(Based on a talk at CMI)
“Dreaming about being an actress, is much more exciting then actually being one.”
– Marilyn Monroe
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”
– Bertrand Russell
I have a friend who really wanted to be a model. She was on the cover of a big local magazine and everyone started telling her what a great model she was and how much money she was going to make and what a great career she would have. She started believing it.
She started believing she was a great model and it went to her head. After the shoot she was on the cover of another magazine, then another, then signed to a local model agency. More people told her how great she was, constantly surrounded by praise and well intentioned outsiders telling her she was going to make it. They meant well, they were trying to be supportive. She believed them.
Fast forward a year and she gave up on her dream. She experienced intermediate success and couldn’t break through the local maximum.
It happens frequently to entrepreneurs too. A field where often all of your friends end up being your colleagues. They end up surrounding themselves with people who praise them constantly.
It is very natural to experience a sense of elation after achieving something. It’s a form of positive reinforcement. It stimulates a useful association between elation and achievement. But an unfortunate side effect is the elation can stop coming from the achievement and more from the perception of it from other people.
This well intentioned social influence from people who don’t really understand a counter-intuitive field can be very destructive. It hurts talent before it has the chance to become talent by pre-electing it as talent. If you constantly said someone was going to become a rockstar, even if they never wanted to be a rockstar in the first place, not becoming one will seem like a failure.
In schools you develop the notion that smart children will go on to great things. The implicit part is they will achieve more than their non-smart peers. But this turns out not to be the case. Often this early recognition is what causes it.
If a smart person believes they are smart, implicit is that they’ll believe they don’t need to work as hard to be smart because they already are. So then they don’t. This is frequently the case. A pretty girl who believes she is pretty won’t work as hard to attract a boy she likes. Smart kids who believe they are smart don’t work as hard to achieve in school.
It is the difference between self belief and believing your self. Self belief can be a motivating force. But when you already believe you’re good enough but simply aren’t there yet, what more is required?
It’s what happens when a person stops thinking they are on their way to success and instead starts thinking that they are succeeding. This distinction might seem arbitrary, but the point is that the former acknowledges the future tense of the latter while the latter implies it in the present. The latter presents the opportunity to step off the throttle, it presents the assurance that success is already happening and therefore cannot be stopped.
In the Startup Genome Project, it was found the number one cause of startup death is premature optimization. But if you looked into the cause of premature optimization it comes from an inflated sense of self. Why would you optimize for something greater if you don’t believe that it is the end outcome?
Similar to premature optimization, it is the phatic equivalent. It is like counting your chickens before they’ve hatched. Celebrating before being victorious. It is when recognition is given for minor accomplishments so the person begins to misappropriate when genuine traction has been made.
This phenomenon is a kind of premature elation. Like a Skinner Box. An action which receives positive reinforcement will be repeated and over time triggers a behavioural change. It is a form of conditioning. When everyone tells you how great you are, a very small part of you starts to believe it. Will start to repeat the activities which caused everyone to tell you how great you are, even though they may not lead anywhere.
In startups, the best examples are media coverage or financing. When a startup raises money or gets media attention, they will be praised by their peers. But the amount of media coverage or money raised is counter-intuitively disconnected from the success of a startup.
This is not in itself an achievement, moreover a stepping stone to the actual goal. If the goal is to build a profitable company then not doing so is a form of failure. That’s not to say failure is bad, but not achieving a predefined goal is not an accomplishment.
It hurts more because it seems like letting people down. You feel kind of like an imposter. Like you’re faking when everyone seems like they know what they’re talking about. It’s like making a promise that you then have to live by only realising too late that by raising the expectations of everyone, to underperform is to disappoint. Is to fail.
Meeting expectations is only the first step, exceeding them should be the real goal. The easiest way to exceed expectations is to set them low. But too low defeats the purpose so this is in effect a by product of setting too high expectations since often failure to meet high expectations results in lowering them.
So when you don’t fulfill those expectations it feels really awful. It’s like you’ve failed in the most unimaginable way, by not doing what you said you would. But it’s hard to realise that you were the one who raised those expectations in the first place.
But really for expectations to be reasonable, they require critique. It’s unreasonable to set the expectation of becoming a rockstar when learning an instrument, though it might be a goal. The difference between a goal and an expectation is that one is predefined where as the other is exploratory. You can find a goal but you can’t find an expectation. A goal causes you to strive to reach a predefined hurdle, an expectation causes you to sit back and wait for something already on its way.
Part of this process though is a person isolates themself from sources of negative feedback. During the course of any failure there is the opportunity to course-correct but it requires acknowledging failure to begin with, and soon enough to course-correct. Few like to hear criticism but sometimes it’s an important exercise in prioritization. Prioritizing what the real goal is and being self aware enough to focus on it.
When this happens the momentum begins to slow. Because an achievement is not indicative of much more than that achievement nor is it a guaranteed predictor of future achievements. The expectations are calibrated incorrectly and its jarring when they meet with reality. It exacerbates what would otherwise be just a minor setback.
I remember walking into a room of one of my parents friends once and on the wall was all of their achievements dating back to high school. Newspaper clippings with their name mentioned. Old certificates with high scores. Sports trophies. It was like walking into a box of their memories. It seemed like the saddest thing I’d ever seen. Like holding onto your accomplishments dearly, afraid they’d slip away.
Premature elation has probably killed more startups then a competitor ever has.