One Toxic Personality Every Innovator and Entrepreneur Must Avoid
You know you’re out to beat the odds, but being reminded of it is the last thing you need.
You don’t like the norm; by definition, entrepreneurs strive to step outside of it. They break free of what’s typical and expected. Instead they venture into the unknown to create something that people don’t yet know to ask for.
Doing that means at the very least stretching the rules, and more than likely breaking a few. That’s not always the best way to win people over, but if you’re doing something that is truly different, then get used to the throngs of people defending the past for no better reason than it’s all they’ve known.
Which is why entrepreneurship can often be a lonely place. You’re the odd duck, the black sheep, the dark horse–pick your metaphor, and while you’re at it, get a T-shirt emblazoned with a logo of it and wear it proudly. It’s who you’ll be until you prove them wrong. That’s part of the fun.
” … the norm police are really not at all interested in your well-being. Instead, their objective is to make sure that whatever burden you carry is at least equivalent to the weight of their own and the mass of humanity they keep company with.”
Unfortunately, people who support what you’re doing are scarce–if they weren’t, someone would already have done what you’re doing. While you may have no doubt about your chosen path, to the overwhelming majority of people it will appear to be complete folly. They’ll tell you that you’re risking too much, spiraling out of control, being foolish and naive. They may even threaten intervention if you don’t stop daydreaming, pull yourself together, and start acting like a grownup.
Most times you’ll shrug, laugh it off, and move on to other topics of conversation. It’s all just part of the entrepreneur’s journey. You know the risks, but in your mind the greatest risk is regretting having done nothing.
But there’s one personality type who’s going to constantly remind you of just how foolish you are. You need to learn to spot these people immediately if you are to avoid wasting precious energy and momentum. I call them the “norm police,” and my suggestion is that you do your best to recognize and stay far away from them–don’t hire them, don’t befriend them, don’t waste time arguing with them, and whatever you do, don’t even think of changing them or their ideas, because if there is such a thing as the opposite of entrepreneurship and creativity, they embody it–and they’ll suck you under faster than a Kauain island rip tide.
Shackled to the Past
The ranks of the norm police are otherwise well-meaning people who seem to have taken a sacred oath to voice their opinion whenever you stray from a societal norm that they have chosen to be shackled by. They believe that they have a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure nobody wanders too far to the right of the bell curve on the scale of what they consider to be normal behavior. Worst of all, they’re often very convincing and present their concerns in a way that initially feels empathetic and caring.
However, the norm police are really not at all interested in your well-being. Instead, their objective is to make sure that whatever burden you carry is at least equivalent to the weight of their own and the mass of humanity they keep company with. Any shortcut that you take is a direct threat to the well-traveled road that they must navigate, a road that is always uphill, both ways.
What the norm police are really doing is assuring themselves that there’s good reason that the shackles they wear are locked tightly around their ankles and chained to the same stake in the ground that everyone else should be. Acknowledging you as having the ambition, creativity, courage, and audacity to actually free yourself of these same shackles could only mean that they either don’t have those same abilities or are simply refusing to unchain themselves. Since neither of those is something they want to accept, the only remaining option is to chastise you for being foolish enough to believe that you can break free!
“The strongest shackles we wear are the ones we put on ourselves, and, ironically, only we hold the key to take them off. Trying to pick the lock on anyone else’s shackles is a magic act even Houdini would have failed at.”
By the way, the norm police aren’t just after entrepreneurs. They are ready to pounce on just about anyone who tries to find a better way to do most anything. Here’s an example:
You recently decided that it’s just as effective for you to work virtually from home as it is to be in the office. You talk about your newfound freedom with a friend who is commuting three hours each day. His reaction is to instantly point out how what you’re doing is going to be the end of your professional career. He provides a long list of reasons, from alienating co-workers to not being plugged in to office politics. His argument is convincing, and you feel the guilt coming on. Make he’s right and you should rethink this crazy idea. Work has to be hard to be meaningful. Commuting is a badge of honor and respect that speaks to how dedicated you are to your company and team. Congrats! You’ve just been pulled over and issued a citation for failing to follow the norm. What makes you so special that you can bypass a two-hour commute and work from the comfort of home?
Hearing that, you’re likely to want to instantly retort with something along the lines of why you’re so much more effective working at home. But here’s the most important thing about the norm police that you have to understand: You will not change them. Any attempt to rationalize the pursuit of your dreams will only further convince them of how misguided you are and amp up their attempts to talk you off the ledge. Their perspective is built on an immovable psychological concrete that forms the very foundation of how they view the world and everyone’s place in it. And, to be fair, they’re not entirely wrong to try to raise the caution flag for you.
You Are a Bit Crazy, After All
Look, the fact is that you have to be a little bit crazy to do what you’re doing. Let’s call it and own it. Most entrepreneurial ventures fail. The majority never make it off the ground because of lack of funding. Of those that do, 50 percent won’t make it past five years and only 20 percent will survive beyond 10 years. And they don’t all fail quietly. Twenty percent of all consumer bankruptcies are due to small businesses that fail. It’s not a pretty picture. So, yes, you’re not the norm and the deck is stacked against you. But, at the same time, the businesses that do survive are the ones that create the innovation, prosperity, and jobs that drive the economy. If nobody places an audacious bet on themselves, and against those odds, disruptive innovation comes to a grinding halt.
I’ve had to deal with these sorts of naysayers throughout my life. My grade school report cards all have the same comment from teacher after teacher: “Tommy daydreams too much.” Later in life, I was told I couldn’t write. When I started my first business, I was blown away by the number of people who told me point-blank that leaving my very cushy and well-paying job was the worst decision I could make. At first, I’d try to rationalize my choices with them. But those conversations went nowhere good. Eventually, I realized that the only meaningful response to this type of person was no response. They were no more likely to understand my choices than I was to understand theirs. I built three businesses, wrote 12 books, and still daydream regularly.
Turns out the world needed both of us, just not in the same room.
Ultimately, what these folks taught me was that the strongest shackles we wear are the ones we put on ourselves, and, ironically, only we hold the key to take them off. Trying to pick the lock on anyone else’s shackles is a magic act that would make Houdini’s Water Torture Cell look like child’s play.
As an entrepreneur, you’re driven by an incurably magnificent pathology–the ability to see the world in a way few do. You do not accept the norm as anything more than an artifact of the past, one that’s just waiting for someone to come along and challenge it. Your obsessive thought is simple: “Why not me?” One hundred people will tell you why not; you’re not one of them.
You realize that whatever borders may exist to box us into the norm are mostly in people’s minds; nothing is truly immutable and unchangeable unless we choose it to be.
You’re not interested in the norm. Because your job is to create a new one.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.