August 21, 2021 4 min read
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for the past few years, as we’ve all been stuck inside (our homes and our own minds) and feeling real fear and grief about how everything is changing.
My life has been nothing but change and uncertainty for a very long time. I think any entrepreneur can say that; I’m not special. The job description goes like this:
1. Think of something at night. Fueled by two glasses of wine, commit to the vision that the world needs this thing, deeply. Wake up the next morning, realize you still agree.
2. Make the thing real. How? No one’s figured it out yet, so you’re on your own. Maybe YouTube tutorials? Godspeed.
3. Learn all the skills you need to bring the thing (which is real now! You did it!) to the people. Become a web developer/copywriter/photographer who excels in marketing. (No, not right now. Do it at night! You have a job.)
4. Discover you are a world-class disaster at a few of these things. Rend your garments, pay professionals money that you don’t have to do them for you.
5. Convince other people to give you their money. Hurry! Part of your soul now exists outside your body: this baby company that eats currency. When it grows up, it will cure cancer or spread real joy, but first you have to shepherd it through the long night of its infant vulnerability. Get really good at remembering acronyms like CAC and LTV, and buy a kickass blazer.
Is any of this fun? Yes. Every single step has been the best experience of my life, because it’s blown open my expectations about my own capacity. I thought I needed to know howthings are going to work out, and what they’re going to look like when they do. It turns out, though, that all I need to know is that I’m going to be allowed to keep going.
This is what that I see in other entrepreneurs, too. It turns out: we’re able to operate on the margin, and to derive joy from vanquishing challenge. It feels a little like a magic trick, to make something out of nothing. And over time, those tricks you pull off one by one (by the skin of your teeth) add up to a muscle you can flex. Some people call it resilience. I think of it as the muscle that pulls you up from under the water.
. . . . . . .
A year or so ago, I called my mother to talk about how I’d ruined my life. All my friends, I said, were reaching peaks of competency in their careers, becoming experts in their fields. I was up to my knees in the sucking mud of my second start-up, and unearthing some full-scale problem every single morning. When will I feel like I know what I'm doing? I asked her. When will I feel some sense of settling down?
Probably not as long as you're being who you really are, she said.
The way she explained it: a “normal” career involves progression along a path with markers. You accumulate knowledge, by study or experience, and then you deploy that knowledge, and the feedback loop that creates is one of increasing psychological safety. Over time, you weave an intricate fabric of what you’ve already done, and what your peers have done, and you can wear that knowledge like a garment. It is solid. It protects you.
What entrepreneurs do, on the other hand, is more like making a necklace by diving for pearls. We create something beautiful too, but our process isn't steady. We have to keep running to the top of the cliff and leaping off. We have to let the water slap us as we fall in. Sometimes we come up salty and empty, and sometimes we're holding something real. But the string can't be completed unless we're willing to leap: again, again, again.
(My mother is a psychologist, but also kind of poetic.)
When the scope of this global health crisis became apparent (and again with each new variant), I felt the shock of that dive: the cold bite of something new and wild, something I couldn’t control. The public health ramifications are terrifying, the leadership we need is largely absent, and the economic landscape is looking shaky.
But then I look to the other people I know who are trying to get businesses off the ground.
And what I watch them all say to themselves is: this is still just water. It is deeper, and choppier, but this is not the first time any of us have been farther out from shore than we meant to be. It is a kind of blessing to have the muscle memory we need, in order not to panic.
Because we are used to being buffeted by circumstances beyond our control, we have the benefit of not needing to know the answers to "with what?" and "how soon?" right away. Like we have done every other time we were scared, we can say to ourselves, "Somehow. Let's find out."
And we can pull ourselves out of the water, and run back to the top of the rock, where we can see farther, and choose where to dive next.