Monthly Archives: June 2014

Overcoming Obstacles

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, then you know one of my favorite things to do is pick on business magazines. They’re such wonderful sources of misinformation and deluded, illogical points of view. One of my teachers loved to make fun of the Wall Street Journal, who one week describes someone who benefitted from investing aggressively and then the next week tells us about someone who made a fortune being cautious. The truth is, and they’ll admit it if they’re honest, they have no idea why things work.

This one I found from my other favorite source of misinformation: the inflight magazine. The June issue offers a “business lesson” from former long-distance runner Joe De Sena’s book Spartan Up! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life:

How do you overcome obstacles? “Whether you’re running 100 miles or running a business—and I would argue that running a business is a lot harder than running 100 miles—it’s all about being in the right frame of mind. Often, it’s not a matter of if things are going to get ugly; it’s a matter of when. The way I get through those pain points is by treating every situation as a learning opportunity and reminding myself that it could always be worse. If you keep things in perspective and leave your ego out of it, then it just becomes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

This is such a mix of interesting ideas were pure new-agey philosophy; I love it. Let’s see if we can apply a bit of logic, shall we?

Okay, in some ways I agree running a business is “a lot harder than running 100 miles.” But let’s admit it, he’s pandering to his audience. How many of us have every run 100 miles? I’m thinking a lot fewer than have run businesses. A quick google search tells me 67,000 triathletes entered competitions in 2013; roughly 20% of those people failed to finish, giving us a final number of 53,600. A cursory check for the number of business owners in the US tells me 12% of Americans own businesses less than three years old. The population clock has us at 318 million, so 12% times 318,323,818 Americans gives me a low figure of 38,198,858 business owners. Okay, maybe running a business isn’t more difficult than running 100 miles. (Then again, by year four 50% of businesses have failed, so maybe he’s not kidding.)

But I digress. Let’s look at the main point of his statement. If we just put one foot in front of the other, we can get through our “pain points” by staying in the “right frame of mind”: treat every situation as a learning opportunity and remind ourselves it could always be worse.

I like it; I have, like Bobby Knight, an avoiding-mistakes-is-a-key-to-success kind of mind. But does it pan out logically? Let’s try a syllogism:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I remind myself it could always be worse.

True or false? I don’t know; let’s run the tests. Test #1: Is it true that in business things could always be worse? Probably. Unless you’ve already lost your business and been given 150 years in prison. But even then, somehow it could possibly get worse. I love Shakespeare; Edgar in King Lear says “And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/So long as we can say “This is the worst” (4.1). Okay, let’s say it passes test #1.

Test #2: if I remind myself that things can always get worse, then I must reach business success. Again, tell it to Bernard Madoff. (And for the sake of completion, we should always run test #3: if I do not reach business success, it’s because I did not remind myself that it could always be worse.) As you’ve probably noticed, most of these kinds of syllogisms will fail tests #2 and #3. (You can start to see a pattern…)

Okay, let’s try another one:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I treat every situation as a learning opportunity.

Again, I like it. But to be logical, it has to pass the tests. Test #1: is there a connection between business success and seeing every situation as a learning opportunity? I think this is true. If you try to learn something, then no situation is a total loss. I love Thomas Edison’s famous quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” From that perspective, it’s difficult to truly fail, because each failure is a new data point. So let’s try test #2: if I treat every situation as a learning opportunity, I must reach business success. I like it; I want to say yes, but again, I hope Bernard Madoff learned his lesson, but it’s difficult to see how that lesson is going to produce business success for him. Hopefully he is still seeing every new situation in prison as a learning opportunity.

Anyway, I hope you can see how putting these kinds of statements into a logical syllogism reveals how ludicrous they are. The only way to logically be successful is to create the real cause for that success. But don’t believe me, run the tests.

Jim Carrey’s commencement speech

Father, it’s been 3 weeks since my last confession…

I’ve been pretty busy the last few weeks, but I’m glad to be back.

A friend of mine mentioned that Jim Carrey’s commencement speech was going around on social media:

He says a few interesting things in this video. (There are other versions; this particular version is edited down to hit the high points.) But I want to concentrate on the quote from the YouTube page:

I learned many, many lessons from my father, not the least of which is that you can fail at something you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance doing what you love.

It sounds good, but I’m the logic guy, so let’s take a look at it.

Lots of coaches are promising to help you reach your goals; almost by definition that is what a coach is supposed to do. But are we all supposed to become actors or rock musicians? Where do we draw the line between becoming failed accountants (like Jim Carrey’s father) or failed artists (like your deadbeat cousin that won’t get a job)?

Let’s start with Mr. Carrey’s argument:

Consider my dream,
I should follow it,
Because I might fail at a more conservative choice anyway.

Stated that way, it sounds pretty defeatist. But that’s essentially what he’s saying. If you’re going to fail, you might as well do it doing what you love. True or false? The only way to know is to run the tests. Test #1: Could you fail at following your dreams? Yes, that’s possible. So let’s run test #2: if you might fail, must it be the case that you should do something else? No, because you might succeed, also. Or test #3: if you might succeed at a more conservative choice, must it be the case that you should not follow your dreams? No, you might still want to try.

Which sounds okay, but what if you have responsibilities? What if you have kids to take care of, and your dad offers you a part of his business. Must you follow your dream of being an actor/rock musician? Or could you work in your father’s business and play guitar part time?

Of course, as we all know, there are no sure things. But if people are counting on you, is it okay for you to risk everything pursuing your dreams?

Not really.

But of course, that’s a diamond deal. What’s a diamond deal? A false choice, a setup. Do you want A or B? Maybe instead, the best choice is option C.

So here, let’s rethink Mr. Carrey’s assertion a bit. Should you pursue what you love? Of course; again, that’s the whole goal of getting coaching. But what should that look like? Well, actually Mr. Carrey gives us the answer (at 2:50):

I can tell you from experience; the effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.

So taking this into account, what should our original syllogism look like? Maybe something like:

Consider my dream,
I should follow it,
Because I will help others achieve their dreams.

True of false? Again, run the tests.  Test #1 is an easy pass. Test #2: if I help others, must I get it myself? The laws of seeds say yes, although you’re welcome to debate it.

But don’t fall for the diamond deal (or any false dichotomy); get what you want out of life and take care of yourself and those around you.