Behance and 99U co-founder Scott Belsky is often asked about the inception and acquisition of the companies. But the biggest lessons are found in the sometimes-messy, oftentimes-exciting, and always-challenging experience between those bookend moments. In this talk, Belsky shares his perspective on:
- How to sustain momentum, and morale, during periods of uncertainty
- Why resourcefulness is the ultimate future-proof skill
- What circumstances inspire true innovation
- And how to spot the best opportunities
Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer & EVP, Adobe Creative Cloud
Scott Belsky believes that the greatest breakthroughs across all industries are a result of creative people and teams that are especially productive. As such, he has committed his professional life to help organize creative individuals, teams, and networks. Belsky co-founded Behance in 2006, and served as CEO until 2012.
Belsky has become an advocate for technology and community initiatives that empower the careers of creative professionals and help businesses leverage the creative potential of their people. He has worked with leading media and Fortune 500 companies, including GE and Facebook, and has traveled around the world to share his findings. In 2010, Scott was included in Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” list.
Today I am here to talk about one of my new side fascinations. So if you’ll indulge me. What is a side fascination? I feel like a side fascination is when you’re working on building something, and then you kind of become fascinated with a dimension of it that it other than the thing you’re building, and you just start thinking about it, and other things come out of that fascination. That is a legit side fascination.
For Behance—which was an effort to get the creative world together on a platform to showcase and discover their work and build their careers—the side fascination became what I would summarize as the missing curriculum. All the stuff that you don’t learn in design school, or don’t necessarily learn on the job unless you’re attuned to it that makes such a difference in your success as a creative professional. So, that became a side fascination that led to my book, and also to this conference. The team that I gathered that shared this fascination really ran with it.
So over the years since—eight years of being an entrepreneur and an advisor to entrepreneurs, then a couple of years within a big company, and more recently back in a big company—I’ve developed a new side fascination about the mysterious middle of journeys that nobody talks about. Allow me to explain.
This, I think is the perceived journey of building something. When people ask me my quick story, I say, “In 2005 I, along with a few others, had this idea to organize the creative world. So we got a team together. We took about five years of bootstrapping, two years as a ventured backed company, we built this platform, and a bunch of other things, and we got acquired by Adobe, and that’s the story.” That, first of all, doesn’t tell you anything about what actually happened. And it’s also not true.
I would say that the truth is a little bit more like this. It was extraordinarily bumpy, and fits and starts. I would argue that what you’re aiming for in the journey is ultimately just for every low to be a little less low, and every high to be a little higher. The illusive positive slope is probably the absolute best case scenario that you can have for your project, a business that you’re starting, or a new business that you’re building within a bigger company, or a career. I think this is as good as it gets.
The starts and finishes get all the fanfare. Everyone loves talking about the moment of conception, and everyone loves talking about what happens at the end. The press especially love starts and finishes. They’re so pithy and easy to summarize and ship with a bow. They make great, great headlines, because what can be so easily summed is celebrated. Whether it’s someone leaving and starting a new company, or launching a business, or going IPO, or going bankrupt. It’s just so easy to put it together. What is too dynamic to summarize is so easily overlooked, especially by the press.
So, this kind of illusive middle, what I’ve come to call the messy middle, gets very little coverage. No one really talks much about it, because again it’s just a series of bumps, and frankly we’re not necessarily as proud of ourselves in the messy middle, because we’re never our best selves throughout. And we learn a lot the hard way.
So, over the last five years or so, pursuing this side fascination I’ve tried to meet with as many entrepreneurs, and artists, and writers, and others that have endured a very messy middle. Instead of asking about the classic questions, “Where did your idea come from? How did you get started? When did it start working?” I tried to really delve deeply into the stuff that they probably choose to forget that happened in the middle. In this pursuit I, of course, kind of had to think about it for myself as well. What was my middle like?
It was interesting, because there were about five or six years of my own journey building Behance, the company that spawned 99U, and the stuff we’ve done since. I couldn’t really remember what actually happened in this middle five to six year period. It was all such a blur, which kind of makes me wonder if we’re kind of blocking out the stuff that happens in the middle for a reason. Again, because we don’t necessarily want to bask ourselves in this period of time where we struggling. We don’t necessarily want to conjure up these memories.
So I figured okay, if I’m going to really have this side fascination about the middle, and even have this idea of writing a book about the messy middle, I better start with my own middle. So what did I do? What do we do when we have no idea what to do? We just look at our phones. Right?
I looked at my phone, and I went to photos, and I flicked back a lot. Back to this middle period. I went to kind of the middle of the middle to really look for clues. And the first thing that immediately struck me was screenshots. So many screenshots of bugs that I would send to the team, of things that didn’t look exactly right. And also I was struck by the days before the world of responsive web design, and just kind of clunky UI, and whatever. Everything always looks bad in retrospect right?
What I was reminded of with this wealth of screenshots throughout so many years was just how I was constantly obsessing, and endlessly laboring over every aspect of what we were building. I was also struck by the time and date stamp of these screenshots. Revealed at the top right of the phone, I was like, “Oh my goodness some of these were actually middle of the night, early morning, sleepless nights.” I could tell I was just grabbing my phone and looking through it.
I also saw another type of screenshot. Tons and tons of screenshots of what customers were saying. This was the way I would share feedback with the team, with some credibility of the fact that customers feel this way, it’s not just me. But, if I’m honest, there was also another reason for these screenshots. I was trying to capture a form of reward when there was none. I was trying to also capture some of the things people said they were excited about or doing right, and I was using this as a form of nonfinancial reward for myself and for the team. Almost like if I captured it, it was real and it meant that we were actually making progress.
I had lots of screenshots of things that upset me. This is our paper product that we used to kind of bootstrap the company in the early days. Gosh, there was so many ugly paper shots of just things that I was sending back to the manufacturer, and being like, “If this is how we’re building a brand of organizing in the creative world, and our customers are designers, how can these things look like this?” Lots and lots of screenshots like that.
Screenshots of tons of images chronically in progress, and breakthroughs as we had them. As if a testament to progress was likely to lead to more of it. I was, for some reason, always kind of capturing that stuff as well. Again, just trying to build texture in the journey. I saw tons of pictures of our beautiful team. A lot of pictures of offsites, and meetings, and fun times, and hard times. And I was reminded of how familial the middle years were. When there was no product to be excited about we were excited just to be with each other. And that really came through in the pictures.
My honeymoon. I saw pictures of my honeymoon. This trek through Cambodia and Thailand. But I also was, with these pictures, struck with a memory of the constant preoccupation of being away from a team that was three months away from running out of money. I actually sort of paused during this process and asked myself, I don’t know if I was ever truly present while I was there. I struggled with that, because I realized I would never be able to do that again.
There was a lot of despondence in these pictures. Pictures I couldn’t necessarily explain. I remember being on some anti-nausea medication at one point in the middle, just because, I don’t know, I was nauseous a lot, or nauseated a lot. I’m not even sure what the spoon shot is all about. But it’s pretty sad.
I really, after this journey through the pictures, I realized that so much of a successful journey is just sticking together long enough to figure it out. If we boil down the middle of a journey to two things I think it is: endurance is one. Enduring the lows, somehow having that resiliency, learning from them, and again making every low a little less low. And optimization. Optimizing the hell out of everything that works, and asking at every high point “Why did this work”, and then doing more of it. Why did this work for our product, for our team, or the way that we work as leaders?
So, that’s what I wanted to talk about today, is this endure and optimize—these two parts of what I believe the messy middle is broken down into—and just share some of the thoughts that I came across in my own kind of retrospective, but also now leading up to a book that I’m publishing in October about the messy middle. A lot of the themes of again, artists, entrepreneurs, writers, people within big companies that are leading turnarounds, talking about their middle, and some of the themes that I heard from this work.
Let’s start with endure. And let’s start with this realization that so much of the middle Is about accepting the burden of processing uncertainty. If you think about it, that is the reality. I would argue to say that a chronic condition of creativity is being able, or having to manage uncertainty. How do you overcome this? I mean, first of all, you have to remind yourself to focus on things that are in your influence rather than out of your influence.
I mean there’s just so much stuff, right, that you’re uncertain about, and worried about. I think one of the challenges that a lot of leaders say is one of the most important things they learn is that notion of what is in and out of your circle of influence, and can you always ask yourself that question, and can you really challenge yourself to push your attention towards what is actually in your circle of influence.
Compartmentalizing insecurity work is another thing that’s important. What is insecurity work? Insecurity work is the stuff you do often times repeatedly throughout the day, just to reassure yourself that everything is okay, but that doesn’t move the ball forward in any way. So this might be looking at Google Analytics to see if anyone came to your website again, and again, and again. Looking at mentions on Twitter for your brand again, and again, and again. Not moving the ball forward, but reassuring you in uncertain times that things are okay. The amount of time that this eats up, and the amount of hit it takes on productivity is real.
Preserving some periods of disconnection. Making sure that you actually have time in this world where we’re constantly connected and being reactive to everything that’s coming into us. Making sure that you preserve some periods in your day to be proactive in what matters most to you. I really feel like now in some ways the shower is the final frontier of a place where you’re not being bombarded by stuff. You’re not reacting, you don’t have all these inboxes around you, and whatever else.
It’s almost like a competitive advantage in the connected world to be disconnected. It’s during that time where you actually take a period to sketch, and to think, and to plan and to make sure that you now schedule that for yourself, because you can no longer rely on circumstance to do it for you. Again, this notion of accepting uncertainty as a chronic condition of creativity is important.
Let’s see, another major point here is how to short circuit our own and our team’s reward system to get through this period of endurance and all these lows that are the reality of the messy middle. About 10 years ago on this stage we had Fred Wilson, an investor in New York City, talk. He proclaimed that the two greatest addictions are heroin and a weekly salary. It was interesting, because that’s kind of true. From the moment we’re born we’re conditioned for these short-term rewards of love, and affection, and approval, and then a check on the test, and a grade in the exam, and then a grade in the course, and then a salary every two weeks, and a bonus at the end of the year.
Then when we embark on a bold journey that is either off the radar within a big company, or a new company that has no financial reward and no one even knows what we’re doing. We’re working in complete anonymity. We lose any form of short term rewards that we are so addicted to. So, what we sometimes do is we fool ourselves into thinking that the long term vision and promise is enough to keep us motivated. It is actually enough to get us to take a risk, or to get someone to join us, but then two or three weeks hit, the reality sets in: that “Oh you know what, there’s no end in sight, and I’m not really sure where this is going to land.”
In those instances you have to actually short circuit your reward system in some way. We had some fun ways of doing this on team Behance. One of them was fun for the team, less so for me. I’m a vegetarian, lifelong, and my team thought it would be really fun to say, Hey when we hit half a million members, which I thought would never happen, I have to eat meat. Someone how this was written down, and captured, and literally five years later from this bet that we had I had to eat a piece of meat off of one our engineers forks. Which somehow became part of the bargain, but I did it.
I mean, what else better than this funny reward that kind of keeps us cracking even though we don’t know what will ultimately become of the company. Another kind of near, even shorter term, early stage reward was we had a fictional name for our business Behance. Right? We made it up, it didn’t mean anything. So whenever you typed in Behance into Google, it always said, “Do you mean enhance? Do you mean enhance?” So we were determined to someday no longer be a mistake.
After a couple years of blog posts, and getting more and more designers to put up profiles and projects on Behance, or linking back, or just press, and that sort of thing, eventually one day one person on our team did a search for Behance in Google and it just came up as like Behance. We were like, “Oh my goodness.” It didn’t really mean anything. That didn’t mean we were suddenly a profitable company. It didn’t mean that we had made it, but it was one of those short term rewards that we were so geared for. That just kept us engaged over the near term.
Then I kid you not, like a year later Beyoncé became super popular, and we lost it again. The point is, is that you have to kind of find ways to short circuit and keep your team engaged when there are no formal rewards in sight.
So I’ve always found that the greatest bouts of progress, and most breakthroughs come from those who do work that they do not have to do. For example, you’re in a team and you hate the way they do marketing. Are you just going to complain, or are you the type of person that just puts together a proposal and shops it around, and really starts to lobby for the changes that you believe need to be made? And if you can, you start doing them yourself. Whether it’s starting up the social media strategy that no one else is doing, and you’re like, “You know what I’m just going to do this myself.”
It’s so important, and it’s fascinating that so much innovation happens out of the work of people that are stepping out of the confines of their role, or out of the lines so to speak. Which goes to say that in this middle period, it’s so important to care indiscriminately about the work that needs to get done to make something great. That was a theme that people talked about in their own careers and in their own projects with their teams.
I remember talking to Alexa von Tobel, a best-selling author, a found of LearnVest which she ultimately sold for over $300 million to this company called North Western Mutual. Pioneer in kind of the field of finance for the next generation. She was talking about a two week period of fielding acquisition offers, giving birth, and shifting her management team. This all kind of happened at one…Out of her control, everything kind of came into this two week period. I was just kind of awe struck by this.
I just didn’t understand. You know, talk about endurance. How did you work your way through it? Her answer, similar to other people’s answers about very difficult periods, is that they were able to somehow just say to themselves, “It’s your fucking job. You got to do this.” That resonated with me. I think that some of the most difficult decisions that I’ve had to make over the years, whether it was firing somebody, or killing a product, or a feature, or a program that I really loved, breaking bad news, declining an opportunity to someone you really respect, I would struggle or shy away from making it.
I learned to sort of in some ways, often times even say out loud to myself, “Do your fucking job Scott.” That was one of those forcing functions in the middle to stay a course, and to make progress. I really think that when you fail to do this, when you fail to make the difficult decisions that need to be made, you are the cause of, what I call, organizational debt. Organizational debt plagues organizations as they grow. And organizational debt is the collection of tough decisions that were never made. You have to constantly be forcing yourself to do this job. Especially when it’s hard, that’s where you kind of have to summon that courage and the realization that if you don’t do this it will pay back in spades in a bad way. It’s up to you to do it.
Let’s talk about resourcefulness versus resources. I mean, who here wishes they had a bigger budget? We all do, right? It’s interesting that over the years as I’ve met with a lot of creative professionals, and especially in agencies or small agencies, designers and I would ask them tell me about a project that went horribly wrong. More often than not it was a project where the brief very, very expansive and the constraints were missing. They were actually missing the limits that would actually…These constraints that would force creativity, would force them to kind of struggle with something.
If you think about it, constraints keep us uncomfortable. It’s critical, because comfort breeds complacency in some ways. It doesn’t push us as much as we need to to have a productive, creative process. Thinking more about this, I feel like resourcefulness is like muscle. When you develop resourcefulness, whether it’s through having no budget and having to make do with what you have or having difficult years in the project that you’re leading. It just builds muscle that is going to always be with you forever, and the decisions you make, and the things you’re trying to make happen.
But, if resourcefulness is like muscle, resources is carbs. You just kind of burn through it. It’s nice, but it doesn’t make you better in terms of more swift, and agile, and powerful as a leader. So it’s important to value resourcefulness over resources, and to embrace the constraints. If you don’t have them to seek them. Those are just some thoughts on the endurance side. I tried to pick some that would be helpful in the small amount of time we have together this morning.
The second piece that I figured I’d share some thoughts on is in the section around optimizing. How are you optimizing what works? This starts with investing in both your product and your organization in equal parts. It’s so interesting, we often seek customer feedback, we’re obsessed with iterating and improving our products and services, but we tend to under invest in our team. We will A/B test to the wazoo the product that we have in the world, but we won’t A/B test the way we work. We won’t say, “Hey for the next two weeks, let’s no longer meet Tuesday morning just because it’s Tuesday. And then let’s determine whether that was more productive or less productive. If it’s worst, revert to the previous version, and if it’s great adopt it and do another test.”
We don’t debrief what’s really gone wrong typically. We just fix it. And we very seldom debrief what went right, so we could actually learn what is so reproducible and important to preserve for the next time we do something. So it’s an interesting dilemma. How do you make sure that you’re investing in equal parts? I’m remembering the first year that I was working with Ben Silbermann, who is the founder of Pinterest. I remember checking in with him like six or seven months after he started. He pivoted the previous version of his company into Pinterest. I asked him, “What’s your roadmap for the next year?” I was just curious what he was planning on doing, and I was expecting to hear a list of features that might hit the site, or major product objectives, but instead he just looked at me and said, “My only focus for the next six to 12 months is to improve our processes.”
I was curious about that, because first of all it seemed like the wrong objective for a startup, but he just had this vision from the very beginning, that he was building a team and culture that would withstand all of the ups and downs of the product, and he was so invested in that from the onset. That always really stuck with me. Let’s talk about ROI versus impact, and the pursuit of quick wins sometimes getting in the way of long term potential. It’s really interesting how we have this tendency towards dopamine hits. We want to just make progress. We want to feel like we are solving problems. So as a result, we’ve probably all seen this. Where you’re on an email chain debating where a logo is positioned, or some very small minutia piece of a product, when there’s some glaring big elephant in the room problem that no one is talking about. It’s like, why are we spending so much time on these little nuances when there are bigger problems that we have to actually tackle?
The thought here is making sure that as we’re optimizing our product and our teams, we are also kind of always anchoring ourselves with one of those big audacious problems, and that we are being annoying about it. In a context of a team that by default will probably want small and quick wins, because that just innately the way we’re wired as human beings. Don’t ever let that pursuit of small problems being solved get in the way of the one or two big problems that you would solve, that no one else can. That will ultimately differentiate your product, your team, your process, how you work.
My criteria over the years for hiring or investing in a team has evolved. I would say that now it really comes down to this desire to work with people with whom discussions evolve by a step function. We all meet people all the time, and a lot of people’s conversations with you may feel like repeats. Every time you check in it’s like, “Hey what’s up? How are you doing?” Talk about the same sort of thing, the same—even people on your team—the same sort of problem. Then there are some people that have this ability to always build upon the conversation. Every conversation you have seems insatiably more interesting. I think some of those people are the people that make the greatest partners in business, and projects, and creative projects, and endeavors.
When you optimize your team of these kind of builders, as opposed to repeaters, it is you’re constantly going to be changing the way that you work, and the product that’s out there. It’s just the nature of the chemistry of a team with people like that. So I think it’s a good litmus test—when you’re interviewing people, or building relationships with people you want to work with over time—is whether or not conversations are becoming more interesting by a step function whenever you have them.
Let’s talk about innovation for a moment. I feel like when you’re innovating in that middle, and you’re trying to find some distinguishing elements that will really make your product, or business, or project success a success innovation is ultimately…an innovation is an edge that becomes a center. The thing about edges is that they look weird. Take Airbnb, the classic example, where someone’s sleeping in your bed. Seems so weird to all the investors that met with that team and they couldn’t raise any money until they found someone who was willing to familiarize themselves with this very seemingly unreasonable idea. Reasonable thinking really very much keeps us where we’ve been. The funny thing about hiring a team is that we typically try to hire people that we feel are reasonable.
That dangerous term culture fit, which is really a term for people that are like me, that I feel like I can think similarly to. It’s a dangerous thing, because then you ultimately build the team around you that is thinking just like you. It’s really at the edge of reason. When someone says something that strikes you as unreasonable, but then you have so much respect for them, and you’re curious about their perspective. Then through ongoing discussion it becomes more familiar, and then you become open to it. Then suddenly it becomes something that the rest of the world says was an obvious step. A major innovation that seems obvious to the rest of us, like all great innovations end up feeling.
What is the shortcut to stack your team, stack the deck in your favor, or increase your odds? It’s simply diversity. It is building a team of people that are extraordinarily different, extraordinary people. And making sure that it’s not just biological check boxes. It’s just people that have so many different backgrounds, have such a different surface area of experience that they’re pulling from. Those are the folks that are collectively more likely to be thinking in an unreasonable way from each other. Everyone’s sort of on a different level of where their perspective is, and those clashes of difference end up revealing these edges that then become the center, and that keep your innovation fuel there. So it’s super important to build a chemistry that drives that. Diversity sustains the differentiation of whatever your product, or service, or talent is in your team.
But, how do you give these unreasonable insights a chance at succeeding, at really actually happening? Because it’s one thing to have a great idea like that at the edge, but it’s another thing to convince the whole team to pursue it. Actually, if you always rely upon convincing everyone and reaching the sense of consensus, which is such a safe and reliable way to keep everyone happy, you will never have a chance of really concretely executing an innovation, because again there will always be some people who don’t really get it. So that notion of valuing conviction over consensus, having a team chemistry where if someone that you really respect, who’s an expert in their field pounds the table and says, “I believe in this” Do you have a culture where then everyone rallies behind that person?
If you talk to, again, a lot of groups of investors they’ll talk about some of their greatest investments being situations where there wasn’t consensus about making that investment, but there was conviction. You hear the same thing about major product breakthroughs within companies. People were very doubtful, but there was one person positioned the right way, with the right credibility, who just pounded the table. So, it’s important to remember that these greatest breakthroughs come from non-obvious insights, and these reasonable minds will not engage very quickly. You have to have that conviction and value it, and empower it.
When we are building products, one of the most common challenges that I see in startups is that they are founded by people who are deeply passionate about a solution to a problem but aren’t necessarily empathetic with the customer’s suffering from that problem. So, with passion, we gather a team, and we sell our story, and everything else. Then we end up realizing a couple years from now that, “Wait we actually didn’t really understand the friction that we were trying to solve.” So the challenge for us, as we build products within companies, or start our own companies, is to make sure we’re anchoring our self with empathy for the customers.
You can never spend enough time. Right? You can never spend enough time with the customers, making sure, and rechecking, and recalibrating that empathy with what the problem is you’re trying to solve. It’s a challenge for all of us, because we’re creative people and we get fired up by our passion for something we see, and that actually can end up being a hindrance and we have to make sure that empathy is constantly anchoring us.
Let’s talk about opportunities. So I get asked a lot by friends about job offers, and opportunities that they’re pursuing. It’s interesting that so many career decisions are made at face value: the name of the company, the reputation that company currently has at this very moment. Which of course as we know is liable to change at any moment. Everyone’s kind of trying to join something hot, and they forget that great careers are made by joining something cold and making it hot. So, what I advise people to do is to focus more on—when they’re deciding in opportunities, even within a company, a new vector of innovation you’re going to pursue, or a job you’re going to take, or a client you’re going to choose to work with versus not choose to work with—to focus on where the learning curve will be steepest.
Also, always having that edict, that you want to join a team, not just for what it is, but for what you believe that you can make it become. That requires a good sense of the value you bring. When you’re looking at an opportunity, don’t just look for something where you think that it’ll look great on a business card, it’ll be a good headline, and you’ll be proud to tell your friends. Look for a hole that you feel you can fill. I mean, really look for something in a company or in a client where you’re like, I’m the perfect person for that.
I really believe, and I’ve seen so many examples of this especially writing this book, of people who that was their main criteria. At first people may have said to them, “Why are you taking that opportunity? That doesn’t seem so hot.” They’re like, “You know what, because it’s perfect for me.” Then they made it into something even grander.
The last piece I would just say on this optimize area is how many people I met with who would talk about the major inflections in their careers, and their projects where they really knew that they were onto something. I’ve told this story before about someone I knew in the publishing industry, who many years ago was asked to take a job running the digital publishing group in the company. People said to him like, “Why would you ever take a job in digital publishing? No one’s ever going to read a book on a computer.” People just doubted this decision, and for whatever reason the more doubt he got the more confident he became that this was in fact the best opportunity, because he suddenly had this conviction of where the industry was going.
Which goes to say that everyone thinks you’re crazy, you’re either crazy or you’re really onto something. It’s something to always keep in mind. Detecting the difference between cynicism and criticism, learning to gain confidence from the doubt you get when you are about to make a major decision in a project or in your life. Because sometimes that is a cue that you’re onto the right path, because nothing extraordinary is ever achieved through ordinary means.
The final mile. Well the final mile of a big project, or bold venture, or new company is an entirely different sport. In the book I talk about, in this new book I talk about all the examples of people screwing up, trashing, or self-sabotaging themselves in the final mile, because it’s a different playbook all together. All the stuff you’ve done in the messy middle to endure and to optimize suddenly there is an end in sight. People start to act differently, think differently. Egos change. There’s so much that happens, and we’re not equipped even though we actually think we are because we got ourselves there. So it’s an interesting conundrum where suddenly you’re not necessarily outfitted to make the decisions with the confidence that you’ve had throughout the journey.
One of the big tricks in the final mile is to always keep your mind, and stay in the early innings. I was struck when I was walking around Facebook a couple years ago, and there were all these stickers on computers around the company that said “We’re 1% into the journey.” It was just an interesting mantra. This notion of “Hey, we’re still 1% in, we’re still 1% in.” I mean, what is the early inning? What are the early innings like? You’re still taking risks. You’re still willing to make mistakes, the product is just finding itself and just finding its stride. You’re still falling asleep and waking up with new ideas. You’re thinking about all these little small tweaks that can make a big difference.
In the early innings, you’re always selling. You’re always, always selling. Everyone you meet is a potential supporter, investor, employee, perspective customer. But this is not temporal. It’s a mentality. Some people are able to stay in the early innings regardless of where they are, and some people are not. Your challenge is to make sure that wherever you are you’re always in the early innings.
You also need to remember, as things start to work for you, that you can’t start taking credit. You also can’t start really giving credit to specific people. It’s a bad tendency, because as soon as you start to divvy out credit, you’re actually kind of lessening the collective sense of ownership, and openness, and thus willingness to execute. In some ways, credit for one depletes the ownership by many. So I always like to remind myself that influence is very much most effective without seeking attribution. You will be more influential with your ideas, especially later on your journey, if you keep reminding yourself that it wasn’t you that did it.
Finally, it’s very important to stay engaged. I’m always reminded of that Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher-novelist; his mantra is “To be done is to die.” Which is why I’m always throwing massive amounts of stuff on my to-do list, because I don’t want to die. I really believe that curiosity is what keeps us from feeling finished. As soon as you start to have a success in your career or in a project, it’s easy to bask in it. I also like to remind myself that the risk of getting attention is that you stop paying attention. So curiosity can overcome this. If you have a sensational curiosity about the topic you’re playing in, it can keep you from starting to tune out.
I also think about this a lot these days in this world we’re living in, where it’s so easy to become apathetic to the news. We become numb, and it’s like where does civic engagement really lead us? In fact, that’s of course the opposite thing we should be thinking. The people that I admire, that are actually getting more civically engaged, they’re doing it through curiosity. They’re trying to just understand what’s going on, they’re trying to stay in the game as a citizen. So I think we need to do this, not only in our projects, but in this crazy world we’re living in. It will make sure that we keep evolving and keep changing.
With that, I want to thank you for having me today.