There is a great Ted talk about Grit, given by Angela Duckworth but based on initial research by Carol Dweck. The “meta” takeaway from Dweck’s research is that mindset matters. The way people think about something affects how they act. Dweck proved this by showing that students who believe success is based on hard work do much better when challenged than students who believe success is based on intelligence.
I was thinking about Dweck’s research this week when I read this infographic about the view of Inc 5000 entrepreneurs think about the economy. Spoiler alert: They tend to lean right, not left. Sixty three percent of them voted for Mitt Romney. Ten percent consider themselves politically liberal. Seventeen percent are registered Democrats.
It made me wonder… why, in a world where the government constantly speaks about the importance of entrepreneurship, how we need more entrepreneurs, and how they make up the backbone of our economic growth, why do we praise these entrepreneurs so much but then pass off their economic and political views as old fashioned rubbish? Why do we, as a society, think much more highly of the economic ideas of someone with no relevant experience (a populist like Elizabeth Warren for example) instead of listening to the ideas of the very people who are in the trenches and we claim are the lifeblood of our economic growth?
I wonder if these two ideas are tied together. I wonder if entrepreneurs are like the students who have grit. I wonder if holding the belief that the economy is a meritocracy actually promotes economic growth by encouraging people to go out and start companies. I wonder if the opposite mindset, the idea that you’ve worked hard and are owed something, but big companies and rich people have ripped you off, is the kind of mindset that could hold you back.
We know mindset affects expectations of performance. We know expectations of performance affect economic decisions. Maybe our economic problems are just as psychological as they are structural.
Scott Adams, the man behind Dilbert, has a new book out about career success. He discusses some concepts from the book in this Wall Street Journal article, and the most interesting thing to me in the article is his rejection of the conventional wisdom that you should “follow your passion.” Here is his explanation.
But the most dangerous case of all is when successful people directly give advice. For example, you often hear them say that you should “follow your passion.” That sounds perfectly reasonable the first time you hear it. Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right?
Here’s the counterargument: When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don’t want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He’s in business for the wrong reason.
My boss, who had been a commercial lender for over 30 years, said that the best loan customer is someone who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That’s the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.
There are two schools of thought here. One says that passion is the thing that keeps you going when times get tough. The other says passion is fleeting and when you lose it, you give up too easily.
After nearly 5 years running Backupify, I definitely find myself in the latter camp. I look at a lot of the other startup companies of our vintage, and they were boom and bust. They rode high, much higher than we ever did in terms of hype and valuations, and then came crashing down. All the while, Backupify was grinding it out, slow and steady, constantly moving forward.
I can’t say that I had passion for cloud to cloud backup when I started. And even though I know so much about it now, and I love to talk about it, I’m not sure “passion” is the word I would use to describe my feelings. So what drove Backupify forward? Well, ask 5 different early employees that question and you will probably get 5 different answers. But here is what I think. I’ve always been a grinder. I was raised to be a grinder. My dad never preached “follow your passion” but rather “work hard and don’t be a drain on other people.” I’ve always had a lot of mental and physical stamina. In high school, college, and as an adult, I have always been able to focus longer, work harder, and deal with more crap than most people. In fact, when I raised the very first round of financing for Backupify, I pitched an at Open Angel Forum event at 7pm in LA, got on a red eye to Boston, tweaked my presentation during the flight, landed and went straight to the offices of General Catalyst to do another presentation on no sleep. (They invested).
I don’t think passion is a bad thing, but when it is the main thing you are looking for, beware that it is fleeting. I see this a lot in young employees versus more mature employees. Young employees read the startup blogs and want to come work for a startup where they can put their passion to work. They think startups should be fun. Mature employees realize that startups are harder, and more difficult, than other types of work. They are in it because they like the grind and are willing to tolerate all the extra crap because they know the career experiences are better. The battle scars help them climb the career ladder faster, learn more, and give them the opportunity to have an impact on the direction of the company.
Young employees often expect the passion to stay forever, and they give up when it is gone. They move on to the next passion, which is why they stay 2 years at every job, no longer. They blame the job because their bosses didn’t keep their passion engaged. They didn’t realize that it’s the people with the mental stamina to suck it up and work through their passion droughts who are ultimately successful.
So maybe Scott Adams missed something in his article. Maybe a “grinder” is just someone who has a passion for winning, a passion for pushing forward in the face of challenges, and a passion for growing as a person. Maybe the issue is that we encourage people to have the wrong kind of passion - passion for the thing instead of passion for the process or passion for the final goal.
There is a lot of research (see Carol Dweck) that says success is a matter of grit. That sounds like the key to being successful isn’t passion - it’s the ability to push forward even when the passion is gone.
When I moved Backupify to Boston in 2010, I did it because I thought it was a much better place than Silicon Valley. And I still love Boston tremendously. It’s a city of ideas. I have interests outside of technology, and the Boston is more diverse in its intellectual interests as a city than any place I have ever been. But over the past 3 years, I’ve traveled to the Valley 6-10 times a year each year. Over the past 3 years, I feel like I have better come to understand the differences between New England and Silicon Valley for startups, and I think it can be summed up in one sentence:
Nowhere else in the world is unconventional thinking as admired and encouraged as it is in Silicon Valley
I haven’t seen the statistics on this, but my guess is that Boston hits singles and doubles, on a percentage basis, much better than the Valley. The Valley, on the other hand, probably has more strikeouts, but also more home runs. As I’ve talked to more and more people about this, I’ve come up with a good example than illustrates the differences in thinking pretty well.
Say you wanted to build a Gmail competitor. You walked into the office of a VC and said, “Gmail is broken, I am building something better. I want to take out Gmail. Boston and Valley VCs would both say the same thing. They would say, “That’s crazy. Gmail has 200 million users.” But, they would mean very different things.
The Boston VCs would think “that’s crazy” as in “that’s stupid,” and they would think “Gmail has 200 million users” as proof that it’s a waste of time, you can’t do it, they already have too big of a hold on the market.
Valley VCs would think “that’s crazy” as in “it’s aggressive and unconventional, so yeah, we like it.” They would think “Gmail has 200 million users” means it is a worthy market to go after, not a waste of time.
Obviously, there are some West Coast style VCs in Boston, and some East Coast style VCs in Silicon Valley, but I’m talking about general attitudes. And it’s not just VCs, I think the same thing can be said of the talent pool in each place respectively. The talent in the Valley is more unconventional, which is both good and bad. But in the end, it’s the unconventional ideas that bring the mega home runs, which is why the world changing companies are in the Valley.« go back — keep looking »