“We can not be taught wisdom,” French novelist Marcel Proust wrote, “we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no once can spare us.” I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to find the most efficient way to gain wisdom. My discovery – only through perseverance and putting in deep work can I find the wisdom I sought in the first place.
The allure of instant gratification and it’s affect on my expectations deceives me. Those expectations lead to dissatisfaction today with the work I have before me. The menial tasks feel degrading. But the truth is, this is my opportunity. The process of discovery that comes from that work will allow me to design a world where that task isn’t mine. Daily hard work teaches wisdom. It’s not conceptual, it’s experiential. My experiences over the last few months have been a testament to the wisdom gained through patience and perseverance.
Mushrooms and Coffee
I was on the phone discussing mushroom farming with two friends. This conversation started between the three of us because we each had a desire to start a new business. The idea was pulled from a startup workflow to help us bridge the gap from idea to execution. In conversation, my eye caught a box of Mushroom Coffee sitting on my desk. I had started drinking coffee laced with mushrooms a few years back in an effort to feel the cognitive benefits of functional mushrooms. Thinking through our goal of validating a product to sell online, I was sure we could buy all the raw ingredients and easily create a similar product. The alternative of a labor and time intensive mushroom farming idea wan’t viable. We agreed to pursue a powdered drink MVP and begin a validation process to look at the market. It was one of many ideas on the list for an early stage incubator I was trying to co-found.
In parallel to pursing the coffee idea, the incubator team was hard at work digging into a viability and launch plan of its own. We focused on building the business model and product specifications, the assumptions, and funding needs. I was reading books, doing web research and having frequent discussions with my co-founder. The goal was to help early stage entrepreneurs go from idea to MVP for a fee and/or a cut of the equity. In principal, this is a really good idea. The potential energy would turn into kinetic energy through our workflow design. I poured hours of energy into the idea, thinking through the possibilities of starting multiple startups. While this work was moving, I had an issue. I couldn’t find focus.
The day to day
The day to day through this period was quite extensive. At my “day job” my team was finalizing the testing of a new lending business we’ve been building from scratch. On top of the project build, I was hiring for two Sr. Manager positions. Each moment of my day structured and measured. I got up at 4:30 every morning to workout, work, or run a meeting. I’d then run through the morning routine and get kids to school and myself to the office. I had days of deep work, and days of complete frustration. Keeping everything together was difficult.
Through this process I learned that time may be a finite resource but focus is the true constraint. With so many initiatives in flight, I couldn’t spend the required attention to pursue a meaningful contribution. I knew I needed focus before flow but I couldn’t nail down what to focus on. That’s when I called Brian.
A little advice
I’ve relied inwardly on my own knowledge and wisdom enough to know that it doesn’t end well. When it does produce, it takes 4 times as long to get to the right answer. I had a simple question about splitting equity and vesting so I called a friend. Brian is a Partner at a Fintech venture captital firm currently investing a $100M round. I walked him through the project and my problem. His answer, “Do you want me to answer your question or do you want to hear what I really think?” I knew how I wanted to answer and how I should answer. I asked what he really thought. Brain let me know that early stage incubator are known as incinerators in the venture capital world. Incubators make great passion projects for people with millions of dollars to blow but a terrible way to start up. It felt like a punch to the gut. Six months of work on this idea and I was back to square one.
Normally I wouldn’t take one point of reference as gospel, but I knew he was right. The focus I couldn’t grasp made sense now. He ended the conversation with something that gave me hope. “You are a talented guy, and I don’t say that to most people.” If you knew Brian, this was high praise. “You should pick something and go build a startup. Then you can figure out if you want to build a portfolio of them.” A I finished my drive home on I-5, I processed what had just happened. I had a decision to make and a co-founder to call. My path felt undefined.
Every good survivalist knows that to escape from quicksand you must fight the natural urge to pull yourself out and distribute your weight to crawl out. The instinct to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is physically impossible. I felt like I was in quicksand and I had to fight the urge to pull myself out. Processing my new reality at this watershed moment, my first instinct was to start fighting my way out. Instead, I kept seeking advice. I processed the information with my co-founder, my wife, and few other advisers. Through those conversations, I landed on a focus. I had to focus on one thing and move that forward. I had to move from the sidelines of planning to the arena where failure was possible.
My co-founder and I decided we would go all in on the coffee project. We already had a third co-founder who we were actively working with and the team had a strong dynamic. At this point, we had validated the opportunity and green lit an MVP build through our workflow. After a conversation with the three co-founders, everyone was on the same page. We had shifted from distraction to focus.
Each step of the journey has been more about perseverance than outcome. Outside of myself, there was a number of external factors that also were growing to an inflection point. I couldn’t rush anything into existence; the circumstances needed time to grow. A gardener doesn’t actually grow anything. A gardener tills the land, plants the seeds, waters the ground, weeds, and provides the raw ingredients for growth. God actually does all the hard work of growing. The same is true of growth in life. Your current situation is independent of your trajectory. A garden with no plants isn’t a failure, its a foundation. I like to ask myself the question, “How can this too be an opportunity?” If I can see the process for what it is, I can understand the opportunity I have every day.