On Making Brilliant Mistakes (And Why I Hate Ted Talks)
I spent most of this weekend holed up in my office, trying to get a head start on the next week’s work, when a well-meaning friend sent me a link to one of those smug little articles on startups that have become popular on networks like Medium and Tech Crunch.
You know the kind of article I’m talking about. It's usually written by a successful investor or entrepreneur, and in it they lay out keys to success in three (or five) clear sections that have snappy titles like “Great idea!”, “Great market!”, and “Great staff!” — all obvious things that I inevitably realize that I should have considered before I got so deeply involved in my current business, but for various reasons usually involving money, time, or just plain ignorance, I didn’t.
Whenever someone sends me an article like this my first impulse is to tell myself what a total loser I am. After all, if the secret to success is so clear and simple, and I can’t even do that, how do I expect my crazy venture is going to work out?
This is incidentally why I also hate Ted talks.
The Ted people get someone brilliant up on stage who really has done something truly marvelous, and then rehearse and rehearse them until their story is boiled down into a heroic narrative that fits into three clear and understandable acts. Ted talks usually have a beginning, a middle and an end, just like a Hollywood movie — a format that makes even the most sympathetic presenters, the ones that I really am inclined to like for the good work they’ve done, end up sounding like self-satisfied assholes. I find the whole thing completely debilitating, since I can't see how I could ever do half the things that people up on that stage seem to pull off so easily.
I should qualify this last statement by adding that I know a lot of wonderful people who have been on Ted. And that backstage, most would admit that the the road to success doesn’t take a straight line, and that they didn't get to where they ended up in an easy, linear way by following the rules.
One of the biggest problems with packaging success as a 1-2-3 list is that true insight is almost always evolutionary. This means that even if we start out with the world's most brilliant idea, we won’t know how it works in the real world until we put it out there and try it. Reality being both complicated and impermanent, we inevitably end up having to make a sharp turn part way down the road we plotted for ourselves, occasionally to the distress of colleagues and investors who didn’t realize this was always part of the plan to begin with.
This is why it is more important to just get out there and do something — anything — even if your brilliant idea turns out to be half-baked, your execution imperfect, and the whole thing built on a foundation that completely ignores best practices proposed by journalists and industry experts.
Sadly, this approach is hard to sell on stage and in writing. An article entitled “Five Ways to Build a Successful Startup” will get more clicks than “Some Smart Things You Might Want to Consider Doing, But Which You Should Ignore If You Lack the Time, Money, or Common Sense to Put Them in Place”.
The best business advice I ever received didn’t come from a Ted talk or Medium or Buzzfeed. It was given to me by Michelle Shocked (the musician), who a friend brought me to meet after a show at CBGB sometime around 2001. At the time I had a new project I’d been too scared to get started on. Like many people, I was paralyzed because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing (and was sure that my lack of experience would lead to failure). Michelle listened to me, and then described a similar experience she’d had by comparing it to hanging on the edge of a cliff by her fingernails, terrified of what would happen if she let go. And then she just said “fuck it” and let go — and fell two feet.
I founded Kidrobot a few weeks later.
The point I’m making is not that we should ignore advice from smart people who have walked the path before of us. Asking for help and listening is central to doing anything well, since there are always many more things that we don’t know than ones we do.
But it’s also important to remember that advice is cheap, and the Internet is making it cheaper.
So when someone sends you an article (or talk) presented in a self-satisfied tone by someone who recently made a half billion dollars, approach it with suspicion. If it’s broken down into three (or five) clear steps, most of which make you feel like shit because you haven’t done a single one of them — feel OK about just hitting delete.
Because what those experts aren't telling you is that it's much more important to just get out there and try something. They aren't sharing that it's easy to describe how to do things better, but only in hindsight. And that the road to success is littered with good ideas that never got off the ground because founders spent too much time planning and too little actually trying things, learning, and changing course.
For most of us, the most useful advice we can get along the way is just being reassured that we're not alone in our confusion and ignorance, and that our willingness to just jump in regardless is heroic.
And finally: we are invigorated by the assurance that a healthy dose of making-it-up-as-you-go can be the best approach for any venture, especially when it's combined with hard work, an open mind, some self-made luck, and the willingness to take a hard left when a straight, clear path leads to a dead end.
Illustration by @jeremyville.