Stubborn Visionaries & Pigheaded Fools


Scenario 1 (S1)
At time (A) you start an AdWords campaign. At time (B) it’s obviously not working; a waste of time and money. But you keep trying, and by time (C), you’ve figured it out; it’s working!

Scenario 2 (S2)
At time (A) you start an AdWords campaign. At time (B) it’s obviously not working; a waste of time and money. But you keep trying, but by time (C), it’s still not working, and you’ve wasted even more time and money.

We’ve all experienced both scenarios, not just in AdWords but with life in general.

But we misunderstand it.

S1 we call “success through perseverance,” and you’ve heard this echoed in many platitudes. Winners never quit, and quitters never win. Failure is a step on the path to success. Failure is a pivot away from success. Learn from your mistakes and next time you will succeed. Fake it ’till you make it. The thing all failed startups have in common is that the founders stopped trying.

S2 we call “failure through obstinance,” and you’ve heard this echoed in many platitudes. Doing the same thing expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Those who cannot be introspective and honestly see things as they are, will fail. The only way to truly fail is to not recognize temporary failures and pivot. The thing all failed startups have in common is that the founders didn’t pay attention to what was happening outside their own egotistical worldview.

Are these the correct conclusions? No, they’re not.

Let’s consider S1 and S2 at time (B). Until this point, they are identical. So, how are you to know, at time (B), which scenario you’re in? Because if you’re in S1 you’d be a fool to stop, but if you’re in S2 you’d be a fool to continue. How are you to know whether you’ll end up as a cautionary tale of someone who couldn’t let go when he’s clearly wrong-headed, or as a hero who bravely fought through doubt to prove everyone wrong?

So maybe you shouldn’t find out! Just stop at (B). No again, because if you’re on the path of S1 you’ve lost your win. If you were on S2, you were “smart” to stop, but either way you’ve failed to achieve something useful. Thus, stopping is sure failure while persisting is at least possibly of success. Stopping doesn’t seem smart.

You cannot know. Not for AdWords, not for product design, not for the vision of your company and the market you hope to create around it, not for almost anything, big or small.

VCs cannot know either, though it’s their job to try. They’re smart and do this for a living but almost always it doesn’t work. No one knows which path you’re on.

So now we can see that the typical, backward-looking interpretation of these two scenarios is not the best way for us to understand the choices in front of us today, nor to evaluate our decisions in hindsight. It’s not even clear that we’ve “learned anything,” whether the outcome was good or bad.

Perhaps all we’ve done is made some choices and observed some results, and that’s the end of it.

You could read this as depressing, because nothing is predictable and even the wisdom we believe we accumulate along the way is false wisdom. But clearly this point of view isn’t exactly true.

So, read this as a positive, and realize that it liberates you to make decisions more easily — with less second-guessing in the moment, and less guilt afterwards.

When you realize you cannot know which scenario you’re in, you realize that the job is to find out which one as quickly as possible, which means to cease your dithering on the decision itself, make a strong decision, keep your eyes open, hope for S1, but allow for S2, to not feel guilty if you guessed wrong, and not feel too cocky if you guessed right.

So, just shut up and get going. And when you’re done with that, don’t look back too much, just shut up and get going again.

18 responses to “Stubborn Visionaries & Pigheaded Fools”

  1. So maybe the conclusion of this is that you should just minimize the downside and optimize for the most “at bats”. Eventually you’ll end up in s1. This is actually what VC firms do, since they are such terrible pickers of s1s. It’s also google’s strategy.

    • Thanks Rob. It’s not quite true that VC’s optimize for maximum at-bats. That *is* the strategy for certain organizations like Y-Combinator, TechStars, and 500s, although also combined with other advantages (e.g. deal-flow for YC and TS, and data-driven action + international for 500s). But “normal” early-stage VC cannot invest in too many companies, due to the business model limits of fund-size and the number of startups a single partner can be on the board of. Certainly they are looking for multiple at-bats, but it’s not quite as statistical as some of those other groups.

  2. This parallels Lean well in which ‘not all failures are educational’ sometimes its just s2 but you still can’t know before hand and thus the entrepreneurs mantel of continuing to keep pressing in

  3. Thank you for this. Coming from someone who tries too hard to find the best hedged position in every scenario only to end up with analysis paralysis. Decide. Move on. Great advice.

  4. Perhaps it is worth to expand the scope of this post for a moment: when deciding whether to press on or to pivot/abandon, I believe it is important to honestly and systematically evaluate all the variables that might and should influence such a decision, including those that are not directly related to the odds of success. For example, can you financially afford to continue, or are you putting your family’s well-being at risk? Is your idea something that the world could live without, or is it something that, in Tim O’Reilly’s words, is so important that even if you fail, the world is a better place for you having tried? And so on and so forth. I believe that one characteristic of pigheaded fools is tunnel vision. They do not systematically evaluate all variables before deciding what’s best for them.

  5. Ok Jason, as I stated numerous times, I love your posts, thoughts, and wisdom, but on this one you got it wrong. Let’s take the example of the ad words… first, you a “risking” a 3rd party to help your “idea” sell, when what you should be doing is making your idea fit the solution people are will to pay for. The the failure was WAY before you did ad words and you might have the same results as if you went to Las Vegas and played roulette!

    No, the reason why we do not know if we will or will not be successful is because we do not understand the ‘chance factor’ of what we do. As a young boy I spent way, way too much time at the race track (horses), but I learned something. In EVERY situation you can actually measure you ‘odds’ of winning and your returns on a bet. When you bet blindly, you are no better than the octopus picking winners.

    It is amazing how simple this concept is, but how people continue to believe ‘luck’ has a lot to do with it…that is because they do not ‘measure twice and cut once’ and blindly believe in the false assumptions everyone else is using.

    So yes, when you know the odds of success you can then see when it makes sense to push through, and when it is time to fold. Oh, an those odds improve when you are doing something that could change the world, expand rapidly and is extensible. Now, figuring THAT out is the tough part.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I’m not, however, talking about chance or luck. Perhaps the company in this scenario already has awesome product/market fit and is simply trying to figure out whether AdWords could be a good *additional* channel for new customers. At WP Engine we experiment with new channels all the time, though we’re way past “fit.” Whether we will be successful at any specific marketing channel has some luck component, but it needn’t be much, or even dominant. We still have to figure out which scenario we’re in, along the way, if things aren’t going well.

      • Yes Jason I concur, but if you are just doing an A|B comparison you are doing no better than flipping a coin. I try to put more thought into ALL the factors effecting the success / failure of a company I start, and begin eliminating those that do not benefit me or could damage the fledgling company.

  6. Thanks a lot Jason,

    We are at point (B) now and we decide to continue with different approach. We don’t know what lies ahead but stopping is not a choice.

  7. Saying that you need to find out if you’re in S1 or S2 “as quickly as possible” begs the question. If you quickly decide you’re in S2, you could have given up too early when you were in fact in S1.

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  9. اصبحت عملية ىالنظافة شاقة جدا فهى تحتاج لو قت وكجهود كبير خاصة انة حتى بعد الانتهاء من التنظيف نجد عدم رضي عن عملية النظافة بشكل عام ولا اصبح الجميع يفضل الاستعانة بشركات النظافة توفيرا للوقت والمجهود

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  10. تعتبر التسربات خطر كبير يهدد سكان اى منطقة بالاضافة الى اهدار الاموال واهم موارد البلاد من الغاز والمياة فنرى ونقرا فى وسائل الاعلام باستمرار عن اخطار التسربات وما سببتة من كوارث

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