Stubborn Visionaries & Pigheaded Fools

Scenario 1 (S1)
At time (A) you start an AdWords campaign. At time (B) it’s obviously not working; a waste of time and money. But you keep trying, and by time (C), you’ve figured it out; it’s working!
Scenario 2 (S2)
At time (A) you start an AdWords campaign. At time (B) it’s obviously not working; a waste of time and money. But you keep trying, but by time (C), it’s still not working, and you’ve wasted even more time and money.
We’ve all experienced both scenarios, not just in AdWords but with life in general.
But we misunderstand it.
S1 we call “success through perseverance,” and you’ve heard this echoed in many platitudes. Winners never quit, and quitters never win. Failure is a step on the path to success. Failure is a pivot away from success. Learn from your mistakes and next time you will succeed. Fake it ’till you make it. The thing all failed startups have in common is that the founders stopped trying.
S2 we call “failure through obstinance,” and you’ve heard this echoed in many platitudes. Doing the same thing expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Those who cannot be introspective and honestly see things as they are, will fail. The only way to truly fail is to not recognize temporary failures and pivot. The thing all failed startups have in common is that the founders didn’t pay attention to what was happening outside their own egotistical worldview.
Are these the correct conclusions? No, they’re not.
Let’s consider S1 and S2 at time (B). Until this point, they are identical. So, how are you to know, at time (B), which scenario you’re in? Because if you’re in S1 you’d be a fool to stop, but if you’re in S2 you’d be a fool to continue. How are you to know whether you’ll end up as a cautionary tale of someone who couldn’t let go when he’s clearly wrong-headed, or as a hero who bravely fought through doubt to prove everyone wrong?
So maybe you shouldn’t find out! Just stop at (B). No again, because if you’re on the path of S1 you’ve lost your win. If you were on S2, you were “smart” to stop, but either way you’ve failed to achieve something useful. Thus, stopping is sure failure while persisting is at least possibly of success. Stopping doesn’t seem smart.
You cannot know. Not for AdWords, not for product design, not for the vision of your company and the market you hope to create around it, not for almost anything, big or small.
VCs cannot know either, though it’s their job to try. They’re smart and do this for a living but almost always it doesn’t work. No one knows which path you’re on.
So now we can see that the typical, backward-looking interpretation of these two scenarios is not the best way for us to understand the choices in front of us today, nor to evaluate our decisions in hindsight. It’s not even clear that we’ve “learned anything,” whether the outcome was good or bad.
Perhaps all we’ve done is made some choices and observed some results, and that’s the end of it.
You could read this as depressing, because nothing is predictable and even the wisdom we believe we accumulate along the way is false wisdom. But clearly this point of view isn’t exactly true.
So, read this as a positive, and realize that it liberates you to make decisions more easily — with less second-guessing in the moment, and less guilt afterwards.
When you realize you cannot know which scenario you’re in, you realize that the job is to find out which one as quickly as possible, which means to cease your dithering on the decision itself, make a strong decision, keep your eyes open, hope for S1, but allow for S2, to not feel guilty if you guessed wrong, and not feel too cocky if you guessed right.
So, just shut up and get going. And when you’re done with that, don’t look back too much, just shut up and get going again.
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