The Serenity Philosophy of Entrepreneurship

Toji Temple in Kyoto, Japan One of the main guiding principles of my life is the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

As an entrepreneur, the line that impresses upon me the most is the third: having the courage to change the things I can. It encourages me to challenge the status quo, to know that “the way things are” isn’t an immutable rule.

Just because we’ve always had to buy shoes from a shoe store doesn’t mean that’s the only way to purchase them. Think: Zappos.

Just because we’ve always gotten the latest news from a journalist doesn’t mean that’s the only way to get the news. Think: Twitter.

Just because we’ve always had to charge an electronic device in a wall socket doesn’t mean that’s the only way to keep a device powered up. Think: Inductive charging.

That’s what I call my Serenity Philosophy of Entrepreneurship. The title is perhaps a little misleading. It’s not about being serene and accepting things the way they are. It’s quite the opposite.

There are things we cannot change. The laws of mathematics and physics, for example. And taxes. Those are things we must accept. But to be a successful entrepreneur, you will need to know what you can change – and there is often more you can change than you think.

Working While Sick

Nothing quite depletes a company like a viral germ spreading amongst its employees. When that happens, I see a curious phenomenon. There are two types of sick people:

  1. Those that still come into the office – either because they believe face-time is important or need to interact face-to-face with their coworkers often, like leading meetings.
  2. Those that stay home – either because they want to get better or they don’t want to infect others.

Personally, I would rather sick employees follow case #2. One person home sick means some loss of productivity, but it’s nothing compared to that person trying to follow case #1 and spreading the illness.

In high-tech companies, working remotely is becoming more & more effective. That strikes me as a healthy way to minimize the disadvantages of someone following case #2.

However, face-time can be an important political tool in certain environments. Those environments tend to be highly political and appearance-driven. You don’t see them in startups often, but they are usually a fact of life in large corporations.

If you work in such an environment, I hope you bring plenty of medicination to work. Common OTC cold medicines don’t cure the underlying illness, but they can at least minimize the symptoms.

Otherwise, stay home and get better. And make use of online communication and conferencing tools to stay productive, if you must.

Problems are Opportunities

I love problems. I see problems as opportunities. If a solution can be found, that’s great. If a solution can be devised, replicated, and sold, that’s a potential business.

Of course, there’s more to a successful business than that. Any number of problems can be solved, but not all solutions translate to viable business opportunities.

But it starts with an attitude of “problems as opportunities.” It’s not a common attitude. If you want to be an entrepreneur, however, it’s a must.

The Toxicity of Negativity

It’s tough, I know. It’s not easy being an entrepreneur. Feeling bipolar is what some say. Indeed.

That’s why it’s important to shed the negativity in your life. You have enough stress as it is, why add more? By negativity, I mean habits, places and people.

Bad habits can range from decreasing your physical health – like smoking & eating fast food – to decreasing your emotional health – like procrastinating & avoiding tough decisions.

Negative places are those that aren’t conductive to a productive lifestyle. If you work best in a cafe, get out of your house. If you work best with other people around, find a coworking office.

Negative people may be tougher to shed, but is just as important, if not more so. Emotions are viral; they can be transferred from body to body. Being around people who are cynical, pessimistic, anxious, etc, can actually make you feel similarly.

As an entrepreneur, your path will include man dips and slumps. You really don’t need anything else to add to those downswings. Shedding them will feel dropping a massive weight off your shoulders. Try it, and you’ll start feeling more positive and productive almost immediately.

First Day of Improv Classes

I just had my first day of improv classes. They are an attempt to push me outside my comfort zone (which they certainly are doing). They are also good for entrepreneurs.

One of the main lessons from this initial class was to be comfortable with mistakes. To celebrate them, even.

Our instructor noticed how some students were flinching when they were doing our exercises, like answering the Name Three Things game.

In this game, we all stand in a circle. The person to your left quickly asks you to name three things that… and the rest of the question is left to the asker’s imagination. Like, “name three things that are blue,” “name three things that taste sweet,” or “name three things that you can do on Fridays.”

Some students would flinch their answers. Meaning they would shrug or answer in a question. “Three things that are blue. The… sky, water, and Smurfs?”

This comes off as a lack of confidence. The instructor asked, “if Obama said, ‘I want to be the president of the United States?’ would you have any confidence in that statement?” Probably not.

So our class was deemed a No Flinching Zone.

The instructor has taught this class all around the world. In every class, she declares the same rule. Interestingly, when she held this class in Japan, the word “finch” was translated to “a facial apology.”

That’s exactly what a flinch is. A facial apology. You are apologizing for your answer as if it’s a mistake. Meanwhile, you could be absolutely correct. But you haven’t given yourself a chance to be correct. You’ve already apologized for being incorrect.

Since we are celebrating our mistakes, there should be no apologies or flinches. Especially not when you’re doing improv or talking about something subjective.

Biz Vision: Phone Numbers are Archaic

I’m surprised more people haven’t seen the insight in Nikhyl Singhal’s post. Back in August of 2010, he wrote the controversial post “Phone Numbers Are Dead, They Just Don’t Know It Yet” on TechCrunch. I say “controversial” because most of the commenters attacked his article. Not that TechCrunch’s comments are really that intelligent; sometimes far from it. The overwhelming criticism was still startling though.

In his article, Singhal asserts that phone numbers will go away because of these facts:

  1. No control. Anyone can dial your 10 digits, including your ex-girlfriend, a political campaign worker, or a solicitor. Unlisted numbers, Caller ID and do-not-call lists all tried to solve this problem, but these solutions still don’t prevent unwanted calls.
  2. Phone numbers are tied to a device, not to you. Everyone has multiple numbers, yet your home line is shared, leaving callers guessing the best way to reach you.
  3. User experience is very limited. The phone was designed as a utility—dial a number, have a conversation. It’s remained this way since its inception. It’s not optimized for other experiences, which is why voicemail and conference calls are tedious, and why checking flight status is worse than a root canal.

He sees them being replaced with social networks such as Facebook. “If given a choice between Ma Bell and Zuckerbell as our operator, we should choose Zuck,” he writes.

Perhaps he came across too “sensationalistic” as one commenter criticized. Though I agree with Singhal’s prediction, I would frame it differently. Here is the core reason why I believe phone numbers will lose their utility:

Phone numbers are a poor unique identifier

This seemingly random string of numbers is meant to represent you – or specifically, one of your devices, as Singhal points out. It is a holdover from the telecommunications industry and is a viable solution if you:

  1. only need to call a handful of people often
  2. those people don’t change their numbers often

The cognitive load of a handful of numbers is adequate for some people. However, many people need to be in contact with a wider number. And many change their numbers several times in their lifetime.

If you’ve ever kept a manual phonebook, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Ever try calling an old friend, only to discover their number has been disconnected? That’s what I mean.

I don’t know if Facebook is the appropriate solution, but conceptually, there is a definite need for a way to uniquely identify a person, so he/she can be contacted by friends easily. What are some other ways to uniquely identify a person?

Unique identifier alternatives

There are quite a few ways to uniquely identify a person:

  • Real name
  • Username
  • Email address
  • OpenID
  • Social security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Passport
  • License plate number
  • Fingerprints
  • DNA

Real name

A name is the simplest real-world identifier. That’s how you identify your friends & family in a crowded room. There’s more here too, which I’ll get to after I go over the others.

Username & email address

Usernames & email addresses are both are common in the Internet. They are used on social media sites, community forums, instant messengers, etc. They are not a great solution, however, because they have limited namespaces.

For instance, there can only be one person who uses the username “mikelee.” This leads to usernames like “mikelee13” and “mikelee2010.” The meaningfulness of “mikelee12345” is small. Did you mean to contact “mikelee12345” or “mikelee12346?” Same goes for email addresses too.

And, for phone numbers as well. New area codes are created all the time to address the growing population, but conceivably, we will run out of available numbers one day. That’s a huge, obvious problem, if you ask me.

Usernames & email addresses have the benefit of nearly unlimited lengths, while phone numbers are limited. That’s a slight advantage with the former two, but because it’s easier to remember shorter identifiers, namespace conflicts still exist. Long identifiers aren’t just more difficult to remember, they are more difficult to display too. Imagine trying to display “mikelee-from-newyork-now-in-sanfrancisco” on your communications device. Jeepers.


OpenID is a technical protocol that is used in user authentication. It’s more for an individual to log into a website, than for you to contact and connect with that individual. So it wouldn’t help in this context.

Social security number

This number is a little too important to be used casually. As a government-issued unique identifier, it can lead to identity fraud if used maliciously.

It’s arguably a poor unique identifier as well. I would love to see the government use a different one. But there are few viable alternatives for them. Facebook sure wouldn’t work. Maybe something biological? I don’t know. That’s a tougher problem to solve.

Driver’s license & passport

Being physical items, it would be difficult to use these in a communications context. Their numbers – which are really alphanumeric – are more portable than the physical items themselves. Being of a limited length, these numbers suffer from namespace issues as well, though the use of alphabetic characters extends them a bit.

But who’s realistically going to memorize or write down their friends’ driver’s license and/or passport numbers? They aren’t even as good as usernames and email addresses. People can select their own usernames & email addresses; driver’s license & passport numbers are issued seemingly at random.

License plate number

I included this one just to highlight its absurdity. A license plate number is a unique identifier for a vehicle, not a person. It’s about as helpful as a phone number, which is really a unique identifier for a mobile device, not a person. The only difference is portability; it’s easier to bring a mobile device with you than, well, a vehicle.

Fingerprints & DNA

There are a whole host of biometric unique identifiers, from physiological (fingerprints, DNA, retinal patterns) to behavioral (voice, gait, typing rhythm). Sure, these can uniquely identify a friend, but how would you realistically use a friend’s retinal pattern to send them a message? Keep a copy of your friend’s eyeball on your keychain? Gross.

Ideal unique identification traits

Obviously, most of the unique identifiers listed above wouldn’t work in a communication context. What would work? The perfect identifier would be:

  • Unique
  • Meaningful
  • Scalable
  • Portable

It’s got to be unique, of course.

It should also be meaningful. “mikelee12345” isn’t terribly meaningful, but it’s possible to achieve some kind of meaning in such an alphanumeric string. “mikelee-from-newyork” perhaps? Long and unwieldy, but more meaningful.

It should be scalable. Limited-length strings have a, you know, limit. The only way to scale those is to increase the limit – which has its pitfalls (the constraints of limits, I mean). Think Y2K. Someday, we’ll have a Y10K problem.

It should be portable. Some unique identifiers, like physical items and biometrics, aren’t portable. That’s why alphanumeric strings have been used in the past. It’s easy to store such an identifier in a communications device.

With these limitations, it’s easy to see why phone numbers and usernames have been in use. But is there a better way?

Contextual real-world unique identification

I briefly touched on how real names are the simplest real-world identifier. In a crowded room, you can use a person’s first name to identify him/her. For a common name like “Mike,” a last name is necessary. And for a common name like “Mike Lee,” you need to add an extra layer of context, because by themselves, real names aren’t unique enough.

What is a useful layer of context? There are several kinds. You can say, “Mike Lee from New York,” “Mike Lee, who used to work at Yahoo,” or “Mike Lee, that hairy Chinese American guy.” Current location and hometown are common contextual items. Vocation and employment is another, especially in the US. A physical or personality-based description is another.

Some social networks realize this. LinkedIn uses a real name, photo, current employment, and a self-chosen tagline. Facebook uses a real name, photo and a network. On a mobile device, both default to the simplest pair: a real name & a photo.

That, to me, is the key. A real name & a photo. The real name is a natural identifier, and the photo adds context. Together, these are unique, meaningful, scalable (a photo is rich visual representation with a nearly infinite set of pixel combinations), and portal (a photo image file is also small enough to be stored on a mobile device).

Phone numbers vs real names & photos

I consider myself a humanistic technologist. I believe that technology should be centered around the interests, needs, and behavior of human beings. Technology is a tool and shouldn’t be a hinderance, as it often is.

This is what Singhal was trying to convey. Phone numbers surface technical constraints. They are an unnatural way to reach your friends. We’ve put up with it because realistic alternatives haven’t existed. The advent of social networks and mobile devices may finally be offering a viable solution.

Within the code of a LinkedIn or Facebook account, each individual is represented by a numeric (or perhaps alphanumeric) unique identifier. And that’s okay. That’s how programming languages can most efficiently handle a unique entity. But the presentation of that information should not reflect technology’s constraints. It should reflect your actual mental mode of that individual. Such as a real name & a photo.

Entrepreneurs are Bipolar

happy and sad “What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?” asked the business class instructor.

“To me, it means being bipolar,” answered Kamael Sugrim, co-founder and president of the non-profit mPowering. (Her foundation aims to help the ultra poor through mobile technologies and applications.)

Incredulous, the instructor pressed her. “What do you mean?” Other students had said the usual things: tenacity, passion, ingenuity. But bipolar? What an odd answer.

“I mean one minute, I’m on top of the world. The next, I’m slumming it at the bottom,” she answered. “One minute, I’m schmoozing with funders who are writing me checks. The next, I’m freaking out about our expenses. One minute, I’m putting together a grand plan to help thousands of starving families around the world. The next, I’m wondering ‘what the hell am I doing thinking I can save all of these people?'”

Raise your hand if you’ve had similar thoughts.

Every entrepreneur I know has gone through periods of self-doubt. Adeo Ressi, founder & CEO of The Founder Institute and calls this “the dark place.” “It is fucking hard,” he added in his usual colorful manner while he spoke at The Founder Conference 2010. “It is a very, very dark time. Every entrepreneur goes through it. You will too.”

There are occasionally eternally optimistic entrepreneurs, sure. But the majority will have times of great difficulty, coupled with times of great success. It’s the entrepreneur roller coaster. Mania and depression, rising with good news and dropping with bad.

And that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur.

Photo by: surlygirl

Improvised Entrepreneurship

As a business leader, you often have to make snap decisions while walking and chewing bubble gum. It’s not always easy, but it’s part of the job. Also, it’s a skill you can improve.

How? Take an improv class!

Yea, I know. You’re thinking, “I don’t want to be a comedian. Why should I take improv?”

Because improv isn’t just about comedy. It’s about being in the moment, trusting your gut, accepting mistakes, and moving forward. Sounds a lot like what you do, right?

Here are 10 principles of improv and how they map to entrepreneurship:

Principle 1: Be prepared & warm up
Before doing improv, participants train their minds to sharpen their awareness, enhance their listening skills, and be ready for anything. In business, it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen next. So the best thing you can do is to sharpen your awareness, enhance your listening skills, and be ready for, well, anything.
Principle 2: Willingness
Improv participants have to be willing to mess up big time, look foolish, and move on. Whether you like it or not, you will mess up big time and look foolish too. Perhaps more often than not. You may have maxed out all your credit cards and spent months locked in your room, only to emerge with a load of debt and obscene body odor. The key is to be willing to accept this and move on. And to take a shower.
Principle 3: Stay in the moment
Improv is all about what is happening now, because that’s where life is happening. As an entrepreneur, you should still plan for the future, but be mindful of the present as well. Keep an eye on today’s finances, metrics, market, and customers, and trends. It is important to balance the future and the present, long-term strategy with short-term tactics.
Principle 4: Shut up and listen
Good improv participants are good listeners. They don’t think about what they’re going to say next. They listen to what has been said, then build off of it. The next time you talk to your customers, make sure you listen. Put your problem solving urges aside so you can process what they are saying.
Principle 5: Action beats inaction
“Don’t talk about doing it, do it.” Be a shark. Keep on moving. If you suddenly find yourself going the wrong way, turn. Move quickly and course correct quickly. If you’re debating between doing more data analysis and taking action, I can help end that debate: take action.
Principle 6: Be honest
Doing improv means learning not to censor or judge your own thoughts. Improv participants express themselves sincerely and genuinely. And authentically. Leaders who act this way tend to inspire others to follow them as well.
Principle 7: Let go of (your need to) control
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the courage to change that which I can, the serenity to accept that which I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a powerful principle, one that I use in business and in life. The serenity to accept that which you cannot control is the key here. If you cannot control sometime, like the economy, there is no benefit in worrying about it.
Principle 8: There are no mistakes
Beyond being willing to make mistakes is the belief that there are no mistakes – only actions that lead to positive results, or lessons to be learned (which in itself is a positive result). When you are creating a new company, every step you take will be teaching you a valuable lesson.
Principle 9: Trust
Improv is a team-based activity where trust for others is a requirement. Same goes for a business too. Trust yourself, your instinct, your impulses, and your choices. Trust your team, for they are helping you achieve the vision of your business.
Principle 10: Teamwork (row, row, row)
Speaking of teams, improv participants don’t just trust their teammates, they rely on them. This interdependence is what makes improv work. And yes, a business is no different. If you don’t depend on others, you’ll never be able to grow your business. Take the time to build a solid, dependable team, then trust them to help move the business forward.
Bonus Principle: “Yes, and…”
Ah yes, a bonus principle. This is a pervasive idea that weaves through all of the others. It “implies acceptance, but not acquiescence.” It is the opposite of “No, but…” To be a successful business leader, you will need a similar attitude. They are not problems in your way, but challenges to overcome. They are not mistakes that hurt, but lessons to learn.

Want to know more about improv? Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre is a classic. Start there.

If you would prefer hands-on training, sign up for a local improv class. It is not about being funny. It is about being comfortable enough with yourself to think on the spot. And that is a skill any entrepreneur needs.

Props to: Harry Max