It Seemed Like The Thing To Do At The Time

The Power of State of Mind

This is Part One of our “Lessons From Failure”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/lessons-from-failure Series.

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” JOHN DEWEY

Several years ago, I changed careers, moving from designer to entrepreneur starting a dot com company. The experience taught me many lessons in the basics of how—and how not—to successfully build an Internet business. But the most valuable lesson I learned—one applicable to any business model, design challenge, technology, or industry—was in the powerful links connecting state of mind, self-definition, and failure. Startlingly, these same links appear no matter what size the group of people or the venture: from design projects and startup teams, to cultures seeding colonies abroad, state of mind and self definition are closely connected to how well a group responds to failure.

In the midst of the exuberant rush to (re)create communities on the Internet for a dizzying array of peoples and purposes, we should understand and respect this underlying pattern, whatever our role: founder, designer, or member. For though the growing wave of technosocial media may change how we conceive of and relate to the Internet by offering abundant opportunities to create and join new societies, these societies will remain driven by fundamental elements of state of mind and self definition.

To illustrate these ideas, I’ll briefly discuss three examples of new societies—the entrepreneurial ventures of their respective cultures—that faced failure: first, the small Internet company I founded, then two cultures facing environmental challenges. Two of these societies failed, and one succeeded.

It Seemed Like the Thing To Do at the Time

In the winter of 1999, I decided to start a business with two partners. I was working as an Internet strategy and design consultant at the time, so moving from designing online businesses for clients to designing one for myself felt like a natural step. We had a talented group of founders with the right mix of experience, and we had a good idea. We needed money in order to build substantial business and technology infrastructure, but capital for a good idea was easy to obtain in early 2000. Becoming an entrepreneur genuinely seemed like the thing to do at the time, since it offered a good opportunity to apply my skills and experience at a new level, and to my own vision.

We worked diligently to build the company for the next twelve months. Our team grew from 3 people to 10 people in the U.S. and China. We recruited a (bad) CEO. We recruited a (good) CTO. We assembled an impressive roster of critical business partners and advisors on both continents. We were fortunate—given the terrible business climate for online companies after the dot com crash—to receive several funding offers from the very beginning. But none of them were sufficient, and some were downright shady (I met a number of “unusual” people during this time 1).

In March of 2001, after a year of unpaid overtime, I left my regular full-time position to dedicate all of my time to the new company. In this, I was joined by several other team members. Based on our previous successes, we believed proper funding was literally around the corner. Our business plan was exquisite, our financial projections were meticulous, we had customers and staff in place, and our execution strategy was finely honed. Like a Broadway production awaiting the audience on opening night, we were ready to go. All we needed was capital.

By the summer of 2001, despite considerable success during difficult times, we were at a financial breaking point. Lacking strong revenue, we could not continue without help from outside in the form of legitimate funding. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 shut down the New York capital markets, closing the door on any hope of venture funding shortly afterward. We closed up shop, my partners went their various ways, and I took another full-time position.

A Moment for Reflection

After the team disbanded, I reflected on the experience to understand why we had failed.

Vizzini’s Advice

In retrospect, as Vizzini from the Princess Bride would say, we made a series of classic blunders:

  • We had a complex concept
  • We sought too much money during a difficult funding climate
  • We hired the wrong CEO (beware of business men who dress like Cuban drug smugglers)
  • We were not willing to compromise or modify our plans
  • We grew the team too quickly
  • We relied on unrealistic financial projections
  • We underestimated the operational challenges

As a once and future entrepreneur, I interpreted these as straightforward lessons for my next venture: begin with an idea that is easy to understand, be flexible, don’t fear change, involve only trustworthy and talented people, make realistic financial assumptions about revenue and income etc.

In summary, I understood that our failure was driven by the fact that we focused too much effort on securing external funding, and not enough on growing essential day to day operations. Vizzini would say our true blunder was that we did not get involved on the ground in Asia!

The Power of State of Mind

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” THOMAS ALVA EDISON

Staying the Course…

People often ask why we made the decisions that took us from our first to our final steps. Why didn’t we change our plans? Why didn’t we put more effort into other ways to build infrastructure? I always answer, “It seemed like the thing to do at the time.” Meaning because of our state of mind and the progress we’d made, this course of action seemed the best way to reach our goal. We certainly didn’t intend to fail!

State of mind is an umbrella term for the common outlooks and framing assumptions that define the ways people perceive and think about situations and themselves. State of mind also sets boundaries for what people can and cannot consider. In practice, individuals and groups interpret the world through a state of mind that defines their understanding of:

  • Cultural concepts and ideas
  • Their needs and goals
  • The situations and environments around them
  • Their roles and the roles of others (both groups and individuals)
  • Available choices and actions
  • The results of those choices and actions

In retrospect, it is clear our team shared a common state of mind that we were unwilling or unable to change. In this state of mind, underlying all the decisions we made from beginning to end was a single goal: seeking external funding was the best thing to do for the business. Based on our shared understanding, we pursued this goal far past the point when a heavily venture-funded model became invalid, because the environmental conditions that sustained it had collapsed.

A glance at the headlines provides abundant examples of similar responses to failure driven by state of mind, such as the heated debate between the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration over different approaches to the ongoing U.S. involvement in Iraq. President Bush’s state of mind is epitomized by his dictum to “stay the course,” a view that substantially determines the choices considered possible by his administration.

Waiting for Rescue: Self vs. Other

Some time ago, I came upon a quotation from an 8th century Buddhist philosopher named Shantideva that changed my perspective on my experience as an entrepreneur. In “Entering the Path of Enlightenment,” 2 Shantideva writes, “Whoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practice the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other.” When Shantideva says, “exchange of self and other,” he is advising us to change our self-definition, one of the most basic components underlying state of mind.

Shantideva, or Manjushri

So I came to see that my team of entrepreneurs had set out on the wrong path from the beginning, and never wavered, because our state of mind rested on defining ourselves as venture funded entrepreneurs. We never considered changing our self-definition. Obtaining funding became part of our identity, rather than a pragmatic business activity. There is a second parallel with Shantideva’s words: we were unable to consider other courses of action even after we recognized that we were in danger of failing, because we were waiting for rescue from outside. We believed outside funding would save us.

We never considered how our self-definition was leading us to failure. Nor did we consider that we might find another way to succeed if we changed our self-definition. President Bush would be proud: we managed to stay the course!

Easter Island: A Machine for Making Statues

My experience as an entrepreneur shows the power of state of mind in societies on the small scale of a closely focused startup team. The Easter Island society that collapsed in the 18th century clearly demonstrates the strong connections between self-definition and failure on the much larger scale of a complex society of approximately 15,000 people. (The discussion that follows draws upon the work of Jared Diamond in Collapse. 3)

Easter Island

Easter Island was settled approximately 1200 A.D. by Polynesians from islands further to the west. 4 The small (64 miles square) island remained essentially self-contained due to its remote location in the Pacific Ocean. 5 The population increased quickly as settlers rapidly cleared forests for farming. Based on common Polynesian religious practices, the Easter Islanders began carving the immense volcanic stone statues (Moai) that make the island famous, mysterious, and photogenic.

Easter’s Statues

Over the next 500 years, in a remarkable demonstration of the power of a common state of mind and self-definition, Easter Island’s religious and ceremonial practices effectively turned the entire society into a machine for the construction of statues. 6 The Easter Islanders built their social and political system around the creation of statues. Reward mechanisms offered prestige and power to chiefs who competed to carve and erect ever larger statues, on ever larger platforms. Driven by this institutionalized self-definition, the population collectively invested massive effort into carving and transporting thousands of tons of stone for each burial platform and for the hundreds of giant Moai placed upon them. 7

Wood from the island’s forests was literally the fuel that kept this statue-making machine running. Farming to produce the food needed to feed large groups of workers required ever increasing amounts of cleared land. Moving statues required large wooden carriers and hundreds of miles of rope. Funerary rites mandated cremation and burial in the gigantic stone platforms. As Easter Island’s human and statue populations grew rapidly, estimates of the island’s forest coverage declined precipitously, as this comparison chart shows.

Figure 1: Forest Cover vs. Population 8

This self-reinforcing cycle of statue creation, deforestation, and population growth created a recipe for environmental collapse that lead to comprehensive social failure. 9 Conservationist Rhett A. Butler summarizes the findings of Terry Hunt, an anthropologist who studied Easter Island’s history of habitation:

“With the loss of their forest, the quality of life for Islanders plummeted. Streams and drinking water supplies dried up. Crop yields declined as wind, rain, and sunlight eroded topsoil. Fires became a luxury since no wood could be found on the island, and grasses had to be used for fuel. No longer could rope by [sic] manufactured to move the stone statues and they were abandoned. The Easter Islanders began to starve, lacking their access to porpoise meat and having depleted the island of birds. As life worsened, the orderly society disappeared and chaos and disarray prevailed. Survivors formed bands and bitter fighting erupted. By the arrival of Europeans in 1722, there was almost no sign of the great civilization that once ruled the island other than the legacy of the strange statues. However, soon these too fell victim to the bands who desecrated the statues of rivals.” 10

Lessons from Easter Island

Easter Island Today, Deforested

The tragic pattern is clear to see: though institutionalized practices and goals based on a narrow self-definition were leading to comprehensive failure, the Easter Islanders refused (or were unable) to change their state of mind and goals, and their entire society collapsed. To this day, Easter Island is almost totally deforested, with the exception of small patches of trees from recent plantings, and the ~400 stone statues that remain. In a potent instance of irony, the Easter Islanders succeeded in constructing dramatic and enduring stone testaments to those things their society valued, even as the act of constructing those monuments consumed their society. President Bush would be proud of the Easter Islanders, too—they stayed the course.

A Tikopial Paradise

It is on our failures that we base a new and different and better success.HAVELOCK ELLIS

Tikopia Today

The Pacific island society of Tikopia is a good example of a culture that successfully responded to failure, by changing how its members define themselves. Tikopia differs from Easter Island in ways that make the challenges its inhabitants faced more pressing. Tikopia has been inhabited far longer (since ~900 B.C.), is much smaller (only 1.8 miles square), has fewer natural resources, and supports a much higher population density than Easter Island. 11 Yet photographs of Tikopia today show a lush, green landscape that is well-forested, while the island is populated by closely spaced communities of villages, supported by well-tended gardens and farm fields.

Over the history of human habitation on Tikopia, three different economic and social models governed the production of food and management of the island’s environment. For the first 100 years of habitation, the Tikopians relied on a slash and burn style agricultural model that severely damaged their environment through deforestation. They also mined the nearby shellfish and bird colonies for needed protein.

Recognizing that this model was unsustainable on a tiny island, the Tikopians changed agriculture and food production practices to a mix of forest orchards and pig farming, wherein livestock made up ~50% of their protein sources. This new model retained a two-tiered social structure, allocating scarce protein to a ruling class of chiefs. Under the forest garden model, Tikopia’s environment continued to degrade, albeit more slowly than before.

Such a quick and comprehensive shift in economic and agricultural approaches across a whole culture—even a small one—is rare. By around 1600 A.D., the Tikopians again faced environmental and social breakdown driven by resource use. They again deliberately changed all aspects of their sustenance model and social structure in a single, closely coordinated effort:

  • Switched from unsustainable agriculture to a sustainable permaculture model 12
  • Completely eliminated expensive and inefficient livestock (pigs)
  • Substituted fish for large land animals
  • Removed social and economic distinctions—no more chiefs
  • Adopted stringent population management practices

Lessons from Tikopia

The dramatic changes in Tikopia’s social and economic model dating from ~1600 equate to a concerted shift of identity (self-definition) and state of mind for all of Tikopian society, a moment they commemorate to this day through oral storytelling. Unlike Easter Island, Tikopia’s society makes no distinction between the resources allocated to leaders and to the populace. Tikopian society does not reward environmentally destructive activity. The result is a stable population, kept carefully in balance for approximately 400 years by a range of practices that limit growth. All of these decisions were driven by a state of mind based on matching human impact with the island’s limited resources for the entire society.

Shantideva would surely say the Tikopians are remarkably flexible and resilient: instead of waiting for rescue, they averted failure (through environmental and social collapse) by redefining themselves not once, but twice.

Heed Shantideva

As an entrepreneur, I was one member of a small group making decisions about a single business venture which affected only our own lives. But as designers, architects, technologists, business owners, or anyone involved in building the new virtual societies emerging under the banner of social media, we have the power to affect many lives, by shaping self-definition and state of mind in a community from the very beginning.

We can’t predict every situation a starting society will face. But we can assume that potential failure is one challenge that may arise. And so—based on these three examples of societies facing failure—it seems wise to heed Shantideva’s advice about the exchange of self and other, thereby making our efforts now a part of the solution to future unknown problems. We can do this by allowing for changes to self definition, and by encouraging awareness of, and reflection on, state of mind, whether in our own venture or when we design a society for others.

Footnotes and References

1 They ran the gamut from debased expatriate executives, to corrupt former politicians (with gout), to alcoholic ex-CIA operatives, to the founder of a major mainframe computer maker, to veterans of anti-communist coups in Africa during the 70’s. Or so they said…

2 Bodhicaryavatara, ch. 8, v. 120

3 Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books: 2005.

4 Terry L. Hunt; Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island.

5 Easter Island is 1,400 miles from its nearest neighbor (tiny Pitcairn Island), and 2,500 miles from the nearest large land mass, Chile.

6 Competing clans and chiefs received social status and rewards, such as farmland and food resources, from the successful construction of more and larger statues, giving them clear incentives to continue carving and erecting Moai. In effect, Easter Island’s cultural / political / economic system was built around an unusual positive feedback loop, in which more statues for a clan meant more people and more power, which meant more statues, which meant more people and more power… Similar carving traditions exist among other societies elsewhere in Polynesia, but on much smaller scales.

7 A recent count shows 300 platform and burial sites (ahu) around the island, with approximately 400 statues. There are 300 tons of stone in a small ahu, and 10,000 tons of stone in the largest. The average moai is 13 feet tall and weighs 10 tons, the larger moai reach up to 32 feet tall and weigh 75 tons. Another 400 moai sit partly completed in quarries, reaching heights of up to 75 feet tall, and weighing 270 tons.

8 Simon G. Haberle, “Can climate shape cultural development?: A view through time,” Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Working Paper No. 18. Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Project, The Australian National University: Canberra, 1998 Working version obtained at http://coombs.anu.edu.au/Depts/RSPAS/RMAP/haberle.htm

9 Diamond writes, “The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct.”

10 Rhett A. Butler, Easter Island settled around 1200, later than originally believed

11 Tikopia; Tikopia.

12 Permaculture Permaculture.

Posted in Big Ideas, Case Studies, Learning From Others, Workplace and Career | 19 Comments »

19 Comments

  • Afshan Kirmani

    June 27, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Ah, a true piece of inspiration. I absolutely enjoyed the way you weaved in your knowledge of the world with a personal experience.

    The truth to success begins by admitting our failures. I loved your approach, Joe. Keep us updated buddy. :)

  • Brendan Hamley

    June 27, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Insightful, honest and true! How good to see an ‘expert’ open enough to show it’s OK to admit to being wrong.

    It’s a great article too, because it breathes life into the idea that we are people first and foremost – the determined expert persona is merely a useful by-product of this. I wonder, how many times we fail due to a misguided quest for self-worth through professional achievement? Perhaps we try too hard to convince ourselves (and others) that our professional beliefs and actions are the measure of who we are.

    There’s a new mantra I’ve been hearing lately; ‘ignorance is power’. I suspect this means that knowing what you don’t know is far wiser and more powerful than blindly believing you know everything.

    Good stuff and thanks.

  • Davee Evans

    June 27, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Can’t say I’ve ever seen Bodhisattva Shantideva’s writing in a business context before, thank you for working him into modern considerations.

    In my spiritual path, I’ve done a terrible job of following his advice. But his “exchanging self and other” suggestion to me means to always think of the welfare of others and try to see the world from the viewpoint of others as much as one can, instead of peering from the habitual castle of ‘self’ and ‘mine’. This does seem really in line with the discipline of design, since the overcoming of one’s bias and having a wider viewpoint is crucial for good design.

    Perhaps verse 110 from chapter 8 could be a usability designer’s creed (Padmakara Translation):

    Just as I defend myself,
    from all unpleasant happenings however small,
    Likewise I shall act for others’ sake,
    To guard and protect them with compassion.

  • Joe Lamantia

    June 28, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    @Afshan: Thanks!

    @Brendan: You’re quite right, it is easy to get caught up in the wearing the mantle of expert. Or any other mantle that’s as much constructed as real. Once your mantle closes you off to the world…

    On mantras, maybe ‘ignorance is power[fully bad]’ ?

    @Davee: I came upon Shantideva while looking for other things, yet the fit seemed natural; I suppose that happens often :) I think verse 110 would make a perfect creed for usability / design professionals.

  • Brendan Hamley

    June 29, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    Sorry I can’t agree with that!

    Maybe ignorance is/was the wrong word to use here, but the gist is that believing in something (insert: self/project/organisation/culture) 100% means there’s really no space for alternative options. From time to time, take the stance of someone who knows nothing and you may well help others (and yourself) to find the boundaries of what is REALLY known and understood about an issue.

    In the world of experts and professionals the person who is prepared to say ‘I don’t understand why’ or, ‘explain this to me in ways even I can understand’ illicits either a) new knowledge for the endeavour or b) understanding of where further examination is needed. Not that I’m recommending putting colleagues and associates on the defensive of course, just that some good open, honest ‘kings new clothes’ type questions can really shed light where insight and knowledge may not freely available.

    If some Easter Islanders had said; “Forgive our ignorance, but what will happen when the trees run out?” the resultant answer (or lack of one) might have saved their fate.

  • Joe Lamantia

    June 29, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    @Brendan: I agree. I suspect we’re working toward the same end — advocating for open-mindedness, asking why, revisiting unspoken assumptions, etc., all with the goal of keeping a flexible state of mind that allows for good alternatives to emerge from the discussion— even as we use different labels.

    As you say, taking the stance of someone without a deep set of preconceived notions or a rigidly defined point of view can be a powerful tool that furthers your understanding. That’s a method of discovery that many in design (and other) disciplines use to good effect.

    Shall we try again on the mantra:
    [adopting the stance of] ignorance is [a] power[ful way to enhance understanding]

    I wouldn’t recommend being or *staying* fully ignorant of what you’re trying to understand – and I’m sure that’s not what you had in mind, either.

    BTW: Diamond uses the idea of creeping normalcy to shed some light on how people might allow themselves to run out of trees. Creeping normalcy very briefly means that if each generation cuts down a few more trees, then the cumulative decrease in the number of trees over time can be hard to perceive. His discussion of course is more in depth…

  • Praveen Kumar Verma

    July 2, 2007 at 6:50 am

    Nice read Joe. The best thing about this article is that it is not about a tool or process but about perceptions, values, and attitudes. Also it is about redefining the thought process to cope up with the ever changing world and preparing oneself for unknown and unidentified challenges. It teaches one to look beyond “I” and to develop compassion and empathy for everyone. Loved the way you used history and personal experiences to corroborate your thoughts.

    Now talking about ignorance. If ignorance was bliss we would have never opened knowledge centers like universities and libraries churning and showcasing loads and loads of information. We thirst for knowledge and consume it all the time. May be ignorance is bliss sometimes (once in one million) but it is knowledge that prevails and keep us going.

    I would rather rewrite it to: Ignorance [informed] is bliss [rarely]
    I know that there is nothing called “Informed Ignorance” but just a wishful thinking.

    Waiting for more to come in the series.

  • Josh C

    July 3, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    Today the company I work for is at a transition point. The executives call it a ‘turnaround’. This ‘turnaround’ is being driven by a series of failures and missteps that ultimately lead to layoffs and being out of sync with the larger market.

    I’ve noticed how positional authority can predict the optimism of an employee. Directors and above are generally very optimistic and driven to see the company succeed. The lower you are on the food chain, the tendency for pessimism increases. I work in retail so the low man in the food chain interacts the most with our customers.

    Is the individual attitude governed by financial benefit or something less tangible like work ethic or ego? Or maybe it’s the realization that my ability to change an culture like a company is less as an individual contributor?

    It’s no wonder we see similarities between these societies and todays companies. Many of us invest significant energy at work and our fortunes rise and fall based on the success of our employers.

    On the one hand it’s about finding the simple path to success, but in a larger organization it’s about identifying each employee as a leader to lead the adaptation from failure – executives need to listen and act decisively. No doubt the members of your team were optimistic, smart and capable of running a profitable company. I’ve discovered that in a small team it’s harder to take the time to see the bigger picture.

    A start-up I worked for came to the brink of folding before realizing that talented people couldn’t create the ‘rain’ to support the good intentions. The masters of navigating failure realize the path from good intentions to reality lacks a road map. Maybe it’s dumb luck, maybe it’s fate – but I wouldn’t trade the failures for more success. Of course I’m not on Easter Island :)

  • Rafa R

    July 9, 2007 at 8:08 am

    Great article. Now we just need politicians to understand these concepts, too.

    Brendan:
    “Forgive our ignorance, but what will happen when the trees run out?”

    If they were like many people nowadays regarding global warming/contamination, the answer would probably have been something like “Oh, that would never happen; it hasn’t been proved that’s ever going to happen. And, if it does, we will *eventually* find a solution”.

    I heard that in Tahitian, a [polynesian language][1], there is no “future tense”. Therefore, the concept of the future and predicting what will happen, or worrying about the future consequences, is not present among the population. If this is true, and it applied to Easter Islanders, it could explain why nobody asked what would happen after all the trees had been cut.

    [1]:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tahitic_languages

  • laurie kalmanson

    July 16, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    very brave and funny; an xlent antidote to annoying, fawning “success” profiles in biz mags that editorially nod their heads when someone says they made a bazillion dollars thanks to insisting that the whole team do headstands every day

    sometimes, we win

  • Joe Lamantia

    July 17, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    @Praveen: I hope you enjoy the next few installments. I can’t guarantee they’ll be as philosophical / spiritual / etc. but they should be good reads.

    @Josh: Thanks for pointing out the connections linking positional authority, relative optimism (state of mind…), and the flexibility of an organizational culture. In an interesting parallel, I’ve read that wealth and high social standing tend to increase average lifespans, once you account for inherited health factors (like pre-disposition to heart disease). After setting aside variations due to genetics and access to health care, the driving factor that increases life spans is the ability to exercise control over the course of life. Having even a small sense of control over what happens in your life apparently makes you live longer. I wonder if the parallel holds for organizations? If the people who provide the core customer experience are the least positive, that must have an impact on the organization’s performance in the long run.

    @Rafa: Maybe you should make some calls to the government :)

    @ Laurie: I’m glad you enjoyed the change in tone! Anyone who’s succeeded (at anything) knows failure is always possible, and should be respected as a natural part of life. It’s also natural to look for good models and examples – “Nothing succeeds like success” – of what and how to do something, so I think we have more of those amped up profiles to look forward to…

  • Joan Vermette

    July 20, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    I guess…using a Tikopia as an example of successful adaptation is…interesting…you mention “stringent population control” measures they adopted, and it’s actually important to mention what those measures are: infanticide.

    So the Tikopians, in order not to have their culture fail, had to kill their own children.

    And, so, this is one of the things that keeps me from becoming an entrepreneur… a fear that I’d be asked, metaphorically of course, to kill my children…my pet ideas that in some cases might be the reason I started a business to begin with…and that might live and be useful if I weren’t living on a tiny island with limited resources…i.e., running my own tiny business.

    Anyone want to say more about this?

  • Noah Iliinsky

    July 24, 2007 at 12:46 am

    Joe, this is a great lesson.

    I’ve worked for several startups. One was an unqualified success: we were bought out for many millions of dollars and the founders are now rich. Two others languished or underperformed, despite brilliant ideas and dedicated, capable staff. They key difference was the willingness of the successful founders to change course and adapt to circumstances and feedback (changing our product focus while leveraging our underlying technology), rather than staying the unproven or unlikely but hoped-for course. ( I expand on this just a bit more here: http://blogs.exbiblio.com/2006/08/15/departure-noah-iliinsky/ )

    I’ll toss one more metaphor into play. Apply it to business, politics, or wherever you find it fits: they say it’s a bad idea to change horses in mid stream, but when the horse is in over its head…

  • Joe Lamantia

    July 24, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    @Joan: You’ve surfaced the painful side of managing a finite resource base, and balancing environmental capacity with growth. Other ‘population control’ practices the Tikopians employ include delayed marriage, delayed child-rearing, and what amounts to voluntary suicide by sailing away in an open raft without provisions when population gets too high. Note that these practices are quite a bit less common in the modern era – many people now emigrate to other islands.

    Given that Tikopians faced these sorts of choices, I think their careful stewardship of the environment through repeated comprehensive shifts in self-definition is easier to understand.

    I’ve received some wonderful insights from entrepreneurs since this article was published. One of the best was “an entrepreneur needs to remain engaged with the business while detaching from outcomes.” I think it’s sound advice, based on my experiences, and is something I will attempt to put into practice with my next venture. Of course, detachment from outcomes can be very tough to achieve if it’s something you believe in and have put effort into. But still, isn’t it better to give your idea a chance in the first place?

    @Noah: Sounds like you’ve seen this story from the inside a few times. How well did things work for you? Have you been able to gauge the flexibility of teams before you joined? [In other words, what should we be on the lookout for…?]

    Thanks for sharing the writeup.

  • Noah Iliinsky

    July 26, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    Joe, I didn’t get stuck in the companies that weren’t doing as well. I had excellent, educational experiences, and got out when it was clear that there were better opportunities out there. Both companies are still around, but not (yet?) changing the world.

    If I was to give one piece of advice I’d say make sure the leadership team is really more than one individual. The successful company had two excellent founders who very actively sought input from a board of investors and board of advisers. The other companies were each run by the individual founder, and in both cases had no real obligation to any investors or board, so they were allowed to drift, rather than proving themselves. Accountability is good incentive, it turns out.

    Hope that’s helpful to someone. Good luck to all!

  • John Biebel

    March 21, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Brilliant story – I’ve always found that tying actual historical experience to modern concerns creates a very human and humble beginning. You’ve taken some excellent examples of macro social architecture and applied them to your own thought process. Nice job!

  • Joe Lamantia

    March 23, 2008 at 5:36 am

    @Noah: Great advice on how to evaluate potential leadership – the contrasts between the two models are strong, and it sounds like the outcomes clearly reflect this.

    @John: Glad you enjoyed the macro/micro tales of woe for their (we hope) potential benefit as examples of what *not* to do!

  • Andries du Plessis

    May 13, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Thank for the personal experience mixed with a lesson from History… Food for Thought indeed and something I will mill over…

    A

  • Joe Lamantia

    May 16, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Andries: Glad you liked it. Are you thinking about becoming an entrepreneur sometime soon?

Sorry, comments are closed.