Monday, December 7, 2009

What's Right vs. What's Practical

Andrew Waitman (a Canadian venture capitalist I had the opportunity to meet last year) has an excellent knol about "doubt disease" and its effect on startups. It's required reading for anyone starting anything.

The disease is rampant in Canadian venture. It's highly infectious. It does not kill its host. Rather, it actively works to infect all who come in contact with the host. It does this when the host speaks. It works by corroding the fabric of ambition and accomplishment. If someone with the disease comes in contact with your start-up, quarantine, a perimeter and ultimately removal is absolutely necessary. It has killed many start-ups (but more on this later). The host, of course, is a human being. And the disease is projected doubt. Doubt about direction, decisions, delivery. Doubt about doing. Doubt about the future.
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There are no clear tests that can be taken to diagnose an infection. However, conversations with the infected host may reveal, at different rates, the nature of their infection. The symptoms include preoccupation with negative or failed outcomes. Vocalized cynicism or skepticism based on little knowledge, experience or context. Individuals infected rarely identify opportunities or solutions. They fixate on problems and cast opinions with little or no appreciation of the complexity of the context. They typically have experienced few successes in their lives or careers and are encouraged by the failure of others. Many people who are classified as cynics or skeptics may be correctly diagnosed as suffering from the doubt disease. It depends on how vociferously they try to convince others of impending doom and disaster that will give away the severity of their affliction.
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Those who show full blown infections should not be hired. You should limit as much as possible any contact with your organization once the infected individual has been identified. Any investors or board members exhibiting the disease should be isolated at all cost since they have a much higher infection vector that those lower in the organization. The higher up a negative influence is in the organization the more dangerous to the company's health. That is not to say you do not want investors asking tough questions about your tactics and strategy. You do. However, those who clearly are predisposed to cynicism, doom and negativism should be avoided. Once you bring someone into your community with the disease they will infect others and that will begin to zap the strength out of your organization until your key people succumb to the disease and everyone second guesses everyone else.

It's worthwhile to read the whole thing.

There's something though that has felt wrong to me about the whole concept of shunning negativity and pursuing positivity- not that Andrew isn't right in the context of business and startups, but something that just didn't feel right about all the books on business and life that preach positivity in everything that you do (Andrew isn't championing irrational exuberance either). It took me a while to figure it out- it wasn't obvious, it was just something that felt out of place. Now I know what it was:  I want to see it as it is, without unwarranted negativity, yes, but also without unwarranted positivity. From a rationalist's perspective, it's equally bad to have doubt disease or an overly positive mindset- either one is a filter on the truth. From Eliezer Yudkowsky's Twelve Virtues of Rationality:

Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want... Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.

Thing is, it's practical for an entrepreneur (or anyone in business) to be an optimist. Positivity has become a heuristic. Most entrepreneurs fail, so society as a whole would want the highest number of people to try- the most at bats per unit of time and money. As individuals though, we want to pinpoint the ideas that will succeed and jump ship on the ones that won't. You don't want to not take a risk that you should have taken or not pursue a project that you should have pursued because of a negative predisposition, but you also can't regain lost time chasing the wrong thing because you were overoptimistic about it. In short, positivity isn't necessarily right, but it's definitely practical when you are an entrepreneur. One question that I haven't figured out yet is whether doubt disease is much more prominent than its counterpart on the positive side, so is more of an issue? I'm not sure.

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