Intense Asymmetry and Self-Flagellation

Erica Douglass bootstrapped her company and sold it for a million dollars while her friends were switching majors for the third time or dicking around at some entry-level job. She’s successful by any measure.

But after a few short months of super-charging our marketing efforts at WP Engine for her to start turning herself inside out about her lack of “success,” and by implication, lack of ability and self-worth:

WP Engine is killing it right now. They’re growing faster than my hosting company did. “Damn,” I thought, “I must have really sucked at growing my business.” And the downward spiral arrived, ready for me to step on.

All driven people do this to themselves, and it has to stop.

This is not about Erica; she’s the example only because she has the stones to admit it online. This is about you and me who beat ourselves up with similar words.

It’s tempting to attack her definition of “success” which is apparently things like “growth rate” and “gross profit margin” as opposed to things like “happiness” or “fulfillment” or “loving life.” I could make this case — that her definition is wrong — and I’d be right, but it wouldn’t help you, me, or Erica, because this is not an argument that type-A obsessive people respond to.  It’s like claiming that meditating fifteen minutes a day will make you less stressed and more thoughtful — it’s undeniably true, but you can’t say it with credibility to people like us.

Better would be to point out her conveniently gerrymandered criteria, choosing to value “growth rate” while not valuing “monthly cash loss,” or valuing “gross profit margin” while not valuing “percent ownership.” In fact, you could credibly argue that she’s intentionally selecting only those elements which will cause her to feel inadequate, ignoring those to the contrary. Which makes me believe her “explanation” is a rationalization rather than a cause. The job now is to find the true source.

Well there is a source, well-known and backed by studies, called Impostor Syndrome. That link is an article from two years ago where I expose myself and others for having exactly this irrational failing. If the examples from the article aren’t enough to prove that everyone feels this way, just read the comments.

But maybe you’re still not satisfied, because this is still a bunch of touchy-feely bullshit, and after all there’s nothing wrong with defining success by quantities of money and power and the speed at which we accumulate them.

Except even if you use that definition of success, her (our!) perspective is still wrong, and not for the reason she gave in her article (which was about how hard other people work compared to her, which isn’t true anyway because she works all the time too, as my inbox proves.)

To see why, let’s wind the clock back to 2002 when Erica started her hosting company, Simpli. And let’s suppose I started WP Engine at the same time. (WordPress didn’t yet exist in the form and glory it is today, so let’s give my company a extra boost in this thought experiment and say that WordPress is around v2.5, circa 2008.)

According to Erica’s criteria, let’s see who wins.

WordPress has impressive traction for an open-source tool, but it’s orders of magnitude less prevalent than it is today, so I can’t find customers in droves like we now do. And there isn’t a well-organized panoply of world-wide WordCamps so it’s hard to reach out to those potential customers. And I’m not a hardware geek like Erica, and “cloud hosting” hasn’t been invented yet, so I have to build, configure, and maintain hardware, which means false-starts and legacy configurations and other expense and waste that Erica would never incur. And I’m in Austin, not San Jose, where there’s 100x fewer customers I could land at meetups. And there’s no Twitter or Facebook (or even a strong culture of blogging) to enable my few zealous fans to spread the word. And I didn’t have several startup successes under my belt and monied contacts earned from blogging and speaking, so I can’t raise money like we did. And high-tech-America was in post-bubble recession with barely anyone at all who would actually pay a premium for WordPress-specific hosting.

So it’s clear how this would have gone down. Either complete fail or, more likely, painfully slow growth, crawling towards a stretched definition of “Ramen-profitable,” and a blog post by me about how inadequate I feel next to hosting companies like Erica’s who bootstrap to success with such apparent ease.

This is what physicists call a “time-asymmetry.”

A physical experiment conducted in one location will yield identical results if we move it to another location (provided we move all other influences and pieces along with it). Technically we say that “the laws of physics are symmetrical with respect to translation.”

This is more important than it first sounds. Another symmetry is “constant linear motion” — an experiment in a train moving in a straight line at constant speed is indistinguishable from one done on a train station platform. It is just this fact, combined with the experimentally-determined mind-bending fact that light always appears to travel at the same speed regardless of the motion of the observer, that gives rise to Einstein’s special relativity and explains all electrodynamic theory. This particular symmetry is responsible for half of modern physics!

It’s not always obvious where physics is and isn’t symmetrical. For example, it is symmetrical if you rotate the experiment around a fixed angle, but it is not symmetrical if the experiment is being continuously rotated (because now there’s a centrifugal force).

Well it’s obvious where two businesses are symmetrical: Nowhere! The example above demonstrates how very asymmetrical businesses are in time. In fact they’re asymmetrical in everything — location, the market they serve, the features they have, the founding team, the investors, the amount of money raised, the number of RSS subscribers or anything else. If there were symmetries — or anything even close — we could use that to predict success and failure just a little. Which even professional investors can only do a fraction of the time — so infrequently in fact it’s hard to conclude they “predicted” anything at all.

But humans expect, seek, and even invent symmetry. We crave and seek similarities and patterns and connections. We describe companies that way, e.g. “We’re Netflix for art” — implying a symmetry in target market (i.e. changing the market from videos to art but keeping the website structure, the pricing structure, the delivery structure, etc., ought to result in similar success).

This might be a pithy way to summarize a business, and in that capacity it’s fine. (Or not.) But in detail and execution and route to market and profit margins and opportunity and competition and technology and … well, everything … each company is a new challenge, new variables, and unpredictable.

It’s healthy to use (apparent) symmetry to spark an idea, e.g. “That’s a creative marketing campaign, maybe we could try something similar.”

It’s unhealthy to see symmetry where it doesn’t exist, then build a straw man to fuel self-loathing. Like Erica. And me. And almost every “successful” person I know.

Erica isn’t special because she has misplaced feelings, she’s special because she’s willing to stand up and admit it in public, in order to help everyone suffering under the same delusion.

I would say “stop comparing yourself to others and just be as good as you can,” but high-achievers like you and me could never accept that advice, even if it is wise, because we’re physiologically incapable of not measuring ourselves by impossible yardsticks we invented and, because of Impostor Syndrome, by definition we always come up short.

Instead, how about this:

Stop comparing yourself to something that is objectively incomparable.

That’s just irrational.

Please chime in with a comment. Strength in numbers.

  • The MMO Melting Pot

    I’m not sure the meditation example is a good one – I know it makes sense to me (and I’m *definitely* an obsessive Type-A). Less stress = more productivity = more success. If that means I have to sit and visualise a traingle for 15 minutes, is it really any more ridiculous than spending those 15 minutes setting up an A/B test for “AWESOME!” vs “REALLY AWESOME!” in your latest landing page?

    Nonetheless – thanks very much for this post. I’ve just caught up with an old friend of mine who’s  running a much, much bigger business than me in the same sector as me, and I was starting to trot down the “oh, god, I’m not doing well enough” path. This article did an excellent job of stopping me in my tracks – thanks.

    • Jason Cohen

      Yep, many type-A’s swear by meditation, e.g. Howard Stern, James Altucher.  It *does* help!

      Still, I find sometimes fighting fire with fire can be more persuasive.  Glad to hear you were better able to slough off those thoughts!

  • ronclabo

    Wow – Jason, I think you make some excellent points. 
    Towards the end of the article, I caught myself sighing and thinking “yep, he’s right.”  My sigh wasn’t because the article was bad, quite the contrary, it was because in some ways it was spot one. 
    I think all of us type-A people need to stop beating ourselves up and just learn to enjoy who we were made to be and the oppertunities before us.  Creating something from scratch and leading teams to do things bigger than themselves is pretty cool.  And we’d enjoy it _alot_ more  if we’d stop focusing on how fast some other entrepreneur is going. 

  • Joel Gratz

    This was a wonderful post for two reasons:

    1) I finally undertand Eistein’s theory of relativity.
    2) It aids in my internal battle to stop “keeping up with the Jones'” and simply do as well as I can.

    Good stuff, Jason. This type of writing takes a lot of work and I appreciate you taking the time to get r done!


  • Mark Essel

    Bonus points for the tip of the hat to physics and time asymmetry. It brings into question the problems experimentalists face in our complicated rotating reference frame (earth, sun, solar system, galaxy, etc).

  • Matt Ritter

    This has interesting implications for a few of your other recent posts (which I’ve been following avidly, because they address where I am in my startup):
    You have to be careful not to expect your ‘copy’ to give the exact same results, even if (improbably) you could make it identical in all respects sans choronological.
    The reason that you can’t say for sure whether you’re on the road to success is that nobody else has ever walked that exact road before.  I think that there’s some interesting work that could be done to define the ‘trail of success’, a broader way of categorizing which strategic decisions tend to work (for which companies in which situations), and which ones repeatably do not.  You’ve touched on those themes a bit in other posts, but this is getting pretty link-y already.
    Though this post was written more than 10mins ago, so it’s probably irrelevant by now :)


    ps – quick edit: “But it just a few short months” > “But it took just a few short months”

    • Jason Cohen

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. Perhaps there’s a theme indeed, though unintentional.

  • doablefinance

    Most folks describe success as Erica does.

  • Paolo

    It’s the most beautiful mathematical post i’ve read this year. 
    Bless you!

  • Sheryl Anne

    I never pictured myself as a perfectionist, ever, but maybe that was because I never thought I was up to that level. I am not good enough to be a perfectionist. I have to say I am satisfied with where I am, but even that is ‘giving up’…. Thanks for a new perspective Jason Cohen.

  • androctonvs

    Thank you. I’ve been feeling Impostor Syndrome since forever. It helps me to see other people going through the same. BTW, the opposite is…

  • Dustin Jones

    Hit the nail on the head. For me it’s a matter of understanding true potential. Sure, making lots of money is great but it’s more about “do I have the ability to do something even bigger and better (make more money or do it more easily) than the last run”.