You will end up where you are looking.
I do a fair number of outdoor activities. In part to be fit and healthy, but also to stay mentally and emotionally resilient. Nothing I’ve experienced in life will make you more mentally and emotionally resilient than spending time in nature. To name a few, I enjoy cycling, mountain biking, kayaking, snowmobiling, and snowboarding. My relationship with outdoor activities began in my childhood. I’m from a small town in Upstate NY and we lived up against woods. After school and during the summer I would spend countless hours in those woods making trails and then using the trails to ride something. I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have at the time. Youth is wasted on the young as the saying goes.
So, what does any of this, “get back to nature and get on a trail, slope, or water” stuff, have to do with entrepreneurship? I think a lot, but what I want to focus on is where your eyes take you.
When riding or driving anything, we go where our eyes take us, even if it’s something we want to avoid. This is especially important when riding something outdoors that can have an element of danger and risk associated to it. Lock your eyes on the rock, root, stump, or tree you should be avoiding, and you will end up heading right at it. The trick is to train your eyes to see, and have your brain acknowledge, a potential hazard and then to quickly move your eyes away from the hazard to where you actually want to go. This happens continuously when doing an outdoor activity. Being a founder and leading a startup is a similar experience. There are a multitude of hazards along the way that need to be acknowledged and then quickly put into the periphery, so you don’t end up heading straight into the hazard.
Just like riding something outdoors, a new product and company will end up where you are looking. Pay too much attention to, and stay focused on, obstacles for too long and you will find yourself engulfed by the obstacles instead of being able to avoid some altogether. Being an entrepreneur is being a problem solver, but part of being a great problem solver is knowing which problems need and warrant your attention and focus and which ones don’t. All obstacles and problems are not created equal. The most successful founders figure out how to balance short-term problem solving with making progress toward long-term objectives.
Riding a mountain bike down a trail and seeing a rock you must avoid to prevent crashing and physical harm sounds easy. You would like to think that you would see the rock and then take actions to avoid it. But that isn’t the way we’re innately wired. When our eyes see an obstacle, which correlates to some degree of risk and danger, our natural instinct is to focus on that obstacle, so we don’t figuratively and literally lose sight of it. As a result, we head toward it. Most of the time we can avoid the obstacle by quick reactions that tell us we’re about to hit the obstacle saving us from danger, but these encounters don’t rewire our eyes and brain to approach future obstacles differently. We continue to stare down the rocks on our trails with near miss after near miss.
Another great analogy is someone learning to drive a car. At first, most of us drive toward what we see, even if what we see is an obstacle we want to avoid. When someone hits a trash can, mailbox, or other obstacles they should have been avoiding and you ask them if they saw it, most will say yes they saw it, but don’t know happened or why they hit it. They hit it because they went where their eyes were taking them. They were so concerned about hitting the obstacle that they focused on it to the extent of hitting it. This happens naturally and unconsciously until a new driver gets comfortable enough and learns to focus on the road ahead, not the things on the side they should avoid. New drivers eventually achieve line of sight understanding and clarity.
Entrepreneurs will be confronted with an unending series of problems and obstacles. As I reference in my book, The Founder’s Manual, entrepreneurs need to run to problems and not avoid them, but like a new driver and a mountain biker an entrepreneur also needs to make sure they don’t fixate on an obstacle to the point of being consumed with the obstacle. Entrepreneurs need to confront problems and obstacles while staying focused on positive progress toward longer-term objectives. Just as the mountain biker needs to acknowledge the rock to continue on the trail passed the rock, so does an entrepreneur need to assess what obstacles can merely be avoided versus having to be dealt with.
An entrepreneur’s startup running out of cash is an obstacle that warrants focus and attention because the journey won’t be able to continue without some money in the bank. This is an obstacle worth focusing on because it prevents positive forward progress. In the case of a mountain biker, it would be like a bridge over a river being out. Unlike the rock, the bridge is an obstacle that has to be dealt with.
Entrepreneurs must become skilled in determining which obstacles they need to see and acknowledge to avoid, and those obstacles that are unavoidable. I have seen entrepreneurs focus on the wrong obstacles at the wrong time with a catastrophic impact on their companies. Entrepreneurs have to keep a long-term perspective and understand what things will prevent them from getting where they want to be with their company versus the things that are just a nuisance or a distraction. Nuisances and distractions often masquerade as real problems and obstacles. Determining the difference and responding accordingly is critical for every entrepreneur.
Whether you are riding something, doing a sport, having an outdoor adventure, learning how to drive, or even starting a company, make sure your eyes are focused where you are going and not on the distractions along the way. The distractions can trip you up if you let them.