Excerpt from A Deliberate Pause


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Part I: Entrepreneur

    Chapter 2: Exploring the Myths of the Entrepreneur


(Pages: 44-51)

The Choice to See Things Differently

Anytime a closely held belief is taken away, adjusting to a new reality can be hard. If you have a pre-existing knowledge of entrepreneurship, stripping away these myths can feel unsettling. It’s akin to saying that behind the white beard, Santa Claus isn’t who believers trust him to be.

Yes, many really do believe that entrepreneurs are superhuman power forces (solo actors) who do what they do for financial gain (motivation). They accomplish things by magic (the force of personality or luck), and from a mere dice roll (risk taking), they live a life others only dream of (freedom). How great that would be—if only it were true.

The Unsettling Feeling of Having Santa Unmasked

If I took that same approach to Santa Claus, my young kids and I would all be mighty unhappy on Christmas Day.

The reasons for celebrating Christmas—the festivities, brightly wrapped packages, and fairy-tale stories—are more complex than the reindeer, chimneys, and cookies-and-milk image our culture perpetuates. A much deeper force prevails for kids and grown-ups alike: belief.

No matter how you arrive at this conclusion as a grown-up, if you celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas, at some level (conscious or not), you do so because you believe it’s a good thing. Likely you believe you’re teaching your children about giving and wonder, about suspending reality, about embracing the magical mindset of “what if.” What if people really could fly around the world? What if wishes really could be granted?

For children, believing feels easy, pure. At tender ages, their minds haven’t yet put any boundaries on what’s possible. Why wouldn’t they believe someone could fly, or squeeze down a chimney, or grant three wishes? Any rules that stop their beliefs come much later; so does their willingness to accept those rules. Here’s what I know. Belief is such a powerful force that when you believe something deeply enough, whatever it is, nothing can dissuade you.

It’s the same for entrepreneurs.

An Entrepreneur’s View of Risk

What makes the entrepreneur’s view of risk, or any other myth about entrepreneurs for that matter, different from what outsiders perceive? Let’s take an even closer look at the risk taker myth and examine one critical element—the “no choice” factor—that separates entrepreneurs from others and differentiates their views.

First, risk is relative—not just to others’ perceptions of what entrepreneurs do, but to what entrepreneurs actually dream of doing themselves. In their minds, any risk gets compared against the reward of what they seek to achieve.

Second, entrepreneurs consciously weigh the risks of not acting on their vision—the opportunity costs. They never see it as one choice among several “jobs” available, nor do they take action because someone told them they should. And their motivation for pursuing their chosen path isn’t a finite reward—a salary, a net worth value, or an end point like becoming a company president or making the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies.

In actuality, entrepreneurs do what they do because they want to, because they believe they need to, because they feel something must change, because they know their actions are required to make that change. They believe they simply have no choice. Their conclusion is “if not me, who?”

This “no choice” factor is arguably the prime factor enabling them to move beyond an initial idea to take action, to compel and activate others to join in. They want to generate the value that results from catalyzing a vision, not just talk about it.

Contrast that to the conclusions most of us draw. We have big ideas but few act on them and fewer yet take them somewhere, engage others, and create lasting change. At play is always a sense of risk—that is, the risk of losing what we have, of assuming greater burdens, of ridicule, of many more possibilities. Risk can stop us short of action.

Not so for the entrepreneur. “It’s really less about risk than you think,” said Mary Naylor, the founder or co-founder of several ventures, and honored multiple times with awards for her entrepreneurial achievements. She isn’t speculating; she knows the passion of her pursuits relative to the perception of risk. “That view (of me as a risk taker) is imposed on me by others and from outside. In a sense, I am more stable because I am controlling my own decisions.” In fact, Mary and others like her, are more stable and more tuned into risk than outsiders looking in realize. Entrepreneurs are determined to survive. Yes, this concept of stability deserves further explanation, but understanding why entrepreneurs relate to survivors provides a helpful base.

Survival in the Truest Sense

Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival, knows about survivors. As an extreme adventure enthusiast and a writer for such publications as National Geographic Adventure and Outside magazines, he has studied survivors for decades. He recognizes parallels between the survivors he writes about and entrepreneurs.

Describing entrepreneurs, Laurence said, “Theirs is survival in the truest sense. Whatever form ‘wilderness’ may take, entrepreneurs are constantly forced to make decisions in an unknown environment—some very serious ones that may determine their fate—and do so with incomplete information and conflicting signals. In every way, they function in the opposite environment of a comfort zone.”

That sounds like a risky place to be, especially by choice. But in effect, the lack of choice itself serves to mitigate the risk. For the many wilderness survivors Laurence has observed, they also had no choice except to will themselves to move forward, to keep a clear head, to be resourceful, to survive for something bigger than themselves. And that’s the whole point about survival; no one would be mad enough to do certain things if they weren’t absolutely necessary.

This mirrors what happens to entrepreneurs as they evolve to the point of feeling they have “no choice” but to move forward. It feels horrific to them not to address an injustice or not to tap into an opportunity that would make their world better. Their vision of what it should look like galvanizes them; having no choice becomes their commitment. They do it less for their own reward or well-being, and more for the well-being of humanity. Gene Foley, the first head of the Small Business Association, said it this way: “Entrepreneurs truly think and believe that humanity is waiting for them.”

For entrepreneurs, risk lies in not acting on their “what if?” ideas. For them, alternatives to what they’re pursuing carry a much higher risk than the entrepreneurial paths they’ve chosen.

“No Choice”—A Common Thread Among Several Elements

Although this “no choice” factor obviously undermines the risk taker myth, it also contributes to the dismissal of all of the myths about entrepreneurs. Consider how it ties in with the solo actor and the motivation myths. When choice is based on what you must do for humanity and not yourself, any belief that you can achieve it all by yourself quickly falls away—it’s simply too big to conquer solo. So, too, does the possibility that one measure alone can define motivation. When the desired reward will be shared with many, you can’t calculate or classify value by yourself.

More than representing a common thread that dispels the mythology of the entrepreneur, the “no choice” factor aligns with other lessons in this book. For example, in Chapter 3, The Entrepreneur as Change Catalyst, you’ll learn that this “no choice” factor is central to one of the five elements that makes the entrepreneur truly distinct. And in Chapter 7, The Evolution from Dream to Reality, you’ll discover where the “no choice” factor comes from—a deep awareness of self and extreme confidence in one’s own abilities.

This point about confidence is worth a preview here.

When studying entrepreneurs leads us to that link between the “no choice” factor and self, self-awareness, and self-confidence, it shifts our discussion. Who entrepreneurs are and what they do evolve from being a gamble to becoming a certainty, even a feeling of destiny. Geoff Smart stated it this way: “With entrepreneurs, risk is about a willingness to bet on one’s own talent. But to them, it feels like a sure bet.”

Geoff and his team at ghSMART have helped countless private equity investors, Fortune 500 CEOs, and entrepreneurs comprehend what makes for successful leaders and thriving ventures. His company has assessed thousands of successful executives, more than half of whom Geoff considers entrepreneurs. (He has also benefited from his Ph.D. graduate work at Claremont College with management guru Peter Drucker, someone who knew a thing or two about entrepreneurs.)

Geoff has concluded that “entrepreneurs realistically assess and have confidence in their own talents, and are willing to allow their talents to be a disproportionate part of the mix. It’s bounded risk.” It’s here the connection starts. If I, as an entrepreneur, know myself well enough to trust my own talents and intuition, then when I believe I have “no choice” except to pursue a change, its size, complexity, and initial resistance from others is relative. Rather than seeing them as impossibilities, the resistance I face and the hurdles I encounter represent lessons I must learn, things I must try, steps I must take. More than that, they tell me which areas to engage others in my vision so I can tap their abilities to jump the hurdles.

Believing they have no choice except to do what they must brings a whole new perspective to understanding who entrepreneurs are—and why they do what they do. This factor doesn’t minimize the fallacy of the myths about entrepreneurs; it simply plays a critical role in defining these individuals and distinguishing them from others.

[side story]

Gene Kahn’s Vision: No Choice for Everyone

When Gene stopped within inches of completing his Ph.D. work and began learning organic farming, he didn’t know then that he’d create one of the most successful organic food companies in the world.

But that wasn’t the point.

Gene did know he wanted to better the planet and man’s interaction with it. And he knew he had no choice but to figure out how. So organic farming became his first step. But he knew there was more. After all, no one gives up years of hard work and the promise of academic tenure without cause. But in Gene’s mind, there was no question. He struck out in the direction of his vision by way of organic farming, knowing he had a lot to learn.

Gene’s first hurdle came when he began farming in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Now, anyone who knew organic farming would have told him this choice of locale was less than optimal. Maybe they did. Maybe they even called him crazy. Maybe that just emboldened him all the more. But he quickly found out why.

The soggy Olympic Peninsula has one of the highest rainfalls of anywhere in the U.S., with up to 12 feet falling each year in some areas. High rainfall means more fungus growth on fruits and vegetables. And in the absence of pesticides (a no-no in organic farming), that tends to mean lower crop yields—maybe disastrously low.

A hurdle? Yes. A risk? That was to be determined. But this much was clear to Gene: He had chosen a path to better man’s relationship with the natural world that no one had been able to crack except in modest ways. For him, finding a sustainable way was a necessity. The way itself was secondary; he gave himself no choice but to make it happen.

You could call Gene Kahn stubborn, but not stupid. He knew he’d face hurdles, even if he hadn’t fully internalized how hard they’d be to overcome. And the hurdles weren’t just conceptual. Right from his first fungus-covered harvest, his high hurdles became challenges and temporary blind spots in his knowledge.

So Gene went to work to find ways around the hurdles, even transform them before the cement was set. He accumulated a library of every conceivable text on organics and agriculture, farming and soil content, climates, and more. (Today, he has one of the most extensive and rare collections.) He read voraciously. He talked with his community of fellow farmers, with scientists, with anyone from whom he could glean insights. Through these sources and testing new farming methods, Gene reduced the threats to ensure he could grow promising crops. More than discovering the answer, he created a new one; more than lessening a risk, he mastered it.

Over the years, Gene has repeated this process countless times. After figuring out the best way to grow organic crops, he had to get them to market while still at the peak of freshness. (Flash freezing became the answer—something mainstream food producers had used for years, but which organic growers had rejected as non-traditional while they watched their produce wither on the way to market.) Once he’d jumped that hurdle, he was challenged to get organics accepted into mainstream supermarkets. Then the hurdle became producing volume; later it became offering enough variety to win shelf space.

On and on it went. And on and on it goes perpetually. Gene kept seeing these hurdles as more detailed lessons he needed to learn to reach his goals, not as risks or reasons to give up. Time and again, he found ways to mitigate risk on the way to his fulfilling his vision.

You can be sure that people whispered behind Gene’s back (if they didn’t laugh to his face) because they believed the risks he was taking would break him. But Cascadian Farms has not only become a success in its own right; it has also opened the doors to having shelf upon shelf of organic foods in our supermarkets today.

Skepticism and accusations of risk taking don’t end for those with big visions and no choice. Not too long ago, Gene sold the family of companies he’d created or acquired (Small Planet Foods) including Cascadian Farms to General Mills, a large mainstream food producer of such brands as Cheerios, Betty Crocker, and Green Giant. More than one of his admirers called him a traitor.

But for Gene, the move wasn’t about abandoning the plan; it was part of the plan. Rather than selling to the outsider (what some viewed as the enemy), Gene was becoming an insider. He was seeking change on a larger scale, not by throwing stones but by infiltrating.

Ultimately, Gene’s vision was never only about Cascadian Farms. It was about bettering the planet and man’s interaction with it. By now working with a well-accepted mainstream leader in his industry, Gene is methodically moving all of us—every eater of Cheerios or peas—to one day conclude that we have “no choice” but to better the planet and our interaction with it.

[end side story]

One Last Look at a Fading Mythology

Think back to the Flipper Syndrome. There is a randomness to the choices dolphins make about what to push. The important fact—for them and for us—is that dolphins like to push things. Their ability to push people doesn’t mean dolphins have a penchant for saving those lost at sea. They aren’t conscious or reliable heroes.

Just like we shouldn’t count on dolphins for rescue, we shouldn’t rely on myths to tell us the truth about entrepreneurs or their relative role in entrepreneurship. We may have a Horatio Alger desire to want every entrepreneur to be a hero and every entrepreneurial venture to go from rags to riches. It makes a good story to call someone a swashbuckling risk taker acting alone, with nothing but personality and a run of good luck to deliver freedom, wealth, and success. But believing what we want to believe rather than searching out the truth leaves us adrift with nothing but a poor understanding—of entrepreneurship or anything else.

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