Recently by James Altucher: The Ten Ways I Lie
I’m pretty mediocre. I’m ashamed to admit it. I’m not even being sarcastic or self-deprecating. I’ve never done anything that stands out as, “whoah! This guy made it into outerspace! Or…this guy has a best selling novel! Or…if only Google had thought of this!” I’ve had some successes and some failures (well-documented here) but never reached any of the goals I had initially set. Always slipped off along the way, off the yellow brick road, into the wilderness.
I’ve started a bunch of companies. Sold some. Failed at most. I’ve invested in a bunch of startups. Sold some. Failed at some, and the jury is still sequestered on a few others. I’ve written some books, most of which I no longer like (except the ones you get when you sign up for my newsletter on the right). I can tell you overall, though, everything I have done has been distinguished by its mediocrity, its lack of a grand vision, and any success I’ve had can be just as much put in the luck basket as the effort basket.
That said, all people should be so lucky. We can’t all be grand visionaries. We can’t all be Picassos. We want to make our business, make our art, sell it, make some money, raise a family, and try to be happy. My feeling, based on my own experience, is that aiming for grandiosity is the fastest route to failure. For every Mark Zuckerberg there are 1000 Jack Zuckermans. Who is Jack Zuckerman? I have no idea. That’s my point. If you are Jack Zuckerman and are reading this, I apologize. You aimed for the stars and missed. Your re-entry into the atmosphere involved a broken heat shield and you burned to a crisp by the time you hit the ocean. Now we have no idea who you are.
If you want to get rich, sell your company, have time for your hobbies, raise a halfway decent family (with mediocre children, etc), and enjoy the sunset with your wife on occasion, here are some of my highly effective recommendations.
Procrastination – In between the time I wrote the last sentence and the time I wrote this one I played (and lost) a game of chess. My king and my queen got forked by a knight. But hey, that happens. Fork me once, shame on me. Etc.
Procrastination is your body telling you you need to back off a bit and think more about what you are doing. When you procrastinate as an entrepreneur it could mean that you need a bit more time to think about what you are pitching a client. It could also mean you are doing work that is not your forte and that you are better off delegating. I find that many entrepreneurs are trying to do everything when it would be cheaper and more time-efficient to delegate, even if there are monetary costs associated with that. In my first business, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head the first time I delegated a programming job to someone other than me. At that time, I went out on a date. Which was infinitely better than me sweating all night on some stupid programming bug (thank you, Chet, for solving that issue).
Try to figure out why you are procrastinating. Maybe you need to brainstorm more to improve an idea. Maybe the idea is no good as is. Maybe you need to delegate. Maybe you need to learn more. Maybe you don’t enjoy what you are doing. Maybe you don’t like the client whose project you were just working on. Maybe you need to take a break. There’s only so many seconds in a row you can think about something before you need to take time off and rejuvenate the creative muscles. This is not for everyone. Great people can storm right through. Steve Jobs never needed to take a break. But I do.
Procrastination could also be a strong sign that you are a perfectionist. That you are filled with shame issues. This will block you from building and selling your business. Examine your procrastination from every side. It’s your body trying to tell you something. Listen to it.
[See also, “5 Great Things About Procrastination”]
Zero-tasking – there’s a common myth that great people can multitask efficiently. This might be true but I can’t do it. I have statistical proof. I have a serious addiction. If you ever talk on the phone with me there’s almost 100% chance I am simultaneously playing chess online. The phone rings and one hand reaches for the phone and the other hand reaches for the computer to initiate a one minute game. Chess rankings are based on a statistically generated rating system. So I can compare easily how well I do when I’m the phone compared with when I’m not on the phone. There is a three standard deviation difference. Imagine if I were talking on the phone and driving. Or responding to emails. It’s the same thing I’m assuming: phone calls cause a three standard deviation subtraction in intelligence. And that’s the basic multi-tasking we all do at some point or other.
So great people can multitask but since, by definition, most of us are not great (99% of us are not in the top 1%), its much better to single-task. Just do one thing at a time. When you wash your hands, hear the sound of the water, feel the water on your hands, scrub every part. Be clean. Focus on what you are doing.
Often, the successful mediocre entrepreneur should strive for excellence in ZERO-tasking. Do nothing. We always feel like we have to be “doing something” or we (or, I should say “I”) feel ashamed. Sometimes it’s better to just be quiet, to not think of anything at all.
Out of silence comes the greatest creativity.
Not when we are rushing and panicking.
[See also, “Multi-tasking will Kill You”]
Failure: As far as I can tell, Larry Page has never failed. He went straight from graduate school to billions. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and a few others. But again, by definition, most of us are pretty mediocre. We can strive for greatness but we will never hit it. So it means we will often fail. Not ALWAYS fail. But often.
My last 16 out of 17 business attempts were failures. I made so many mistakes in my first successful business I’m almost embarassed to recount them. I remember one time I was trying to pitch Tupac’s mom that I should do the website for her dead son. I had a “CD” (what’s that?) of all my work. I went to Tupac’s manager’s office and he said, “ok, show me what you got”. The only problem was: I had never used a Windows-based machine. Only Macs and Unix machines. So I honestly had no idea how to put my CD into the computer and then view its contents. And I had gone to graduate school in computer science. He said, “you have got to be kidding me”.
It was a $90,000 gig. It would’ve met my payroll for at least two months. It was a done deal until I walked into his office. I left his office crying while he was laughing. When I came back to my office everyone asked, “How did the meeting go?” I said, “I think it went pretty well.” And then I went home and cried some more. I roll that way.
Then I bought a Windows-based PC for myself and learned how to use it. I don’t think I ever bought a Mac again actually. It’s possible to learn from successes. But it’s much easier to learn from failures. Ultimately, life is a sentence of failures, punctuated only by the briefest of successes. So the mediocre entrepreneur learns two things from failure: First he learns directly how to overcome that particular failure. He’s highly motivated to not repeat the same mistakes. Second, he learns how to deal with the psychology of failure. Mediocre entrepreneurs fail A LOT. So they get this incredible skill of getting really good at dealing with failure. This translates to monetary success.
The mediocre entrepreneur understands that persistence is not the self-help cliche “Keep going until you hit the finish line!”. The key slogan is, “Keep failing until you accidentally no longer fail.” That’s persistence.