Josh Haas's Web Log

Keep Moving Forward

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So I was thinking about how it’d be fun to give one of those inspirational, I did it, you can do it too speeches. And before I knew it, I actually wrote one in my head. Unfortunately, no one’s going to invite me up on a stage to talk about how I HAVEN’T built a succesful business and written a revolutionary tract on moral philosophy. And by the time I have, I’ll probably want to give a different speech. So I’m going to be lame and share this one now, even though I have to put my accomplishments in placeholder brackets, and of course it’s all probably bullshit since I’m just making it up. Whatever, I’m a dork, and this is my blog.

Brace yourself, here goes:

Dear blah blah blah, great to be here, blah. Insert dumb comment about the venue. Today we’re going to talk about entrepreneurship, and the “founder’s psychology”. A lot of people will tell you that it takes a certain type of person to be an entrepreneur. You have to have a high risk tolerance. You have to be a rebel or a rule-breaker. You have to be nerdy like Mark Zuckerburg. You have to really want it. I dunno, there’s a bunch of theories. I’m here to tell you that that’s all bullshit. 100%, absolute, total crap. The next time someone starts talking to you about the personality type it takes to be a founder, what I want you to do is stick your fingers in your ears and start singing “nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey hey, good bye”. And then walk away.

The actual truth of the matter is that success, in any venture, enterprise, endeavor, quest, or vision, has nothing to do with personality. Or, more accurately, “personality” is just a way of describing the sum total of a person’s attitudes and behaviors. Some of those behaviors you can’t change, like the fact that you lisp like your Uncle Henry, and others you can, like the fact you punch Uncle Henry every time you see him. And the ones relevant to success are the latter.

What success actually comes down to is learning principles. We live in a universe governed by natural laws, which dictate principles for achieving things. If you want to build an airplane, all you need to do is master the principles of thrust, lift, drag, and weight: if you got those right, it’ll fly; if not, it won’t. No one is born understanding thrust… we had to figure it out, and once we did, airplanes turned from something that people thought was impossible to something people churn out in factories multiple times a day.

The really good news is that people are principle-learning machines. We were built for this. Picking up principles is as easy as learning to walk. In fact, that’s what learning to walk was. Take out a piece of paper — don’t actually do this, I’m talking right now — and write down everything you know how to do, from tying your shoes to driving a car to picking up attractive people in bars. Every one of those represents a victory of your natural mechanism for learning principles. Most of these accomplishments you probably take for granted now. But the very same thing that made those possible, is what enabled us to build the Manhattan skyline, for F. Scott Fitzgerald to write the Great Gatsby, for {insert president’s name here} to convince half the country he’s better than the other guy.

Wait, you ask. If it’s so easy, if it’s just human nature, why am I not president of the united states? (I’m sure you think you’d do a better job, right? Come on, admit it). I have that idea for a company. Or a book, or a sculpture, or an inner city agency to help teach kids how to play classical guitar. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Well it turns out there’s one meta-principle. A principle that makes the difference between whether or not you succesfully acquire all the other principles that you need. One principle to rule them all, you might say.

I think every succesful person would articulate it differently, but I think they’d all recognize it. You recognize it, because in your own way, you’re succesful too — you’ve done stuff, accomplished things… whether or not you’re happy with what you’ve accomplished, whether or not you’ve accomplished up to your full potential, the fact of the matter is you probably wouldn’t be sitting here if you were completely oblivious. Think back on all the moments in your life where you did something, grew as a person, moved forward, become more of an adult and closer to the person you want to be. What’s the common thread that you see?

I see a common thread, and the way I would articulate it is, “keep moving forward.” That’s the master principle. To be succesful in life, what you must do, is you must keep moving forward. Another way of putting it, is “let the universe tell you ‘no’.” It’s your job to decide what you want. And then it’s your job to keep moving forward. And it’s the universe’s job to try to stop you. Do you want to revolutionize the fashion industry? Do you want that cutie to be your significant other? Do you want to be suntanning on the beaches of Argentina? Do you want to write a book that’s read a thousand years after you die? Decide what you want, keep moving forward.

As long as you keep it straight — your job, move forward; universe’s job, say no — everything works great. It’s when you get confused and let the universe move things forward while you tell yourself ‘no’ that things go to shit. There are a million little ways we tell ourselves no every day. “I don’t think I deserve to have a great job, I’m not good enough.” “I don’t think she likes me.” “I can’t introduce myself to him, he’s famous!” “Maybe that book isn’t such a good idea after all.” That’s how failure happens. Because you can’t do two jobs at once. If you’re doing the job of telling yourself no, then you’re not doing your job of moving forward. And if you don’t move forward, guess what: you won’t go anywhere. Duh, right?

It’s actually relaxing to let the universe take over the work of telling you no for you. Maybe you’re actually not good enough for him: great, he’ll walk away when you try to talk to him. Maybe your vision for a company is impossible: great, investors won’t give you any cash. The universe does its job very, very well. It can and will come up with more creative ways of shutting you down than a hypochondriac worry-wort’s wildest dreams. Honestly, if you try to beat the universe at its own game, you’re out of your league. It’s far better just to play dumb and keep on operating as though you will start the company and get the lover and write the book and just keep on going until you run smack into a brick wall. Because sometimes, you will, but other times, the brick wall won’t actually be there. Just keep on moving forward and find out.

There’s a million ways you can keep going. If your business partner gets sick and can’t work any more, then you can find a new one, proceed without a partner, or see if you can work with her around her illness… or any other solution. No matter what disaster happens, as long as you’re not telling yourself ‘no’, it’s actually very easy to brainstorm ways of taking the next step.

So let’s go back to the founder psychology for a minute. The interesting thing is that some people seem to — from whatever childhood experience or genetic disease or whatever — seem to be born really getting it, and others life has to basically hit them over the head with a two-by-four before they catch on.

I’m in the latter category, by the way. I didn’t have a clue for the longest time. I would think myself silly trying to figure out, why isn’t my life going the way I want it to, and make it super-complicated, and blah blah blah blah blah. I mean, I was really terrible. I couldn’t tie my own shoelaces. I was the guy in class who’d try to make the insightful comment in the hope that people would hear and go, wow, you’re really insightful, let me make you famous now. Yeah, I was that guy, sorry everyone. I didn’t get the girls, I didn’t make an impact, I didn’t achieve my dreams. Because I was trying to have the universe do my job. I was hoping that if I stood there and smiled and waved, it would move things forward. Things only started turning around for me when I realized that that it was on me to make things happen.

Anyway the reason I’m telling you this is that I want to make the point that, whether or not the “keep moving forward” thing is something that comes to you naturally or not, you can learn to think that way. You don’t need the “high risk tolerance” gene. You don’t need to have been raised by bears in the forests of Africa, learning how to rip out the hearts of deer with your bare hands. You just gotta keep reminding yourself, “am I saying no or am I moving forward? Am I doing the universe’s job or am I doing my job?”

Okay, some typical objections. Number one: but it’s scary!

Actually, if you get so far as to realize how unbelievably scary it is, you’ve made a lot of progress. Most people are so busy rationalizing to themselves why they don’t move forward that they don’t even recognize how terrifying actually going after your dreams is.

Anyway the fear thing is really easy. Have you ever jumped off a high cliff into a lake? You can stand on the edge of the cliff for twenty minutes going back and forth, talking yourself into it, talking yourself out of it, shivering and looking really dumb in your bathing suit, etc. etc. But then the second you’re like, “oh well, what the hell” and jump, boom, you’ve just done it. The antidote to fear is acting. And you don’t need to “beat” or “master” or “conquer” your fear first, you just have to act. And most action is over so quickly, there’s almost not even time to fuck it up. For instance, “hi boss, I’d like to quit my job because I want to start my own business”…. oh shit oh shit oh shit what did I just say did I just say that oh well, too late, security’s showing me out the door, guess I better be an entrepreneur now….

It’s okay to scream like a 5-year-old girl going down. It’s all good. You’re allowed. Tarzan bellowing might be classier, but either way you hit the water, and that’s what counts. Just keep moving forward.

Number two objection: but I don’t know which way forward is! What do I want?? Yeah, this one really nailed me for a while. Should I write a book? Start companies? Join the peace corp in Africa? I don’t know!!!! How do I decide!!! Watching a freshman trying to choose their college major is often like this. You want to put the poor creature out of it’s misery, it’s just awful to watch. The trick is… being right is not important. It is far, far better to make a bad decision and act on that decision and experience the consequences of that decision then it is to not decide. Most people interpret Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” as creepy Teutonic bravado, but I actually think it’s just really down-to-earth good advice.

Fact: the only way you learn what you want, and how to get what you want, is to try things and see what happens. You want to be an astronaut and also be a doctor? Flip a coin then spend a summer interning with one of them. Still can’t decide? Spend the next summer interning with the other. Still can’t decide? Flip another coin, then major in biology. Still can’t decide? Flip a coin, then go to med school. Still can’t decide? Open a private practice. Just keep moving forward until either a) you have more clarity or b) you wake up one morning and realize that you’ve achieved one of your dreams. And you know what? Worse come to worse, you can do both. Maybe even simultaneously if you’re really Mr. I-can’t-make-up-my-mind. It’ll be harder, but then, “hard” is one of those things that it’s the universe’s job to worry about. Most indecisiveness is really disguised procrastination. Don’t do it. Yes, you may find yourself saying, in the words of Michael Bluth, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” But hey, that’s half the fun of life. Just keep moving forward.

Written by jphaas

June 11th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized