First published in the Financial Times on 8th January 2013.
The villainous tendencies that conspire to crush creative endeavour can be beaten
I meet many would-be entrepreneurs who complain that they have not started a business. They fire blame for their lack of progress in all sorts of directions – at banks, venture capitalists, taxes, regulations, competitors and so on. But in most cases, the true reasons for our failures lie within us: these demons are what I call The Enemies of Achievement.
Here is my list of top excuses:
- Procrastination. It is amazing how reliable we can be at putting off something difficult but worthwhile. We find endless excuses as to why now is never quite the moment to address the issues that really matter. As the shaving products tycoon Victor Kiam said, delay is “opportunity’s assassin”. And while we dither, others charge ahead and reap the rewards.
- Hubris. A modicum of success can be corrupting. It allows us to become lazy and self-satisfied, and forget those who helped us do well. Abstemious habits can wither, while delusions of grandeur replace them. All this undermines the basis of any initial progress. It is vital to keep industrious and one’s eyes on the ultimate prize.
- Indecision. It is impossible to create a serious concern without giving directions in a resolute manner. A hesitant and vacillating personality inspires no one. The uncertainty of the US government’s fiscal cliff negotiations frightened the world.As Abraham Lincoln said: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” The same applies to individuals.
- Impatience. While a sense of urgency is a valuable trait, this should not mutate into a lack of persistence. Plenty do not reach the heights because they give up too easily. Most of the best projects I have ever carried out have taken twice as long and been much more difficult than expected. But in the end they were worth it.
- Lack of focus. In the 21st century, it is easier than ever before to lose concentration. But true victory only comes to those who seize upon a mission and pursue it in a single-minded fashion. The easily distracted tend to fall by the wayside.
- Pessimism. There are always a thousand justifications as to why running a business is a bad idea; but they are mostly just excuses. Cynics and negative thinkers never change the world, and have always been wrong in the long run. To do something bold requires a positive spirit and a sense that luck is on your side. It is a curious fact that if you adopt that attitude, then the tide will often turn for you.
- Cowardice. A little fear can be a powerful catalyst for action – but too much risk aversion means a life of disappointment and lost chances.As Macbeth said: “Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.”
- Being too comfortable. entrepreneurship demands long hours, constant striving, and an imperfect work/life balance. Pleasure seekers who lack the necessary grit and stamina for the long haul, and are unwilling to make personal sacrifices for their careers, are unlikely to have what it takes to make the grade.
I suffer regular attacks from most of these evils myself, and need to constantly fight against their depredations to get anything done. But from experience I know they can be defeated even if only temporarily. The single great weapon we all possess is willpower – it is a question of how much self-discipline we choose to exercise.
The villainous tendencies itemised above apply to many creative endeavours: the would-be artist, the pretend writer, the film directors and musicians who dream but don’t actually practise their craft. For almost anyone who wants to build something, the challenge is not external but in our minds.
Why should we struggle so? I believe that the contest is worthwhile because too many of us spend our time in denial, leading a shadow life, lacking in self-respect and truth.
We all possess talents and potential: but only the wisest identify them, and so discover their calling. They are the ones who live out their lives in full.