorisms together to suggest a progression but they are in different parts of the book.

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“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing is so gentle as real strength.”
Francis de Sales

Strength listens with patience and makes suggestions, not commands.

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A  maverick is focused on resilient, useful interactions that change what we expect, pushing back against the inertia of gobbledygook and bureaucracy.

  1. Hustle is rarely the most useful action. Systems are built to resist short-term hurried effort. But patient, persistent and focused effort can pay off.
  2. Solo quests make good Westerns or legends, but almost all systems change is the result of teams of people, organized and connected in service of the longer goal.
  3. Sticky ideas that are built on the network effect dramatically outperform urgent media moments.
  4. Change begins with the smallest viable audience, not the largest possible one.
  5. Urgency defeats emergency.

Seth Godin in “The Maverick and the Status Quo

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Q: I’m 30 and one of my biggest worries is that starting a family will mean I will never get the time to do great things. I also got a fair share of skills under my belt and a lot of motivation. My relationship always ends to taking time away from my projects however and that’s only going to get worse once there’s a kid 5 years down the road. Then again Bach had a lot of kids, and look at the body of his work.

A: There are two peaks of entrepreneurship, the 20’s and the 40’s. Catch the second peak.

Q: This makes me smile, thank you

from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=36556087 I think people can do great work at any age. Sometimes newcomers look at a long-standing problem and discover or design a new approach that is substantially better. Other times established experts can leverage the breadth of their experience to develop a better solution or offering. For me, the key elements are the desire to create something of value or make a contribution, a willingness to collaborate to extend what you can accomplish alone, and the self-discipline to work hard for extended periods of time.

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Spectrum Policy : focus on the portion of an idea that has the potential to move a solution forward. Our analytical training and our competitive habits can trap us into a black-or-white position: ‘That won’t work because…” But this is simply a bad habit. Break it by focusing on the portion of the idea that is worthwhile. If you cannot see anyhing worthwhile, ask to hear more about the idea.

George Prince in “The practice of creativity

h/t Sketchplanations “Spectrum Policy

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“Ready comprehension is often a knee-jerk response and the most dangerous form of understanding. It blinks an opaque screen over your ability to learn. Be warned. Understand nothing. All comprehension is temporary.”

Frank Herbert in Chapterhouse: Dune

Three related quotes:

  • “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.” Daniel Boorstin
  • “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Alexander Pope
  • “It is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” Epictetus

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“The real challenge in crafting strategy lies in detecting subtle discontinuities that may undermine a business in the future. And for that there is no technique, no program, just a sharp mind in touch with the situation.”

Such discontinuities are unexpected and irregular, essentially unprecedented. They can be dealt with only by minds that are attuned to existing patterns yet able to perceive important breaks in them. Unfortunately, this form of strategic thinking tends to atrophy during the long periods of stability that most organizations experience.

So the trick is to manage within a given strategic orientation most of the time yet be able to pick out the occasional discontinuity that really matters. The ability to make that kind of switch in thinking is the essence of strategic management. And it has more to do with vision and involvement than it does with analytic technique.”

Henry Mintzberg in “The strategy process : concepts, contexts, cases” [Archive.org]

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Postscript: I posted a roundup that included 8 of these quotes on LinkedIn and got a question:

Q: “These quotes on perseverance and resilience offer valuable insights for entrepreneurs. In your experience, which of these principles has had the most significant impact on your entrepreneurial journey, and how do you apply it in your day-to-day work?”

Sean Murphy: 

  1. Plan for a high failure rate of new ideas and approaches. Your concept or strategy can be fundamentally sound but still require considerable tinkering to make it effective. Try things at least three times, varying them slightly.
  2. Start with an existence proof based on experience and careful observation that provides evidence that your approach has merit.
  3. You must be willing to be viewed as mistaken or foolish for an extended period of time if you are moving counter to conventional wisdom.
  4. Persist because you have collected evidence that your approach is likely work for some situations, specific needs, or problems.

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