Even if some factors that lead people to be successful could be attributed to sheer luck, a common trait is that successful people create things.
In Norris’ vision, creating something —that is, being creative— has little to do with wild talent and is more about productivity. The first requisite for being creative is to start to do something.
In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes about The Resistance, the voice that delays us from doing our work, the self-sabotaging habits of procrastination, self-doubt, susceptibility to distraction, perfectionism, and shallowness. Dan Norris’ nemesis to creativity is Hate.
“Haters don’t create anything, and instead get caught up in a never-ending cycle of Hate feeding Hate and criticism triumphing over creation.” The hate ecosystem nurtures from negative people that may surround us or work with us. However, what most hinders our capacity to do things is own self-hate.
It turns out that people can be very good at making up reasons [for not making things]. Not all reasons are invalid, but we have to beware of Hate breeding excuses.
Some common excuses are:
I don’t want to divide my attention
I don’t want to be one of those guys/gals that teaches people something before they know it themselves.
There is too much effort needed to start
The learning curve. I will definitely suck at the first try
I see no purpose to get it going
I don’t have what it takes
The second half of the book is about how to fight hate. For conquering hate, we need to accept failure as part of the creative process, an essential part of creating anything. Self awareness and gratefulness are our allies in our fight for being creative.
The final chapter gives practical advice that can give you some ideas on how to improve your creative process.
I specially liked to chapter on how empathy breeds creativity. Empathy is hard, and not commonly understood.
Your goal in being empathic is to imagine what it’s like to be that person and feel what they are feeling. If you can improve your empathy, you improve your imagination. And imagination is the source of all creativity.
The author is not shy about his own failures and learned lessons. For me, this showing himself vulnerable by reflecting about his own experiences is one of the things that makes the book valuable.
The interview is great, and you should watch or read it in full if you are involved in startups, building your own product or service. Traits of the most successful founders are determination, understanding your users and building a product with a great user experience, being flexible minded, and being great leaders.
How about looking for these traits in your future hires?
Jessica: The most successful founders I have noticed are totally focused on two things, building their product and making something people want, which of course, is our motto, and talking to their users. And they do not let themselves get distracted by anything else. And that seems so obvious, but what’s not obvious is how easily distracted founders can be by lots of other things going on, and the most successful startups are like hyper-focused on their product.
Sam: Are there other traits in the founders that go on to really change the future, besides determination that separates the very best founders from the mediocre founders? Have you noticed any other traits that kind of founders should aspire to that really wanna have a big impact?
Jessica: Yes. If I had to say the most important traits of the most successful founders, I’ve already mentioned determination. That is by far the most important.
Sam: More than intelligence?
Jessica: More than intelligence, more than previous success, you know, in school. I mean, remember when we started Y Combinator, our hypothesis was, “We’ll just fund all the best hackers from MIT and Harvard, and they’ll turn out to be great sort of founders.” That is not true. That is absolutely not true. A lot of them are good. (…) Determination is the most important thing. Again, sort of understanding your users and building a product with a great user experience is second most important. Not being distracted, not getting lured down these paths that aren’t gonna be important for building your product. Being flexible minded I’ve always felt this very important, because you have this idea and you test it out, and it doesn’t always work the first time. And so you have to be able to say, “Okay, I thought I was gonna do this, but let’s try this. Even though I have like a lot of energy invested in this, let’s try this direction.” You really have to be open-minded. And then, ultimately, you have to be a good leader. You have to be convincing and a good leader because you are gonna be convincing employees to join you, you are gonna be convincing investors to invest in you. When you do get to the point where you are doing deals with bigger companies, you have to convince them. Like, your whole world is convincing people. And so you have to be able to communicate your idea and convince people why they should care about you more than any of the other hundreds of startups out there.
In a hypothetical situation, most people would say that they will respect other people’s point of view even if they don’t agree with it or don’t understand it.
In practice, however, this is hardly so. We have a hard time understanding why others don’t share our point of view, specially when those points of view influence laws, political decisions, or challenge the way we live or think. It can affect our mood, even provoke angry reactions and harsh comments.
Not convinced? An example: What is your position regarding gun control? What do you think of the opposite position? How about same-sex marriage? What do you think of people that don’t share your point of view?
Empathy is usually associated with sharing and relating to the feelings of others. But it doesn’t stop there. Empathy is at the very center of understanding other people’s points of view.
When we have trouble understanding someone else, or why somebody acts the way she does, consider what Seth Godin writes about Empathy:
Empathy doesn’t involve feeling sorry for someone. It is our honest answer to the question, why did they do what they did?” (…)
The useful answer is rarely, “because they’re stupid.” Or even, “because they’re evil.” In fact, most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions. So if you want to know why someone does what they do, start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from.
Learning to employ empathy to better understand others, and to be better understood ourselves is a skill worth acquiring.
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YCombinator is one of the world’s top startup school. Stripe, Dropbox, AirBnB, Reddit, Weebly are some of the companies that have emerged from YCombinator. They provide seed funding for startups, and work with them on their ideas.
Among other interesting passages in the interview, Mark explains why they don’t believe at Facebook that experience is that important when hiring:
SamAltman: Another thing that I think Facebook has done exceptionally well is hiring, and I always tell founders that this is the thing you have to get good at. So how have you hired your team and what do you look for when you bring people on?
MarkZuckerberg: If you think about it, I started the company when I was 19, so I can’t institutionally believe that experience is that important, right, or else I would have a hard time reckoning selling myself and the company. So we invest in people who we think are just really talented, even if they haven’t done that thing before. And that applies to people who are fresh out of university as well as people like the CFO, who took the company public, had not taken a company public before, and a lot of his background was in production development at Genentech before. So just focusing on really talented people.
SamAltman: So if you don’t have the experience to look for, how do you assess someone’s raw talent?
MarkZuckerberg: Well, often you can tell from different things that they’ve done. So it’s not that… Obviously, everyone’s done something. Even if you’re 19, you’ve done side projects and interesting stuff, and I think what’s important is not to believe that someone has to have specifically done the job that they’re going to do in order to be able to do it well. One of the things that I think we’ve done well is just giving the people at the company a lot of opportunity, so it’s not just me who started when I was 19 and now I’m running this big company. There were a number of people who joined who were people I did problem sets with at Harvard or dropped out of Stanford or different programs who’ve grown with the company over this long period of time. And one of the things that I’m most proud of is we have about 12 different product groups at the company, and all of the people who are running them, with the exception of one, did not join the company running a product group or reporting to me.
Not everyone is happy with these apps. For example, an article in BBC News says that “restaurant owners in Paris are furious with chefs who have started catering for diners in their own homes —traditional eateries say they could be put out of business as websites put customers directly in touch with cooks”:
In Paris, the restaurateurs’ union Synhorcat has appealed to the French government to crack down on “underground restaurants”, arguing that bistros and brasseries operating on very thin margins risk being put out of business.
Synhorcat estimates there are 3,000 home-chefs in France. It has two arguments against them: first, that home-restaurants are part of the black economy; and second, that hygiene and safety rules are being flouted.
“In the space of three years Airbnb has tripled its presence in Paris —to the point that there are now 50,000 flats advertised on its website,” —says Synhorcat’s president Didier Chenet— He says small and medium-sized hotels have been hit hard [by AirBnB] and over the summer they had to drop their prices. “If the government doesn’t do something to stop the underground restaurants, it will be the same disaster.”
The thing is, private chefs for hire or chefs that offer dinners at their places have always existed. And the internet is specially good at lowering barriers of entrance, and in making dormant supply surface and matching it with demand. It was just a matter of time for this to happen. For example, should gyms ask the government to do something if someone launches an app to match personal trainers with potential customers?
Just as the media industry tried to ban digital content and failed miserably, or phone companies tried to block Voice-IP calls in its beginnings instead of embracing change, I think the trend of peer-to-peer marketplaces emerging is here to stay, and will force the incumbents to rethink their businesses.
As of regulations per se, as some researchers suggest2 that it would be wise to take a relatively lenient early-stage approach to regulation. Peer-to-peer markets have a dynamic nature, specially if they grow very fast. Regulations, on the other hand, cannot be easily changed or withdrawn, so rules that look sensible at the time they are imposed may appear outdated or misguided.
Some apps mentioned include EatAbout (“Enjoy private meals in the home of a chef”), Deliveroo (“Get amazing food from an incredible selection of local restaurants delivered in an average of just 32 minutes”), EatWith (“Join us at a communal table”, “Bringing chefs and foodies together one meal at a time”), ChefExchange (“Find private chefs to cook for you, at home”), and VizEat (“The world invites you to dinner”). ↩
The One Thing by Gary Keller is one of my favorite books because it offers a down-to-earth framework for achieving extraordinary results in work and in life in general. The author’s premise is that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus, or more precisely, by your ability to focus on what he calls the One Thing.
I strongly agree with most of what the author proposes. You can use the framework "as-is" or adapt it to suit your needs. While this post summarizes Keller's main points, I suggest you read the whole book. (You can also read the previous review I wrote about The One Thing.)
1. Develop an eye for the essential.
Achievers have an eye for the essential. They pause just long enough to decide what matters and then allow what matters to drive their day. Achievers do sooner what others plan to do later and defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others do sooner. The difference isn’t in intent, but in right of way. Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.
2. Getting things done is not a matter of discipline but of developing habits that will help you focus on the task at hand. Discipline is needed to acquire the habit, but we cannot run on discipline in the long term.
3. Achieving extraordinary results requires extraordinary efforts. In that sense, Keller does not believe in a balanced life as a goal to be achieved or a state of balance, but in counterbalancing your life as an every day reality, an act of balancing.
If you think of balance as the middle, then out of balance is when you’re away from it. Get too far away from the middle and you’re living at the extremes. The problem with living in the middle is that it prevents you from making extraordinary time commitments to anything. In your effort to attend to all things, everything gets shortchanged and nothing gets its due.
Sometimes this can be okay and sometimes not. Knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes is in essence the true beginning of wisdom. Extraordinary results are achieved by this negotiation with your time.
One day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls—family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.
4. Keller’s framework is constructed on applying what he calls the Focusing Question to the different areas of your life: What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Productivity isn’t about being a workhorse, keeping busy or burning the midnight oil…. It’s more about priorities, planning, and fiercely protecting your time.
To stay on track for the best possible day, month, year, or career, you must keep asking the Focusing Question. Ask it again and again, and it forces you to line up tasks in their levered order of importance. (…) you can drive yourself nuts analyzing every little aspect of everything you might do. I don’t do that, and you shouldn’t either. Start with the big stuff and see where it takes you. Over time, you’ll develop your own sense of when to use the big-picture question and when to use the small-focus question.
5. Answers to the Focusing Question come in three categories:
doable, something that is already within your reach
stretch, at the farthest end of your range
possibility, an answer that exists beyond what is already known and being done
“Highly successful people”, explains Keller, “choose to live at the outer limits of achievement. They not only dream of but deeply crave what is beyond their natural grasp.”
6. The Focusing Question, however, is not enough. Adopting the mindset of someone seeking mastery is needed (the commitment to becoming your best, and embrace the effort it represents).
More than anything else, expertise tracks with hours invested. Michelangelo once said, “If the people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.”
You will also need to deal with the natural ceiling of achievement with a purposeful mindset (not accepting the limitations of our natural approach as the last word), and learn to be accountable for the outcome of your lives (in contrast with being a victim of the situation). This is essential —according to Keller— to achieve extraordinary results.
If you have to beg, then beg. If you have to barter, then barter. If you have to be creative, then be creative. Just don’t be a victim of your circumstances.
7. Be warned against the four thieves that can stand in our way to extraordinary results. The inability to say “No” , the fear of chaos —“pursuing your One Thing moves other things to the back burner (…) chaos is unavoidable. Make peace with it. Learn to deal with it”—, poor health habits, and an environment that doesn’t support your goals.
Paul Jun writes about the importance of having a Role Model. His remark is right on point: consciously or unconsciously, we all have role models and aspirations:
More than ever, we own the responsibility to be conscious of what we let in because it shapes who we become. Without being conscious of our role models and aspirations, we will latch onto anything shiny and popular, failing to question the ethics or virtues that lie behind what only appears to be good or successful.
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The fundamental truth is this: when we look at talented people and feel battered by the fact that we may never live a life like that, we fail to see the whole story —parenting, environments that were either rich in stimulation or deprived with poverty, the right teachers, predisposition and the actualization of talent early in life, the opportunities to nurture these predispositions, and some luck.
When we zoom out and look at all these dots that debunk the mystery around talent, it’s actually empowering. What opportunities we have to cultivate our hidden talents and to bring them to life—to potentially change the trajectory of our lives. The veil is lifted. Nowadays, the opportunities to find out what’s inside of you abound, and this quest of whether you’re drawn to music, numbers, or words is exactly the kind of journey that shapes our character and our lives. The big red stop sign at the beginning of this journey is the hopeless, false belief that talent is a gift rather than the “obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.”
The question is, what are we obsessively practicing and continuously cultivating that will lead us to skill in performance?
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I won’t try to write a review of this great book by Austin Kleon because there are a lot of good ones available. (For example, this one in Spanish, or this one in English.)
Steal Like an Artist takes out part of the mystique around creativity, and will teach you some very concrete ideas about creative work and how to approach it, in a direct, colloquial, and easy to read style. The basic idea is that no work is really original. We are all a mashup of ideas.
In Brainpicking’s Maria Popova words, Steal Like an Artist is “an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.”
A quote from T.S. Eliot, stolen from Kleon’s book:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.
For my self future-reference, here are the 10 points the author proposes:
Steal like an Artist.
Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
Write the book you want to read.
Use your hands.
Side projects and hobbies are important.
The Secret: Do good work and share it with people.
Geography is no longer our master.
Be nice. (The World is a small town.)
Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
Creativity is substraction.
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