The beliefs that define us

And set the limits of who we can be

Happy Friday, dear reader, and thank you for being here.

I’m grateful to each of you for joining our growing community of entrepreneurs each week to discuss the inner game of building businesses. I’m grateful for the space you provide me to discuss taboo topics like Fear in a in a way that I (and, perhaps, we all) can learn and grow as a leader (last week’s newsletter was quite the conversation starter, incidentally).

Now let’s get started.


Like many, I’d like to start from the idea that I have no beliefs. That everything I believe is objectively true, correct, and right. Subjectively, it feels like that. But my beliefs have changed so much over the last few years that I know that can’t be true.

There are things that I accept as true about myself and about the world that I have not verified, many of which are unverifiable. But I’ve related to them very differently throughout my life, and it’s my relation to my beliefs that has constituted the clearest definition of growth that I can think of.

At first, these beliefs were a part of me. For 3/4 of humans on the planet this is still the case. For most, their beliefs are Subject, not Object. I am a Christian, they might say, implying their wholesale adoption of an entire belief structure that someone created 2,000 years ago, and many millions have added to since. I am an entrepreneur. I am a Democrat or Republican. There’s a tendency to state our beliefs as though they were our very essence, not realizing that the water we’re swimming in — be it Libertarian water or Buddhist water or Startup water — is itself the source of those beliefs.

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
― Oscar Wilde

About 75% of humans don’t realize they can get out of the pool. For these people, their beliefs are entirely synonymous with their identity (The Righteous Mind is a worthwhile deep dive into this), and to the degree to which this remains the case, those people are stuck.

I’ve been stuck before. I’m sure I’m still stuck in some areas. Still blind to the lenses through which I see the world. But more and more often I’m developing a knack for seeing my beliefs for what they are, which provides a stable foundation for growth.

In my experience, if you’re willing to do the inner work of excavating your beliefs, if you’re willing to suspend judgement and look at your inner monologue with curiosity, the way an anthropologist might (meditation helps with this), you learn a couple things.

You learn first that your beliefs are not you. They are separate, distinct, and changeable. Second, you learn that they’re not capital-T True, but rather opinions masquerading as facts for the purposes of simplicity (it would be harder to live in a world in which we needed to question everything). And third, you learn that it doesn’t matter if they’re True, because true or not, verifiable or not, your beliefs shape your life in the same way a house is shaped by its frame. Your beliefs set the limits of who you can become.

In seeing this (beliefs are not you, not True, and they dictate the path of your life), I acquired a superpower. I realized I could change my beliefs, and that by changing them I would change the path of my life and my business.

Growth as a leader looks an awful lot like progressively moving your beliefs/identity from Subject to Object, and then consciously choosing which of your beliefs serve you and which should be discarded.

Related, Seth Godin wrote a really interesting piece the other day in which he proposed a framework through which to evaluate your beliefs. First you have to excavate them through radical self inquiry. You have to be willing to look objectively (this is no small task, and I can attest that it usually requires some pain). But once you’ve identified one, I like this framework for the evaluation:

Is it working?

Is it helpful?

Is it true? 

Do you need it to be true?

What would change your mind?

So here we are, hustling, and mostly blind to the extent to which the outcomes we produce are a product of our beliefs. Only those people who believe they can start a business ever actually do. Only the people who believe they can be President of the USA actually are. Over the last 15 years I’ve learned that I can change my beliefs to support me in what I’m up to in the world. I can consciously design a belief structure that most supports my goals and expand the limits of what’s possible for myself, if I am able to see my beliefs as separate from myself. To look at them as Object, rather than subject.

From where I’m standing there is no more direct path to growth. And yet most of us aren’t willing to look.

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
― J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Our beliefs about which car to buy, and which entrepreneurs to fund

A friend of mine, a ~50 year old male and car-junky, was asked by an executive at an American automotive manufacturer what kind of car he drove. With pride told the executive the specific make and model of the pickup truck he’d bought the year before. He described the research he’d done to determine the best fit for his lifestyle, and the thought that went into picking the color.

“Seems like that truck is uniquely yours,” the executive said. “Is it dark grey?”

My friend thought the executive was a mindreader until he explained that their marketing team (and those of other manufacturers) had gone to great lengths to ensure that men his age associated themselves with a specific make/model/color of truck (look at how many grey pickups are on this list, for example). Their marketing was responsible for his “unique” perspective.

In the same way, marketing around entrepreneurship (what I semi-affectionately refer to as “startup porn”) has taught us that the prototypical entrepreneur is a 25-year old kid who dropped out of school to start his company and moved to the valley. This idea, likely started through the amplification of stories like Zuckerberg & Jobs, is so pervasive that some of the top VCs find themselves biasing toward younger entrepreneurs as an affect.

And it’s wrong. Research shows that the fastest growing tech startups are run by people around the age of 45, and that 50-year old entrepreneurs were about twice as likely to have a runaway success in their business as their 30-year old counterparts.

So if you’re 45-years old and contemplating buying a grey pickup truck, consider starting a business instead. The odds have never been more in your favor.

How the way we state our beliefs about strategy can cause bad decisions

I actually thought the idea of “Strong opinions, loosely held” as an acceptable style of communication in business was dead years ago, but I continue to hear my (mostly white, male) counterparts using it as a battering ram to justify overconfidently stating their beliefs as facts, so apparently it’s still a thing.

If you or someone you know is still arguing your point with bombastic verve, thinking that everything is ok as long as you are “willing to change your mind when presented with new information,” please let this excellent article on the Glowforge blog set the record straight.

The idea of strong opinions, loosely held is that you can make bombastic statements, and everyone should implicitly assume that you’ll happily change your mind in a heartbeat if new data suggests you are wrong. It is supposed to lead to a collegial, competitive environment in which ideas get a vigorous defense, the best of them survive, and no-one gets their feelings hurt in the process.

What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic (person) states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.

The most correct belief doesn’t win in a SOLH environment, the person who states theirs with the most volume and conviction does (and often the person least willing to examine their belief consciously). Unless your loudest, most certain person is also the most right, this makes for a bad way to make strategic decisions.

Now, a caveat.

While SOLH carries a heavy tax as a communication framework, telling your high powered executives to defer and demur comes with its own cost. One of the tools of an effective leader is creating a feeling of certainty where none exists. Given the uncertain times we live in, the ability to establish a vision and instill a belief that that vision will come to fruition in your team despite the odds is a critical skill of leadership. We can’t afford to sacrifice strong leadership in the pursuit of good decision making. So what to do?

Can we have both?

Through an amazing little hack from the same article, the answer is yes.

Fortunately, there is a remarkably simple solution to the problem…all you need to do is add a degree of uncertainty to your statements. For example:

“I’m 90% sure we shouldn’t try to build our own social network.”

“I’m 50/50 on whether to do this with Cloud SQL or Cloud Datastore.”

“I have a low conviction hunch that the airplane icon will work better than the gift box.”

In my experience, this technique works like a light switch.

Useful tweets for those raising money while not in a major market

Assuming you have a solid, fundable company (see this infographic to determine), raising money is ALL about who you know. I had the misfortune of having to get good over the years at using LinkedIn to find who knew who knew the guy that I wanted to talk to, and then over a period of weeks I’d find a way to have those guys casually bring me up in conversation.

It was exhausting.

Luckily, I hear things are changing. Check out this tweetstorm from this VC at Creandum below (click for the thread):

I can’t attest to the effectiveness of this as I’m not currently on the fundraising trail, but if you are, give these cold emails a shot and let me know if you get a response.

If you do, a word to the wise:

Just how vulnerable should you be as a leader?

I caught the tail end of an interesting conversation between entrepreneurs on Twitter the other day. It was my favorite type of conversation; the type that doesn’t have a right answer (which is why I got a creative writing degree rather than calculus). I’d love your thoughts so I can better formulate my own.

Here it is:

While I understand where Ryan Denehy, an experienced entrepreneur, is coming from, I question whether his implication is really true. Does vulnerability really equal weakness? Is it not possible to be strong and confident, while also being vulnerable? Are these traits on opposite ends of a spectrum?

My experience tells me otherwise, but I’m only 60% sure.

I’d love your thoughts and experiences on this. Reply to this email or leave a comment.

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