The Problem With Reality
Human beings don’t like reality much. It’s awkward. It’s messy. It gets in the way of our plans. It’s unpredictable, organic and dense in ways we’d rather not acknowledge. We know we live in it, but we really like to pretend that we don’t.
We avoid difficult facts, we shade our thinking, and we use language to obscure what’s going on (“we’re looking forward to right-sizing our organization”). We listen to music, watch TV, make up stories, and put a huge amount of effort into creating technologies that take us as far away from the irritating rub of the real as we can: drugs, screens, headphones, streaming, wireless and the Oculus Rift.
This problem hasn’t escaped the notice of thinkers through the ages, who have left us their advice:
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
— Lao Tzu
Startups and Reality – A Troubled Relationship
From the very beginning of my work in startups I have been fascinated by the relationship between startup organizations and reality. It is, I would say, troubled.
A startup needs reality. In the end, somebody has to buy the product for more money than it takes to produce (obvious? you’d be surprised). Reality has to accommodate the changes that a startup is banking (literally) on making. So you would think that people running startups with have some respect for reality, listen to what she was saying, take her into account.
But very often, reality is deeply disrespected. Startup leaders make assumptions, take her for granted and believe that she is on their side. Indeed, they believe that reality has a side to take, rather than just being.
Startup leaders make statements about reality, like:
- “it’s going to ship in October!” (independent of number of engineers, technical feasibility, rate of progress)
- “we’re guaranteeing $2M in the first year!” (independent of market size, pricing variability, customer acceptance)
- customers love the new version” (based on a couple of chats with customers in a social setting)
If you’ve spent any time in startups, you can provide your own.
Reality Always Wins.
Isn’t it wonderful that reality always wins?
— Deb Burkmann, Yoga Teacher
If you don’t have enough engineers, or the technical work is too daunting, you won’t ship in October. If there is no addressable market, you won’t make $2M in the first year. If performance is limited by some fundamental constant, well, then it’s a problem.
But before completely give up our agency, and decide there’s nothing we can do, let’s consider the other, opposing force. To begin a startup, you must have, to some degree, the idea that reality is malleable – after all, your goal is to build something that didn’t exist before, and have many (hopefully) millions of people change their lives by using it. So you must start with the notion that you can, in fact, change reality. Or at least add to it.
And that’s a large part of the buzz of doing a startup! We can shrug off the irritating framework we’re stuck with and make something better, different – alter the world around us a bit. Given how troublesome reality is, it’s no wonder that changing it can seem so exciting.
Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.
— Tupac Shakur
So a startup needs a healthy relationship with reality. After all, we are trying to change her, nudge her along a little bit, make her a little less chaotic, lean a little more in our favor.
In which case, it might be a good idea to have a little respect. Listen to what she’s saying.