Persevere, Laugh at the Absurd and Let Nothing Get on Your Nerves
Over the last decade I’ve received the following question a hundred times:
What should we do if (insert specific business problem) happens? I’ve reduced the answer to one word: persevere.
It’s that simple. Persevere. Businesses fail when entrepreneurs quit. Running out of money, technical setbacks, suffocating regulation, burnout, that’s all just part of the journey. Deal with it. Persevere.
But if we take such trite advice and recast it as a question, the answer becomes more interesting. Why do we quit? Why do some move back to Mom’s basement, while others work all night by the light of a burning subpoena? Can perseverance be learned?
It can. And I’m going to show you how.
You need to gauge what I call a “personal energy score.” This is simply a measure of how much energy you possess at any given moment. It’s a general measure of how much force you can apply to a problem, not an exact metric. The scale starts (or maybe ends) at zero.
You never want to hit zero.
Everyone has a baseline personal energy score. Those who naturally have more may enjoy a slight advantage. But the real winners are those who know how to manage their energy. They have learned to adjust other areas of their lives to muster more energy for when times get tough.
Throughout the day, people and activities will add and subtract from your score. Everything you do, every situation in your life, affects your energy level. Dealing with some people zaps me while interacting with others makes me feel like a kid who just ate two bowls of Sugar Bombs. Things you enjoy tend to be positive, but not always. I enjoy public speaking but I’m totally spent after an hour on stage. Conversely, I dislike aerobics but after an intense workout, my energy could power an aluminum smelter.
Suppose you wake up with a score of four. After eating, showering, and downing your triple-shot latte, you’re a six. Then you hit traffic and you’re back to five. After a half-day’s work, you’re down to three. Then you encounter a problem that requires four units. Game over, you’re going to quit or fail. Guaranteed.
Now consider the same day with a few minor adjustments. You leave half an hour earlier because traffic stresses you out. You’ve prepared your car by selecting some great driving music. Now, instead of losing an energy unit on the commute, you gain one. The whole day changes. You succeed—all because of a different commute and your favorite Spice Girls mix.
Most people attempt to manage a difficult task by summoning willpower, or by working “smarter not harder.” That’s never worked for me. What I can do is arrive with such massive energy that even my inefficient, simplistic approach succeeds. I eat the same bowl of oatmeal every single morning. Others may think that’s boring, and it is. For me, it removes the stress of wondering what to eat. There’s an economy of energy that derives from predictability. And maintaining predictability in many small areas of my life gives me the energy to be highly unpredictable when it counts.
When you start seeing elements of your daily life in terms of energy economics, you naturally begin to manage your personal energy. If you can plug a dozen little energy drains, you’ll have the surplus to defy the gods. In fact, with enough energy, you can even push a rock up a mountain every single day.
Which bring us to the other secret. A secret more sophisticated and nuanced: “Find inspiration in things that infuriate others.” You must become Master of the Absurd. Fortunately, history’s greatest teacher is holding a perpetual seminar in hell.
Most people know Sisyphus as the poor mythical sucker condemned for eternity to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down just before reaching the summit. Our pathetic hero is the universal example of suffering, tedium, and willpower. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
They see a man who suffers eternally. I see a guy who really loves his job.
Here’s my interpretation of the tale of Sisyphus:
Back when men and gods had libidos that would make a Vegas vice cop blush, Sisyphus offended Zeus. Zeus retaliated by sentencing Sisyphus to an eternity of futile rock-pushing. It went something like this:
Zeus: “I condemn you to spend eternity in Hades pushing a rock uphill only to have it roll down once at the top.”
Sisyphus: “Thank you.”
Sisyphus: “You have given me the two greatest gifts that a god can give a mortal: eternal life and freedom. This is great.”
Zeus: “You aren’t free, you have to push the rock.”
Sisyphus: “Turns out, you drooling ignoramus, that I just happen to love pushing rocks. I can’t think of anything more pleasurable than rock-pushing. And while I’m at it, I’m free to shout obscenities about you for eternity. I can’t wait to get started, you pea-brained troll.”
Back in high school, I overheard my English teacher explain Sisyphus to one of the smart students before reminding me not to casually split infinitives. I’ve never actually read the story but accuracy is not the point. Even if my facts are wrong, the lesson is right. Facts are facts, but the way you choose to interpret those facts makes all the difference between feeling energized or depleted. Some PhD would probably recognize this as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But the basic concept is this: You have a choice.
Ask any football or rugby player. He’ll tell you how good it can feel to get hit hard. They appreciate a well-executed pounding. Most of us would disagree but, if you are going to slam into massive guys for a living, that is a helpful perspective. That same PhD would call it “healthy coping.”
One of my business partners takes advantage of the days when he’s in a lousy mood to make collections calls. He takes his anger and directs it at deadbeats, simultaneously improving his mood and our cash flow. Brilliant.
Here’s another one: Let’s say someone stole a bunch of your money. This somehow happens to me every year. At first it really upset me. I’d seethe for weeks. During that time I was useless. Fortunately, my father was a thermodynamics professor who taught me to respect entropy: nature’s affinity for chaos. Entropy says, collect enough stuff and someone will steal it. I now take theft as a compliment. I can’t say I’ve learned to enjoy it but it sure beats having nothing worth taking.
Any situation can be viewed in either a positive or negative manner. Place the camera wherever the view suits you. Sound easy? It’s not, but the rewards of controlling your response to situations are absolutely life-changing.
We are preconditioned to like or dislike so many things we don’t even realize that we have a choice. The first step is to believe that you, indeed, are in control of how you respond. Begin with something small. Fast for a day, then eat something you dislike. Move the thermostat 10 degrees. Listen to your favorite song until you hate it. Try something that will truly change your reaction to a specific situation. Notice that change. The situation is the same, but your reaction is now different. Wow!
Once you have convinced yourself that it is possible for you to control your feelings, begin to notice feelings that you might like to change. Just one or two in a week is great. The goal is not some monastic mastery over all stimuli but simply to have the tools available to rewire your responses when necessary.
Ultimately, your new ability allows you to find strength in tasks that used to deplete your personal energy score. You gain power from pushing the rock because now you truly like pushing rocks. The music they play when you are on hold makes you happy. It’s fun!
Feel free to demonstrate your new mastery of the absurd by turning envy into compassion. Identify someone whom others envy, then develop a genuine compassion for the burdens of their wealth, fame, beauty or whatever. Next time you’re confronting their smug self-aggrandizement at a party, see if you can develop genuine pity for their situation.
Him: “The new bow thrusters really help maneuver her past the smaller yachts.”
You: “It must be hard to be on guard constantly against piracy and kidnapping. Even without the helicopter, this boat screams, ‘Kill the one percent.’ I’m nervous just standing here.”
Him: “Don’t worry. We have a stash of automatic weapons in every stateroom.”
You: “How comforting it must be to have such trust in your staff.”
None of this is easy but even the most basic progress is rewarding. Once you have a few limited successes, you will have extra energy to push even further. You’ll know you’re doing well when you can’t wait for Monday. Once you have mastered energy and absurdity, you become an irresistible force. Yoda himself will subscribe to your blog.
If you fail on your first thousand attempts, persevere. Enjoy the fact that you get to do it again tomorrow.