The Cognitive Distortions of Founders

What’s distorting your vision, and that of the people around you?

Human beings have a knack for observing, forming judgments, and taking action. When you state it like this it seems pretty linear and rational, whether you’re talking about individuals or people working in teams. Cognitive behavior theory says automatic thoughts color and distort our observations, our judgments, and our actions.

Aaron Beck is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. His research began in the second half of the 20th century and focused on patients living with major depression and anxiety. Beck’s theory of cognitive behavior described how observations, judgments, and actions are tinted and changed by automatic thoughts. These automatic thoughts come to mind without even trying. They reflect deep beliefs about self, past experiences, and expectations for the future, and they have a profound impact on judgment and behavior.

Beck found some patients’ cognitive distortions led them to magnify bad news, and minimize any good things in their day.

For depressed or anxious patients Beck found common sets of cognitive distortions, that is, thinking patterns that repeated. The repeating patterns were based, according to Beck, on his patients’ self-image, world view, and future expectations. He referred to these distortions as “faulty information processing,” which could manifest as minimizing good news and zooming in on bad news or perceiving even small disappointments as catastrophes. Other examples of cognitive distortions include personalizing disappointing outcomes or concluding negative universal truths about how the world works with limited or even zero evidence to support the idea.

It’s as if Beck’s patients were wearing a pair of goggles that they couldn’t take off, and they bent and color their observations, their judgments, and their actions. If Beck is right about his patients, maybe we’re all wearing goggles with different distortions.

I’ve met thousands of founders over the last decade or so and I think many of them are wearing special goggles that make them, well, more like founders. The special founder goggles create cognitive distortions. And the cognitive distortions create superpowers. Here are some of the distortions that I’ve seen in successful founders.

Personal exceptionalism is a distortion that makes winning seem inevitable.

Personal exceptionalism. This isn’t rose-tinted goggles, it’s me-tinted goggles. This person sees his or her work as snowflake-special. Destiny for them is success and they operate way outside the bounds of normal for their peer group.

Black and white thinking. These goggles make you see extremes with very little grey. People, products, businesses are either genius or they’re doody. These goggles bestow a judgmental vision that often coincides with excellence.

To founders with the “black and white thinking” distortion, ideas are either amazing or… not

Schumpeterianism. Joseph Schumpeter described creative destruction as the heart of capitalism. Schumpeterian distortions lead many founders to easily see the positives of fundamental disruption of jobs, companies, and industries. This cognitive distortion leads them to accept vast amounts of pain and collateral damage — on their own lives and those of other people — that goes with the “creation.”

Founders exhibiting the Schumpeterian distortion are so in love with the positive feelings of creating new things, they can minimize or under-weight the costs that go with market disruption.

Correct overgeneralization is the fourth cognitive distortion I see frequently. This cognitive distortion allows founders to see one point and project a line and it’s the right line. It’s kind of annoying when they do that, isn’t it? Some people describe this as looking-around-corners. And it’s almost a pre-requisite for founders who like to move very fast and be right.

Fifth, blank canvas thinking. This cognitive distortion comes from wearing goggles that just can’t see the pale blue lines and numbers of a paint-by-numbers life. As Gordon MacKenzie describes in Orbiting the Giant Hairball, many of them see life as a blank canvas for their original piece of art.

Each cognitive distortion gives a superpower and comes with a deadly risk. Personal exceptionalism bestows confidence and charisma, but it comes with the deadly risk of bitterness in the event of failure.

Black and white thinkers inspire brilliance and excellence. They also can alienate or hurt those around them with standards that seem impossibly high.

The Schumpeterian goggles can make you fearless in the face of scary change and maybe also a little heartless at the same time.

Correct over-generalizers enjoy some great success in their career, but after a while they may rely too much on intuition, ignoring evidence or analytics and losing patience with others who disagree with their special insights.

And those artists who see life as a great blank canvas will paint “one-of-a-kind masterpieces” (see MacKenzie). But be on guard: art for art’s sake can lead to failure to build a commercially viable scalable business.

If you’re a founder or a founder’s colleague, build shock absorbers for these deadly risks. Shock absorbers are compensating mechanisms to preserve the superpowers and dampen the deadly risks. You can do this with organizational design, you can do it with management practices, or you can do it by asking thoughtful, pointed questions like Beck would ask of his patients.

Beck’s cognitive behavior therapy sought to introduce shock-absorbing questions to help depressed and anxious patients challenge their automatic thoughts. The same approach can be a shock absorber in general management.

Shock absorb personal exceptionalism with learning a new hobby where you can practice “beginner’s mind.”

Shock absorb black and white thinking with thoughtful performance feedback process that forces praise balanced with constructive “how might we take it to the next level?” content.

Schumpeterian mindset needs a shock absorber like spending time directly with the human beings impacted by the disruptive inventions. We don’t want to abandon the creative, we just want to have a clear understanding of the destruction part of capitalism. We need these founders to last through many more iterations of their career!

Correct over-generalizers would benefit a lot from a colleague or three who know how to find and present surprising data and evidence for how things are changing in the market or the company.

The blank-canvas-thinkers thrive when the are partnered with a talented operating executive as a close colleague. The deadly weak spots of blank-canvas-thinkers can also be shock absorbed if you give them a skunkworks or R&D design studio to play with. This keeps the business scale work separate from the dream factory.

Beck’s cognitive behavioral model, how people observe, judge, and act, is a surprising and powerful tool for start-ups. In case it isn’t clear, it wasn’t only Beck’s patients who were wearing the goggles they couldn’t take off. It isn’t only the founders I’ve met in the last two decades. It’s all of us. And we all could use some shock absorbers to go with the goggles.

What goggles are you wearing?