"The future is there... looking back at us... trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become." ― William Gibson
When I started my first business I believed that changing course was a weakness, there was no room for that in my supremely arrogant view of the power I had to bend the universe in the direction of the future I envisioned. I had my trajectory all figured out, like the parabolic arc of a rainbow, inescapably leading to a pot of gold.
I wouldn't change any of it. The arrogance of youth is a battering ram that helps us break out of the fortress of the past. Still, I often think back on my naively unstoppable sense of purpose with more than a bit of laughter. Part of that may be due to the fact that I too have now laid a few bricks in the wall of the past. But more so because something unexpected happened; the future wasn't where I thought it would be.
I found that what was most important was not staying the course, but the ability to deal with the constant recalculation of the route. At each new twist and turn I'd fight back as if to say, "Damn it, that is not the direction I wanted to go!"
"The arrogance of youth is a battering ram that helps us break out of the fortress of the past."
The simple truth is that more driven and passionate we are about our dreams the more we hold onto the vision we've laid out. So much so that we often fail to see the detours, or see them and outright ignore them!
It takes a willingness to be fully present in each moment to recognize the opportunity of a new path--too much focus on the path we've most planned for can divert us from the path to our biggest success, joy, and fulfillment.
It's what's come to be known as a "pivot," the moment when you realize that you have to let go of what you'd planned for something much greater. The same things that make you an entrepreneur--commitment, vision, and dedication--all work against a pivot. It feels like you're giving up. You've spent so much time convincing yourself, and all of those who've signed up for your dream, that a pivot is evidence that you aren't quite as prescient as you once thought.
Pivot, and Pivot Again
When Peter Thiel and Max Levchin first started what later became PayPal they hadn't even considered electronic funds transfer. The original company, called Fieldlink, provided cryptography for PDAs. That didn't go so well. They then pivoted to Confinity, with the intent to do cash on mobile phones. They quickly discarded the idea and pivoted again to providing the ability to send IOUs from one Palm Pilot to another (the first commercially successful PDA). But the Palm didn't have the critical mass for mobile transactions. Pivot #3 was to email-based payments. When eBay customers began to take notice they pivoted again to focus on eBay and merged with Elon Musk's bank, X.com, where PayPal soon became the exclusive focus with an IPO in 2002 and shortly thereafter an acquisition by eBay.
PayPal is not the exception to the rule. It is the rule; pivot or die.
I can tell you from an abundance of personal experience in working with successful entrepreneurs that it's the pivot which always provides the escape velocity needed to get into orbit. The reasons are simple:
- You can never fully anticipate all of the ways in which the market will respond to your ideas.
- No idea comes out fully formed. Ideas need to be allowed to evolve. The world does not sit still waiting for you.
- The best opportunities will come as the result of circumstances the you cannot predict.
- As you grow so will your capacity to execute on a new idea.
- Expecting any idea to be as valid five to ten years down the road would mean that you have nothing left to learn.
- As you bring on board new customers and get increasing exposure to the marketplace, in-the-trenches rather than from the sidelines, you will find unmet needs and opportunities that you could never have anticipated.
- Holding onto what you wish was the case, when it clearly isn't, is as good as holding onto a lie.
Does any of this mean that I'd have wished my younger self was any less bull-headed--and, to a degree, less oblivious? No. The world always conspires against the threat of change. I needed a touch of arrogance to win that battle, but I also needed the lesson that arrogance taught me--that letting go and pivoting was not a weakness but a strength, perhaps the greatest strength.