The sage and the king

It's a travel day for me, so here's another story I told recently. Many of these come from Anthony de Mello, perhaps this one as well. They're kind of blending at this stage. Which I think is fine because they're stories and they're meant to be retold.

There was a wise man - a sage, a sadhu - who was walking in the capital city of a small but happy kingdom and he found a coin on the street. Since he was very wise and had taken a vow of poverty, he decided he would give the coin to someone who needed it more. And so he spent the rest of the day walking through the city and talking to people, be found they were all very satisfied and had all they needed. So he had his evening meal and he went to sleep. 

The next morning he was roused by a marauding horde. Soldiers were conquering the city. Houses were burning and there were screams and the stench of death was in the air. And as he looked, he saw in the midst of the throng the conquering king, his arms bloody up to the elbows. And the king caught his eye and he said: "Sage! We have captured this entire kingdom, from coast to coast, and now we've conquered the capital city. See how mighty we are! Give us your blessings, wise man!" 

And the wise man reached into his pocket, took out the coin and said: "Here, I think you need this more than me."

So now there are two endings. In one, the king is stopped in his tracks, stricken at the truth. And he withdraws his army from the city. This is, in my view, the more satisfactory but also unrealistic ending. We all know what happens when we accuse people of greed - they get angry. And so the other ending is that the king chops off the sage's head and is done with it. Which is just as well, because homelessness is a real scourge on that kingdom I've heard (#nimby).

This story was part of my talk at Techsylvania, with the point that founding a company from a place of "more, more" is... unhelpful. So what are better places to found from? That's for tomorrow. 

The fear of failure... it's not failure that's the tough part, it's dealing with the fear

I'm sitting at Techsylvania listening to a panel with the awesome Ondrej Bartos of Credo Ventures who has backed companies like Brainient and UIPath. Credo are our co-investors in Kontakt.io, the world's leading makers of beacon hardware and software. 

The panel is talking about failure, its varying cultural acceptance across geographies, and I find myself shaking my head - which means it's time for a blog post.

First off, failure sucks. It's draining, painful, and if you do it wrong you keep carrying it around for years and that energy will attract more failure. The world is magical in that way. It's what we mean by stigma and the reasons for that are deep and evolutionary. You have to free yourself from failure through a shift in perception, what I call raising your consciousness. That's the main capability of the human spirit over its mind, the realization that consciousness is a constituent element of reality, which means that perception is a choice. And so not just talking about but truly understanding the (at some level) "failures" of your life as opportunities or even calls to personal growth is absolutely pivotal for a long-term good life, including health, wealth, and happiness. This is not some spiritual mumbo-jumbo, it's as real as things get.

So where do I like to focus? Look at the book titles below. These are part of my talk later today:

The hard thing about hard things. Sounds bloody difficult. Zero to one. I mean, think about that for a second. You want to get to one, but where are you starting from. You’re a zero! Ha! Only the paranoid survive. I mean, Jesus. Who would ever want to be a founder? They are right of course. You should be afraid. You should be scared. Very, very afraid! 

Can you feel it in your body? Can you feel what it does? Fear contracts. It activates the amygdala. Fight or flight. It’s scary. It’s also a little bit exciting, mind you, but that’s just your body getting ready to fight to the death.

And that’s an interesting realization: fear is at its base always the fear of death. It’s the fear of disappearing back into the void, of being nothing, not having mattered.

So if we explode that a little bit, what is this that we’re scared of when it comes to founding companies?

  • Disappointing people (ostracization)
  • Ending up broke (survival, ability to provide)
  • Failed self (self-esteem, self-worth)
  • Starting from nothing (social hierarchies)

I mean, your entire evolutionary history is aimed at avoiding pain. And here you’re about to run a great risk of getting into a lot of pain. Having to start again from nothing. At the bottom of the heap, so to speak. Also not what evolution sets you up for.

Here’s an interesting scenario: imagine you are at a concert. The lights dim, the music is about to begin. And you remember you forgot to lock your car. You can’t get out, too many people. And now you can’t enjoy the music. You’re caught between two things! And this is an image of running a startup from a place of fear. It takes you out of the moment, out of the present, it reduces your awareness. It blinds you. It makes you more likely to fail!  

And here’s the crazy thing: fear doesn’t exist in the world. Fear only exists in your mind. It’s a matter of perception. Nothing has the power to upset you unless you give it this power. You’ve been trained to be fearful. You’ve been programmed to react this way. But here’s the secret: perception is a choice. How you look at something is a choice.

And we don’t talk about this! We don’t talk about this because we’re pretending to other people that everything is always amazing and great. Instead of sharing the journey, we are actively communicating to each other: I’m doing AMAZING! Everything is working out SUPER WELL. And we think: Oh. No one else has these problems. It must be something wrong with me. I’m weak. And then we’re wondering why even someone as successful and seemingly strong as a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain can’t talk about the pain of the journey. The hardest thing of all the hard things is the demons in our head. The pioneer is always in a minority of one, which from a social perspective means you’re crazy until you make it.

If you're here, come to my talk. I'll share the secret of how to deal with all of that. 

Forerunner Ventures' new website

A few weeks ago, Forerunner launched its new site and, while I've never met the partners there, the manifesto resonated deeply with me

"We champion the companies who rewrite the rules of culture."

Isn't that a fairly wonderful thing when you let it sink in. It has that humble backing of founders, combined with shouting their names from the rooftops to anyone who will listen. But championing something is more than just backing or supporting; it is fighting for its idea and underneath its banner. It's proselytizing. It's reminding the company who it is when it loses track. 

Rewriting the rules of culture: when I first saw that, it blew me away. It's very reminiscent of Douglas Holt's Cultural Strategy, of course, which I currently think is the bible of building innovative brands. Identify your market's orthodoxy. Align with the social disruptions that are challenging that orthodoxy. And then go and rewrite the rules of engagement in that market. 

But again, it's more than that here. Rewriting the rules of culture means looking at longer term, secular and even moral trends. Think sustainability, empowerment, more conscious lifestyles, more thoughtful consumption, ... Those are the rules of culture that deserve to be rewritten. It is a statement not just of intent, but of purpose.

Go read the whole thing. It's one of the better takes on our market and business that I've seen. 

It might be luck, but you have to buy the ticket

There was a good, faithful man who had worked hard all his life. As as he was nearing retirement, his wife fell very ill and he lost all his money caring for her until she passed away. So there he was: old, bent, alone and penniless, and he was very sad. So he started praying to God to let him win the lottery, so that his old age might have some comfort. And he prayed and he prayed: "I have been so good, Lord, let me win the lottery." And nothing happened. So he did it again, and again. This went on for years. 

Eventually he was quite mad. He shook his fist at the sky and cursed the heavens and shouted: "I have been so good, I have worked so hard all my life, why can’t you just let me win the lottery." And the heavens opened up and the voice of God boomed from the sky: "go and buy a bloody ticket already!"

So there you have it. We make our own luck. Or at least: we navigate ourselves into the position of possibly being lucky. And that’s what startups really are: the very small chance of making “it” big.

But you gotta buy the ticket. 


P.S. I am at Techsylvania this week and this is the opening of my talk there. 

The Global Purpose Movement

This weekend I attended The Purpose Summit Berlin. Well, on Saturday. On Sunday I took a three hour nap with my daughter and learned all the names for the Paw Patrol pups (Ryder needs us!).

Purpose is an issue close to my heart. I believe it is at the heart of all large companies. I believe all great leaders have it. And - more controversially, perhaps - I believe that while there are many outer purposes, there is one shared inner purpose. And that's really "faith", that this one purpose exists.

I think as we grow up most of us struggle with the pace of change around us. Technology is really in the process of changing everything - every relationship, every organization. Algorithms increasingly run our lives. Change is accelerating. The singularity (perhaps) is near. At the very least our lives are always on, hyperconnected. As a species we have never been closer together. And yet, never further apart.

We are facing grave environmental, social, and political crises. From climate change to top soil erosion, inequality and discrimination, mass migration and ethno-nationalism, political Islam and government surveillance, ... I could go on. 

And yet we have lost faith. Our one joint belief, the scientific method, insists there is no answer. Oh, there are dozens of studies proving that purpose is incredibly valuable - to longevity, to productivity, to satisfaction, to health, etc. But regarding what that purpose could be, science is rather silent.

Which is baffling because, to me, evolution is everywhere. Things are moving in a direction that we can recognize. Fractal patterns that move from chaos to order, from incoherence to coherence, from separateness to unity. Life strives towards the light.

And so to my colleagues erstwhile consternation I sum this up with: we are the Burning Man generation. We seek to rewrite this culture. Change trajectories. To back the transformational leaders and technologies that will change our joint future. That's the purpose of what we're doing here. 

The next event in Berlin that I'm attending on this topic is the Catholic Academy's conference on evolution and transcendence. Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic church are some of the deepest thinkers on this stuff. And they're hosting an exciting range of international academics (program is here). 

If the eye is unobstructed, the result is sight

I wrote about the insidious effects of being raised to seek approval this week. There is an extension of this attachment to validation, which is that we lose our ability to love.

What the media calls love, what the entertainment industry calls love, what society calls love, is attachment. You give me what I need, so I will give you what you need. If you take away your love from me, you lessen me. Oh how I hate you now! 

But was that love to begin with? Anger, fear, jealousy, ... these are so present in our "special" relationships. And thus we create expectations of the other person on which we let our happiness depend. Instead of, you know, loving them. 

H/t once again to Anthony de Mello. 

Challenging cultural orthodoxy: brands as ideological innovation

The tech industry frequently thinks of innovation as a “better mousetrap” game. Where’s the significant innovation or invention? It’s all features and benefits.

With DNVBs, we find that that innovation is often both softer and deeper – it’s ideological. This works when the cultural orthdoxy in the market is tired, frequently caught in some sort of dead end. Sophisticated, minimalist, utilitarian, aspirational… all of these can be endpoints from which it is hard to recover unless the brand takes a “stance.”

Coca Cola pioneered fighting for social change. Nike made everyone an athlete. Starbucks democratized the artisanal-cosmopolitan aesthetic. Jack Daniels rediscovered frontier masculinity.*

Of course this is only one way to think about cultural innovation, but it seems to me a particularly fruitful one. With the decline of trad sources of identity and cultural meaning – religion, arts, the nation, other institutions, etc. – brands have over the last fifty (?) years emerged as the primary form of cultural expression. With DNVBs, they may become crucibles of identity and social movements that serve to rewrite culture globally.

* These are all examples from Douglas Holt’s book Cultural Strategy, which so far is excellent. Yes, I’m once again learning in public.

Copenhagen-Berlin and return

Following the collapse of airberlin, my bread and butter route of Berlin to Copenhagen and back has become a slight nightmare. 4:45am alarm for 7:20am flight out, only return at 9:20pm, touches down 10:30pm, home by 11:15pm. 

It’s crazy that two European capital cities are so poorly connected. When I look at the construction projects that have been completed in China in just the last five years, the failure of Berlin to successfully build an airport and give out existing slots is laughable. 

What’s lacking is the political will in Germany overall and Berlin in particular to tackle the infrastructure projects that make the city and country a long-term viable place to do business.

Don’t even get me started on the lack of fiber infrastructure that is a direct result of government interference at Deutsche Telekom. German internet connections are some of the worst in Europe and among the worst in the developed world.  

Alright, I’m done. 

The most dangerous drug in the world

The most dangerous drug in the world is approval. I didn’t come up with that. Anthony de Mello SJ did. But I wholeheartedly approve! Ha!

If someone approves of you, it feels good. If they deny you approval, it makes you feel bad and crave more approval. And thus we recognize the mechanism on which society operates. 

I have a friend who has a small girl. When she’s in a group of people, she dances and does tricks until people clap. For a long time this bugged me and I didn’t know why. Until I realized: we’ve turned her into a little monkey! She dances to the tune of our social conformism.

I have a friend who works at a large luxury house in Milan. She makes products that people buy so they can show to others that they’re worthy of approval. This bag makes me great! I told my friend: the only good you do in the world is to make rich people slightly less rich. This was mean-spirited and also plagiarized from Terry Pratchett. She did not approve of my disapproval. She felt bad and I still (still! this is years ago) feel bad. What little monkeys we are.

Approval is the ultimate attachment on which you let your happiness depend. It traps you. It blinds you. It keeps you asleep. What a world we could live in if we could free ourselves from these prison walls.

It reminds of another story de Mello tells: 

[An] Irish prisoner... digs a tunnel under [a] prison wall and manage[s] to escape. He comes out right in the middle of a school playground where little children are playing. Of course, when he emerges from the tunnel he can't restrain himself anymore and begins to jump up and down, crying, "I'm free, I'm free, I'm free! A little girl there looks at him scornfully and says, "That's nothing. I'm four."

Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now! 

TL;DR: Too long... make it shorter

"Make it shorter" is one of my favorite pieces of advice. 

Even if we weren't living in the attention economy, there are mostly only benefits from making "it" shorter. It being the memo, the meeting, the film, the book, the deck. I've rarely had someone tell me something was too brief. Just that they wanted more of it.

Shorter doesn't mean less content. It means more precision. More sophistication. And hence more power.

/EOT