"I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened"
"What if, after pouring all my resources and my soul into this new venture for the next two years, I end up failing? What if after all the effort and suffering I end up with nothing, what will I do then to bounce-back?"
The questioner stood at the microphone, a look of acute discomfort as she imagined this dark future for herself, and the demise of the startup that she hadn't yet created.
I was on a panel about entrepreneurship at a Columbia Business School event, in a room full of budding founders and I was torn about how to respond. Should I respond politely with what this person wanted to hear -that failure sometimes happened and it couldn't be helped, that failure was rare and that I, too, had had the same doubts before startup up my company, but it had all worked out ok for me so therefore it would for her too?
Or should I tell her the truth about her question, and give her some shot at actually getting going?
I opted for door number two.
"May I make a suggestion?"
She nodded, so I continued, "The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the quality of your questions. And what you just asked me is not a quality question".
This may sound harsh, but so is starting and growing a company. As an entrepreneur embarking on a new venture you simply cannot ask yourself something that is purpose-built to prevent you from even approaching the starting block. The questions you ask have an enormous impact on your ability to succeed - or else they set you up for failure or its devious cousin - paralysis.
The better question in this situation might be - "how do you bounce back from set backs?", or "how did you manage yourself when things got really bleak?" These kinds of questions elicit specific strategies from people, not alibis or sob stories.
We are constantly asking ourselves questions throughout the day, that impact what we focus on and therefore the results we get. Consider the difference between asking yourself, "Why am I always so tired", vs "What was I doing differently when I felt more energetic?" The first directs you towards answers such as, "Because I work too hard", "Because I don't have any time for myself", "Because I'm doing everyone else's job!", which encourage a pity party. Poor, tired me!! Boo hoo!!
The second question, encourages you to think about a time in your life when you felt more energetic, and consider what you were doing differently then. Perhaps you were eating more healthily, sleeping at a certain time each day, exercising daily or some such. Whatever it is, it focuses you on a solution, on something that is within your immediate control. I asked myself this same question when I was preparing to write this piece, and it inspired me to go for a super long run (the last time I remember feeling incredibly energized was when I was training regularly for marathons, and I had let this slip recently).
Being an entrepreneur is no different from any other kind of leader, and step one in both cases is to manage your state. And the biggest key in managing your state is ensuring you only feed your mind with quality questions. Ask questions that contemplate the outcome you would like, rather than questions designed to dissect and dwell on what you don't want. Crappy, self-defeating questions are a luxury and an indulgence that you can no longer afford - if you ever could.
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