Founders of companies are often encouraged to chart a grand vision of what they will accomplish. Visions can be powerful motivators, but they can also be the cause of crushing disappointment. In the past few months I have struggled with my view of success. Until recently, success for me meant accomplishing things. It meant achieving goals and getting wins.
In addition to starting Loam, I’m finishing my PhD and have been trying to publish a paper describing my work. I have submitted papers to conferences several times now over the last two years, and each time the paper has been rejected. With conference acceptance rates as low as 25%, having a paper rejected is common. Yet, with each rejection, my disappointment has deepened. Each paper rejection was a loss and a missed goal. My energy level and drive faded with each loss. To further my sense of loss, I recently discovered a technicality in a vendor agreement we assumed was in the bank that put a key contract in question. We didn’t know if we’d lose the contract or what would happen. Loss after loss was piling up on me. I felt beat up and discouraged.
I can’t control whether a contract will be profitable, but I can writer better code than I did yesterday. I can’t control how a client will respond to a proposal, but I can control how I communicate and approach the way we plan new features.
Shortly after my most recent paper rejection, my wife and I chatted about my day and I described how I was struggling with motivation to keep going with my PhD. I was starting to feel hopeless. She patiently listened to my lament and then pointed out how I was defining success and getting my motivation from situations beyond my control. I had no say whether a paper would be published, or a contract would be successful. She suggested that I needed a new way to define success - especially if I wanted to get my motivation back. We both knew I needed my motivation back. I was starting to procrastinate and mope around the house, something I don’t normally do. She suggested I define success internally, based on things I could control.
I can’t control if a paper is published, but I can control whether I spent enough time refining the argument and making the argument flow as best as I can. I can’t control whether a contract will be profitable, but I can writer better code than I did yesterday. I can’t control how a client will respond to a proposal, but I can control how I communicate and approach the way we plan new features.
By shifting my definition of success to something I can control, I allow myself to win in every situation. Even if I lose a client, I win by learning what didn’t go well. Having this perspective doesn’t change the reality of the failure. It’s still a failure in the sense that a paper wasn’t published, or client didn’t like a feature. It changes how I respond to it.
As founders, we dream lofty visions. We see the ideal future. We are filled with hope and excitement. And then comes a journey filled with as many challenges as wins. The decision we face is how we define success. Is success having X dollars in the bank, or it having the confidence to know that we did our best to ensure each support request was handled with empathy and in a timely manner? Is success 10 years of 99.9999% uptime, or knowing that each line of code the dev team wrote today was thoughtful and well-tested. We can’t control our circumstances. We do have control over how we define success. By defining success internally, we can guarantee that every situation is a success. And in time, we’ll deliver the vision.