I once knew a guy who worked out of his enormous garage as a computer hobbyist. He didn’t make a lot of money at providing some technical expertise to other hobbyists, but he just loved computers, and it was like a warehouse in there, with every kind of part imaginable. He built a lot of custom stuff, tinkered for years, and was always sort of pushing the boundaries. He started doing network setup for businesses, then he was one of the first people to bring Satellite internet to his area and started an ISP and, eventually, his business became a growing concern – a serious contender until the broadband revolution changed the game. I don’t know what happened to him after that, since I moved away, but what I remember was the fact that he tinkered at and nursed his idea for years.
I know of a music artist who has spent probably every spare dollar he ever had on his music, on keeping a small band together, on travelling relentlessly, restlessly, anywhere and everywhere that would put him on the bill, making sure there’s cash flow, making sure they keep performing, keep getting their name out there. Just watching it for a few years is a lesson in agonizing patience. But that’s why he’s so well known, and why he gets paid to do what he loves.
I know a person who spent years working in traditional employment, but writing in specific areas of personal and academic interest, only to see the traditional employment dry up out from under him, and the writing be roundly rejected, stolen, or expected for free. He spent some more years trying to stick with it and make it work, even after he knew it wouldn’t, but finally decided to cut every cost he could and do what interested him most that he could get paid for under his own brand, which is his name, rather than someone else’s shingle. He did the literary equivalent of defecting. And that’s when money started to come in – not a lot, but some. He spent some more years during this time taking speaking engagements that barely covered bad hotel rooms and all night diners, often not even that, but in the end, seemingly, it all just wasn’t enough to keep him afloat. More recently, though, he has discovered technology and, with an indefatigueable will to continue pushing upward, he is starting to build an online community surrounding his brand, and receive income from multiple streams without a lot of fixed cost.
Currently, I work with a company that I’m invested in – the original genius behind it has continued to add pieces to it for years and, when we connected, I brought some more pieces and we began to see traction, though it has taken a persistent, unforgiving, and sometimes thankless insistence by both of us on sticking with it, continuing to push it forward, and invest ourselves based on vision, belief, and commitment. People poo poo belief, but I don’t mean blind belief, thoughtless belief – I mean the quantity at which we each arrive based on our best analysis, our most thoughtful projection, and our tested, corroborated, and constantly open and challenged insight. People will later call it “faith”, or think we had magic prescience, but I think it’s actually a willingness to keep thinking through it, making the idea better, ask it questions – a relentlessness of thought that is our most important investment (more than money and time) in the process. If you want to call asking “what if it’s real, what if it’s a sure thing, what would we have needed to know, had to do, and gotten across to people in order to have gotten to that sure thing” faith, then OK it’s faith. But don’t call it empty – it’s full of the stuff that sustains life in the universe. It think 2011 is going to be our favorite year in terms of its growth as a startup,
Here’s what I take from watching those people, and what I think is value for us, and what might be useful to share with you, the reader: I think one of the characteristics of a lot of successful startups (and that’s what all of those examples are – startup businesses – however they may be structured), is that someone was willing, in fact insisted on, for as long as it took, tinkering with the idea to work out the kinks and the bugs, nursing it with whatever resources they had – whatever energy and money and time and thought they had, and never ceasing to insist on the value of it, the importance of it, the significance of it, or just the outright devotion and interest in it, that it takes to feel a commitment down in the fiber at the base of the human spine and in the base of the neck, that welds together the brain and the body’s action into the definition of relentless that so often is the best predictor of a sure thing, though perhaps too often just in hindsight.
The drop of water that falls over and over drills a hole in a cliff of hard rock. The wave breaks on the cliffs of the shore, but, with long enough, with refusing to stop, the cliffs break, recede, and become the ocean. It will sound like “nancified pie-in-the-sky quasi-religious optimism (that’s the dirtiest word of all, isn’t it?) to some. But that’s the point, you know: the one doing it – the one doing anything – doesn’t care, isn’t perturbed, that someone else sees it that way. He goes on anyway. He knows full well what others say, and he goes on, because it’s not a belief (if you like that word) that depends on others who aren’t contributing, but a conviction that is so often successful precisely because it does not depend on that. That’s why others look later, after the success, and attribute it to luck or accident (“must be nice!”) or magic or mere slyness (“you must be smart to have known that would work”).
You see, no one can see what’s coming from the standpoint, the ground, the place of disbelief, of alienation from the thing, of saying merely “prove it first, then I’ll act”. Vision – insight – prescience – comes from being the drop of water, from pushing when others say “I can’t see, so you can’t see – there’s nothing there.” The geek (they didn’t call them that back then) in the garage computer shop can see, even tho others think he’s just lazy and likes ‘playing with his computers’ (people used to talk like that – but now those same people can’t do a day’s work without a computer being involved in the supply chain somewhere, and they think people that “work” with computers – they don’t call it “play” anymore – are exceptionally smart and, if they got in early, were mysteriously prescient) – that geek could see because he was committed to something that commitment itself created – of course it was invisible to anyone not as driven, not all in, not involved.
The band leader could see what was at the end of those nights on the road, the road food, the road rooms, the road friends, and all the road hassles when the heater broke and the van had a flat. He’s still seeing, still looking, and still being proven right. He sees with eyes that are located not in the part of the brain that deals with proof, but in the part that is capable of acting on desire without proof. And the author that’s flying his own flag, in his own name, is still early enough in that arena that you could argue there’s “risk” there – sure, there’s risk getting up in the morning – you might risk looking in the mirror and finding you’re a clone of something your boss picks out of his teeth. But there’s a lot less risk, when you insist on going forward, and you know where that energy comes from – when the ennervation is the unwillingness to sacrifice what interests you for a life spent pursuing only someone else’s interests.
What I hope I get, and my colleague gets, from these kinds of observations – which are there precisely, folks, to encourage us – don’t think the signposts on the path are just flotsam – they’re there, because we need examples, we need to remind ourselves who we are, what we want, and what we’re built to do – what I hope we get is a Rule of Work: Success, when in doubt, belongs to those willing to tinker with and nurse their ideas the longest. An unwillingness to fail is, at some point, just an unwillingness to yield, to lose heart, to start surveying the crowd for what they can’t possibly see, to give up one’s own clarity for that, the clarity that comes from being willing to give what it takes without a guarantee handed to him in advance.
That’s a rule I’m chasing after. It’s not for the timid, nor the faint of heart – these success stories start out as potential horror stories told to those afraid of trying anything original. How do I know? They’ll tell them back to you that way, of course, complete with the ‘sound effects’ of financial ruin, wasted life, embarrassed laughter, and a reputation leaping to its death. They don’t know what kind of story this really is – that, in the end, the one who didn’t stop, ate the big, bad thing that was out to get us all, chewed it legs and arms dangling, and burped after a very long, but finally very satisfying dinner. I hope we all eat as well as these examples who could see in the dark.