Disclaimer: this post is going to be a quotation bonanza. If you hate quotes, better move along right away; no offense taken. I’m also knowingly ignoring my self-imposed 500 word limit for this one. Sorry.
While you should question everything and not blindly follow advice in the form of clichés, quotations exist for a reason. Often they come from people who have experienced a lot in life: hardship, grand success, love, heartbreak, faraway travel, war, staggering wealth, unbelievable power. Their sayings can hold timeless wisdom, provide guidance, or, at the very least, bring inspiration or a good laugh.
What follows are 16 mantras which have been especially relevant to me in the past 12 months of building our startup, Saent. Most of them do have wider application than just the startup world, though.
1. “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” - Warren Buffett
There are only so many hours in a day and once they’re passed, you’re never getting them back. That doesn’t mean your schedule should be packed to the brim; instead you should treat time as one of your most valuable assets.
No should be your default answer to almost everything: invitations to meaningless pitches and incubators, bad funding proposals, feature requests, getting drunk on a Tuesday night; the list goes on. And as your startup survives and thrives, the opportunities and demands on your time will only increase. Always remember what the Wizard of Omaha said: no.
2. “Be patient. The sun shines tomorrow on those who have made the right decisions today.” - Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries
There are two nuggets of wisdom in this quote:
- Patience: sometimes you just can’t move things forward faster, and speed is not the solution to every problem. You have more time than you think for most decisions (but not for all!).
- Routine: what you do today will determine your fate down the road. As Gretchen Rubin said, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.”
The natural inclination for an entrepreneur is to always want to go faster. While a sense of urgency is essential, this can lead to all kinds of mistakes: launching too early, adding too many people to speed up development, simply making the wrong decisions because you didn’t take sufficient time to think things through. Marcus Aurelius also captured this very well in his Stoic Meditations when he wrote:
“Never to be in haste, and yet never slow.”
- 34 Mistakes We Made During Our Crowdfunding Campaign (this is when I learned this lesson)
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
3. “Behind mountains are more mountains.” - Haitian proverb (found in Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle is the Way”)
For an entrepreneur, this might be the most important quotation to keep in mind out of all of these; the battle is never over, there are always fresh challenges waiting ahead.
While this might sound negative and pessimistic, it’s an acknowledgement of reality. There will never be a long stretch of perfect calm and, contrary to what most people think, the mountains likely only get bigger as you achieve more.
It’s also a good analogy to determine whether entrepreneurship is the thing for you: you have to enjoy climbing, as a promised land where all is good and plenty is far away, if it exists at all. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll probably not make it through the mountains and would be happier settling on a plain.
Winston Churchill also had a good way to sum this up:
“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
4. “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.” – Dudley Field Malone
It’s easy to say something is nice, cool, amazing or good. It’s also pleasant to hear when those words refer to the fruits of your work. But besides stroking your ego, do they teach you anything? Do they make you any wiser?
It’s important to learn the value of receiving critical feedback (just bite your tongue and suck it up!). Once you master that skill, find people who will consistently tell you the truth to your face. Folks who will let you know your idea is shit. Who are not afraid to say your baby is ugly. Who will pull you back when you’ve lost direction.
Such people are few and far between, and you also need to make sure they don’t have a hidden agenda. But once you have identified these gems, make sure to consult them regularly. And don’t forget who they are, because when they tell you you’re doing the right thing, it actually means something.
- Focus, Also In Business (an example of someone telling me the truth)
5. “Cash is king.”
The origin of ”cash is king” is not clear. It was used in 1988, after the global stock market crash in 1987, by Pehr G. Gyllenhammar, who at the time was Chief Executive Officer of Swedish car group Volvo.
There is no point in trying to explain this point better than Ben Horowitz did (as quoted here):
“Several times in this blog series I have quoted Harold Geneen as having said: ‘The only unforgivable sin in business is to run out of cash’ but it is such an important point that it is worth repeating. Earnings are an opinion. Cash is a fact. Should a business spend every penny wisely? Absolutely. But don’t run of out of cash. Is equity dilution something to be avoided? Sure. But don’t run out of cash. Can too much cash cause a business to solve problems with money rather [than] culture? Yep, but don’t run out of cash. Can innovation be greater when a company has less capital on hand? Yes, but don’t run out of cash. Oh, and did I mention: don’t run out of cash.”
6. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” - Yogi Berra
It doesn’t get much truer than this Yogi-ism. Without having a goal, or at least some sense of direction, you can end up anywhere, but that’s probably not where you want to be.
With no plan in place, it’s hard to make the right decisions, to motivate people, to focus. Whether it’s a business plan, quarterly KPIs or personal goals, knowing where you want to go makes all the difference.
7. “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” - Muhammad Ali
Perhaps one of the wisest things the famous former professional boxer ever said.
There is always more to learn and experience in this world. This applies both to business as well as life in general: if you don’t experience any change over a long period of time, something is wrong (or will go wrong soon). Another quote that sums this up well is variously attributed to both Albert Einstein and Henry Ford:
“If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got.”
This concept is beautifully captured in the philosophy of Kaizen: literally it means “good change,” but it’s loosely translated and used as “continuous improvement.” On a personal level, it means you strive to make (small) changes for self-improvement on a regular basis.
8. “If it’s too good to be true, it usually is.” - unknown source
This is such a cliché, but I’ve found it to be very true. Whether it’s unbelievable sales forecasts, an amazing ”guarantee” from a partner, or a deal that seems to come through at lightning speed; nine out of ten times, something will turn out to be amiss. Usually sooner rather than later, but not always.
Remember there is hardly ever such a thing as a free lunch. Usually there is a hidden cost, agenda or problem. Therefore if something seems just too good to be true, be especially cautious.
9. “Use thyself; as often, as thou seest any man do anything, presently (if it be possible) to say unto thyself, What is this man’s end in his action? But begin this course with thyself first of all, and diligently examine thyself concerning whatsoever thou doest.” - Marcus Aurelius in Meditations
Written almost two millenniums ago, this short passage from the hand of one of the original Stoic philosophers holds two very important truths. One is that you should first and foremost understand yourself. Do you truly know what drives you? What makes you emotional, stressed, happy?
Secondly, always consider other people’s motivations. This doesn’t mean you should walk around in a paranoid frenzy. Just try to understand what drives others in their dealings with you and you’ll have one leg up on most.
10. “Pressure? This is just a football match. When you do not know how to feed your children, that is pressure.” - José Luis Chilavert
(goal keeper for Paraguay, when he was asked if he was feeling the pressure prior to the 1998 FIFA World Cup)
We all think that what we’re doing is terribly important. We talk about our professional achievements as heroic accomplishments; our business failures are wars we fought but lost.
As I’ve said before, the reality is that most of us are engaged in a privileged struggle. There are still scores of people in this world who don’t know if they or their loved ones will have anything to eat tonight, or even if they will make it through the day alive. Keep that in mind the next time you think you can’t handle the pressure of running your startup.
11. “We say, ‘A good father is not a good father.’ Do you understand? One who thinks he is a good father is not a good father; one who thinks he is a good husband is not a good husband. One who thinks he is one of the worst husbands may be a good one if he is always trying to be a good husband with a single-hearted effort.” - Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryū Suzuki
As most passages from this book, these sentences seem confusing or counterintuitive at first. But as you absorb and digest them, they start to make sense (I’m currently reading the book for the third time and now get about 50% of it…) .
If you’re not a complete over-confident megalomaniac, you’ll often wonder whether you’re a good boss. Are you making the right decisions? Do you treat your team the right way? Is all of this going to turn into a complete failure?
When you have such doubts, remember the above passage: having those thoughts signals you’re actually a good boss, or at least you truly care about becoming one. Someone who never questions himself is likely dead wrong, an asshole, or both.
12. “In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: ‘mind like water.’ Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.” - David Allen in Getting Things Done
The father of modern day productivity, David Allen, hits the nail on the head here and it goes beyond how you should manage your day. Often we let ourselves be occupied (anger, stress, worrying) by needless matters which don’t deserve so much of our attention.
While I can recommend anyone who struggles with productivity to read Getting Things Done, I’m quoting this here as a more general recommendation for learning about your own thought patterns and coping with pressure. Your attention and worries should only be spent appropriate to the size of the problem. This sounds straightforward, but it’s not how your brain normally works. Be aware of it and train it!
13. “Should you find yourself in a chronically-leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” - Warren Buffett
Unless you’re extremely lucky, you’ll never achieve anything without at least one major failure on your path. Failure is life’s way of teaching you important lessons. That’s not to say failure is a good thing — it should definitely not be embraced too quickly and it’s not something to be proud of. But neither should it be feared and delayed indefinitely.
Failure is often not something that happens to you, it’s a choice. You decide to give up, or to work all the way to bankruptcy. You decide whether to accept that shitty investment offer, or whether you walk away and struggle on by yourself.
While some indeed argue you should never give up, I believe at some point you have to call it quits. Buffett’s quote sums this up beautifully, and the key is the word chronically. Certainly, you shouldn’t decide to throw in the towel easily, but if after giving it all you got, things are still not working, you have to know when is the right moment to give up and move on. That is the hardest part.
14. “If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.” - Steve Jobs in a 1985 Playboy interview
There is a reason why this quote from Steve Jobs follows the previous one about giving up and failure.
The second hardest thing about failure, after deciding to give up, is coping with it. If you truly gave it your best but failed, it will haunt you. It will make you doubt yourself and it will affect your future decisions. You’ll be viewing the future through the lens of your past failures.
This is a mistake. Of course you need to draw your lessons from the past, but you’ll have to find a way to give them a place and move on. As Jobs said, don’t look back too much.
15. “You’re going to come across people in your life who will say all the right words at all the right times. But in the end, it’s always their actions you should judge them by. It’s actions, not words, that matter.” - Nicholas Sparks
Most things you do in life involve other people. As mentioned earlier, you have to understand what drives them, and then you need to judge them by their actions, by what they do, not by what comes out of their mouth.
This doesn’t mean you should be a ruthless asshole, and people definitely deserve second, maybe even third chances. But at some point you have to draw your conclusions based on actions. As they say in Game of Thrones:
“Words are wind.”
16. “What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” - Bob Dylan
You can not be happy every day, but if you’re chronically unhappy, it’s time to take action. Find a new job, get out of a bad relationship, travel, learn something new. Whatever it takes, you’ve got to do it. You have only one life and spending it in misery for a paycheck or expected happiness in the far future is a mistake.
There’s no simpler way to sum this up than the Scottish do, and it’s perhaps the most important quote to take to heart out of all of these:
“Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”