Entrepreneurs are flawed animals.
There's got to be something wrong with anyone who willfully jumps at the chance to make less money to work harder with no recognition.
But in all seriousness, even we entrepreneurs who are most comfortable in the skin we've chosen know that we're playing a role that often requires us to be really good at a lot of different things, all the time. To me, that's a challenge and even a joy -- waking up on any given day and not knowing if I'm going to have to be a salesperson or a marketer or a coder or the boss that day. Or all of them.
But here's a secret that no one tells you about being a successful entrepreneur: You not only have to be good at a lot of diverse tactical skills, you need to be better than most at a lot of strategic skills too.
And there's one soft skill that I still suck at -- even after 20-plus years of founding and leading companies. And I don't think I'm alone.
Why Strategic Skills Are So Critical to Startup Success
A broad mastery of tactical skills isn't super necessary. You don't have to be an advanced technologist plus a financial wizard, a sales guru, and a hiring machine all at once to run a successful company.
Take software development, for example. I was an OK coder, better than average. But in startup, when I reach the end of my usefulness writing code, I can go find a technical co-founder or a CTO to fill my gaps
I don't have a problem admitting to being a B+ coder. I also don't mind admitting that, when it comes to coding, I'm very good at soft programming skills like pattern recognition and creative problem solving.
Those more strategic coding skills actually worked against me in the corporate world. If someone told me to code something to spec, and I found a better way to do it, I'd just do it my way. And then I'd get in trouble for it (not a team player, doesn't follow directions).
In startup, finding better ways to do things is rewarded -- with customers, revenue, and market share.
However, the soft skills -- creativity, leadership, persuasion, negotiation, communication, and so on -- are the skills that separate failed entrepreneurs from successful entrepreneurs. And not just in certain cases; it's something I see happen almost every time.
Now, I'm not saying you have to have Christopher Nolan's multilayered creative mind or Scott Boras's billion-dollar contract negotiation skills. You have to just be better than good at most of them.
And to be honest, there's a critical soft skill that I don't do well at all.
Patience Is an Entrepreneurial Virtue
When I fail at something, it's almost always because I trip over my own impatience. If I don't see progress, immediately, I get frustrated and I change course.
But it's not just me. Patience is often a soft skill that goes undeveloped, for a few reasons:
- It's not something a lot of coaches and advisers talk about because it doesn't have a quick payoff (and thus, doesn't sell a lot of books or sell out a lot of TED Talks).
- It goes against most entrepreneurial wisdom. In a world where you constantly hear "take risks," "dream big," and "break the rules," a motto like "be patient" is the outlier.
- Taking a big swing and failing is seen as noble, while being patient and failing is seen as fearful.
In baseball, it's the difference between striking out swinging and striking out looking. Every baseball coach I ever had praised me for the former and yelled at me for the latter.
But if you're not good at being patient, chances are you will become your startup's own worst enemy. So how do you get better at it?
Finding Your Own Personal Ways to Practice Patience
Patience is usually not thought of as something you can practice, because it works differently for everyone and the opportunity to use and improve it is usually forced by an external factor, a delayed flight for example.
But I've found my own ways to proactively work on my patience skills. While these may or may not work for you, there's a root lesson in each that you can probably find somewhere else in your life.
Play poker. Yeah. At first blush this seems kind of silly, but sometimes the cure has to be as sneaky as the disease. I often encourage entrepreneurs to learn how to assess risk versus reward by learning to play poker. Specifically, no-limit Texas Hold'em, for money, if it's allowed.
Poker is a great way to practice patience. A lot of new players think winning at poker is about betting. Successful poker players will tell you that winning is about waiting -- keeping your powder dry to strike when the moment is right.
Play enough and you'll start to learn when you're making cold decisions to win versus making heated decisions out of frustration.
Create a 60-90 day health plan. People resolve to get healthier all the time. They start diets, they start exercising, and they start changing their bad habits. But when they don't see quick results in their weight/speed/lift/stamina, or worse, if they take a step backward, they give up.
Pushing through those setbacks during a 60-to-90-day health plan requires practiced patience. When you finally start to make progress, it's a great feeling, and that feeling bleeds into every other aspect of your life, including your business.
Use stretch goals. Everyone knows about stretch goals, but not everyone uses them properly. Over the years, I've learned that one of the worst ways my impatience exposes itself is when I set unrealistic expectations and then blame myself or others when those expectations aren't met.
But we're entrepreneurs. Unrealistic expectations is kind of our thing.
The answer is to set your stretch goals first. It seems like a nitpick, but it makes the math easier to identify how far out of reach your expectations might be. For example, instead of setting your actual sales goal at 3,000 units and your stretch goal to double that at 6.000 units, you might start with your stretch goal at 3,000 units, and then set a more attainable actual goal of 2,000 units.
You can still aim for your stretch goal, but when you miss a stretch goal, you learn something. When you repeatedly miss actual goals, you learn nothing and fail faster.
And that's really what patience is about. Learning. So give yourself time to learn, recover, and fix your mistakes.