As a bloke who lists one of his hobbies as having his nose in books, I’m used to radical social distancing and having myself for company. So, whilst the past four months have had their challenging moments, I’ve sought respite from lurking anxiety, boredom and frustration by reorganising and culling the hoard of books that passes for my library.
Reading has helped pass the unexpected free time from this four-month involuntary shut-in. Every evening though, book in hand, I found myself considering a second beer until I think, Why stop at two? But I have! At night, staring into the darkness, I frequently recall far too many friends, relatives and colleagues who now live, often quite vividly, only in my memory. Constraint, paradoxically, often liberates the imagination, but given half a chance, I can grow impressively maudlin.
Pascal famously said that all our miseries derive from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room. ‘All our miseries’ is certainly an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt us humans are at heart, social animals. We like parties. We herd ourselves into sports arenas and live music gigs and theatre. We even attend protest rallies. Little wonder that Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness has been a steady seller for more than 150 years. It’s on my bookshelf, a present, as yet unread.
So far from the madding crowd, and bedazzled by the choice of the downloadable options from Amazon, Sky, Netflix and Disney, my best read during lockdown has been Moby Dick, a novel by Herman Melville, an outstanding work of literature and romanticism.
Ever since its publication in 1851, Moby-Dick has sparked the imagination with its prophetic, digressive and dangerous themes. A sailor called Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee.
Although the novel was a commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891, its reputation grew during the C20th. D. H. Lawrence called it the greatest book of the sea ever written. Indeed, Call me Ishmael is one of literature’s most famous opening sentences.
One track I’ve taken from Moby Dick is the singular obsession Captain Ahab had about pursuit of the whale. It hounded his thoughts and kept him up at night. It became all consuming, so much so that his judgement, decision making, common sense and rationality were blinded, his experience counted for nothing by the fixated, blind pursuit of the whale for revenge.
It reminded me that entrepreneurs often have their own whales, causing them to stay awake at night thinking of only that one thing. Your startup may lack the drama of whale hunting, but whether you’re trying to out fox the competition, scale your business, or implement a new idea, you must avoid falling into the Ahab syndrome. There is a thin line between focus and dedication, and unhealthy obsession.
Passionate entrepreneurs are so impatient to move forward with their favourite new idea that they get too optimistic about how would-be customers and investors will see it. Their passion becomes an obsession. Whatever your goal, don’t let it turn you into an Ahab. His obsession lost him his ship, most of his crew, and ultimately his life. And the whale got away.
I call it the paradox of entrepreneurship, the very thing it takes to start a business often ends up destroying it. Ahab was obsessed, pursuing his dumb vendetta against a whale. The story progresses the theme of his pursuit until the fatal third chase. Here’s a list of critical junctures I’ve created where founders let passion cloud their judgment – I’ve called it the Ahab syndrome in your startup – and strategies to avoid it and stay clear-eyed.
Don’t be obsessed by vision Of course, you need a vision to drive your purpose, but you also need to be flexible in the pursuit of your vision and an awareness and ability to make adjustments, fine-tune the tactics, and adjust the direction in response to feedback. Don’t be fixated on your vision to the point of inaction, which was Ahab’s downfall.
Don’t obsess, plan Don’t wander through the early days of your startup with thoughts running through your head like a helicopter background noise in your dreams. Take a few deep breaths. Whilst plans themselves have little use once crafted, the act of planning gets a lot of things out of your head and clarifies thinking in terms of priorities. When you wake up at night obsessing, go to your planning. Write it down. Relax, and go back to sleep.
Take note of the experience of others Ahab was fully aware of the harm that Moby Dick could cause, two sister whaling ships had fatal encounters with the whale, but this did not stop Ahab from carrying on with his dangerous quest. Ahab could not view his goal and weigh the risks with clarity. He wanted to harpoon Moby Dick at all costs, but never considered that the whale would drag him down. Not learning from the experience of others is a common trap of the Ahab syndrome.
Remember there’s always another whale There will always be another opportunity, another goal to consider, and always something to work toward. There will always be another whale, so don’t waste all your resources and deplete your psychological emotion and energy on an obsessive single dream or goal.
Have buckets of patience Working on a startup requires a level of patience that can’t be imagined before you get there. Your patience will be tested. You will have a nailed-on customer drag on for six months longer than you thought to close, to the point you are worn out just thinking about it. You may even have a key team member lose faith in you. Ahab showed no patience, he saw the red mist and simply threw himself headlong into the challenge, with no guile or reflective thinking.
Avoid the cult of personality Most entrepreneurs have a strong personality, but it isn’t your most reliable leadership tool. Ahab was able to establish a strong psychological bond between himself and his crew. They believed in him. The problem was that they so believed in him, and were so energised by him, that they never questioned his ideas and became yes-men. Enamoured with his personality, they were incapable of seeing his weakness.
Listen to your team Captain Ahab was deaf to his crew. He didn’t hear what they wanted. He only promised them gold if they found his white whale, it was incentive enough, but as the journey grew perilous, Ahab wasn’t able to heed the warnings from his crew. He stayed blinkered on his personal ambition blinded to reason, and as a result of failing to listen, failed in his goal.
Keep a balance and sense of perspective For every successful entrepreneur who cites sacrificing health and family as the key to success, there are ten others who say the sacrifices were a tragic mistake. Another logical flaw: millions of people sacrificed health and family and weren’t successful. All their sacrifice did was ruin their lives. Nobody quotes them. They call that survivor bias.
Understand that you make mistakes. Acknowledge your mistakes, analyse them, and them package them up in your mind and store them somewhere out of sight, somewhere where you can access them occasionally to help avoid making the same mistakes again, but, on the other hand, where they won’t just drive you crazy and adversely impact your decision making.
Do you recognise the ‘Ahab syndrome’ in yourself at all? While there is only a fraction of startups are ground-breaking, simply the essence of innovation is knowing the odds and be able to exploit your idea. Passion gets you started, and as a result, we go narrow and deep, but that can realise an unbalanced focus.
Developing a sense of focus like Ahab feels good, leading to the creation of solutions and products that blow people away, but the commitment it takes to go narrow and deep can mean the very things needed to make the leap from creator to revenue generator get lost in the fray. Your deep focus can pull you away from the levers needed to drive not just the idea, but the business-engine forward, and that’s the potential to develop a condition I call entrepreneurial myopia.
You become so hyper-focused on your tiny slice of the world that your depth of field begins to narrow to a point where you lose objectivity and start to view what you’re doing as the only way something can be done, solved or expressed. You become a champion of your idea, your solution, your craft and view it as the ultimate source of value or the only way to solve a problem. You discount all others because you’ve become wed not to the solution but to the need to bring this ‘thing’ that’s become everything to you to the world.
Problem is, when you’re on the inside looking out, you’re in the worst possible place to know which end of the spectrum you’re working on – self-delusion or customer-delight – your blinkers are on.
Narrow and deep when the quest is bundled with the desire to turn the output of your efforts in the name of solving a problem into generating an income is the necessary focus. It’s vital to create self-checking mechanisms that allow you to step back, to remove yourself and ask, is the work being driven by an intrinsic joy aligned with what large numbers of people want or need and are willing to pay for?
Stepping back for a moment allows fresh breezes to blow in. A little fresh breeze sometimes is a stimulating thing, literally blowing away the cobwebs, giving you a jolt to sit up, and makes you check-in. Focus, yes. Be myopic when the times call for that. But always leave a little stepping back room for that breeze. You never know what epiphany it may bring.
So avoid passion clouding your judgement. Emotion should be tempered with reason and logic. Don’t get fooled into believing that either your excitement or anxiety levels should be the drivers that help you make the final decision about risk. Your feelings may be very unreliable. The more emotional you feel, the less logical your thinking and judgement will be. Increase your rational thoughts about the risk you’re facing to balance out your emotional reaction.
Balance emotion and logic. To make balanced choices, acknowledge your emotions. Pay attention to the way your feelings and recognise how those emotions may distort your thinking and influence your behaviour. Raise your logic and decrease your emotional reactivity.
The lesson from Ahab is that’s its a mistake to build your success on a single metric as a measure of success, because as we see, this drives a blinded, frenzied and myopic set of behaviours to its achievement. So heed the Ahab syndrome, avoid entrepreneurial myopia and don’t become obsessed with your startup. Breath, share, reflect, listen and learn. Maintain your sense of perspective, balance of views and have patience.