The month of October led to much reflection. Path-altering experiences occurred with theatrical frequency, affecting my life and those of the people I care about. It was brutal at times to watch, sometimes entirely helplessly, sometimes in the driver's seat making painful decisions that had to be made. As things settled down in November I started to feel relief and a perverse joy at having come through the other end of this struggle. I Immediately began looking for new challenges. The pain returned. Reflecting on this apparent insanity, I asked myself:
What motivates us to keep going when we hit roadblocks, and why do we seem to revel in the struggle?
I found myself trying to define what it means to be a founder of a startup, or an entrepreneur, or a self-starter, or whatever label you want to give to the shared instinct to create something new and change something–however small–about the world. Ultimately, I was dissatisfied with the common wisdom and (very appropriately) felt the need to add my own interpretation to the mix.
On the surface, there are many characteristics that appear to provide the basis for the motivation we feel to seek out and surmount challenges, even when easier paths exist: We're chasing success, monetary or otherwise. We find significant reward in overcoming the pain of the struggle. We don't want to take the beaten path. We think we know better ways to do things. We don't want to be tied down by convention. We like solving problems.
Why do we insist on the long-term peril that is creating and selling a thing? What is driving us to seek out these challenges and approach them methodically and repeatedly, seeking out new answers and new problems with every step? And why do we do it knowing all the while that we'll be in prolonged pain?
I like building software with my team at Populace. Building software is a cyclical process, and we use the term "iteration" to describe one full cycle.
This cycle is designed to provide the development team with an informed set of learnings to understand what should be built during the next cycle. Contrary to perceptions, measurements and analysis are significantly larger portions of the cycle than the actual building of new pieces of software. In short, software development is organized around a process of iterative and applied learning. We enable new development opportunities every time we learn something new. We open new paths, find new problems to solve, and add nuance to existing understandings.
The development process is one of many abstractions of our need to learn. By providing a constant feedback loop, development acts as a flywheel, storing and evening out our exposure to new information while allowing us to only attend to the ideas that are relevant to us at the time. It's this feedback loop that we chase, and it's this learning that drives us.
Startups are frequently referred to as vehicles for the proliferation of new products and ideas. They're also vehicles for constant learning. It was this realization that struck me as I was reflecting on my difficult October. The motivation I felt to break through the challenges I faced were firmly rooted in a desire to discover new ideas, to break down complex problems and to learn by doing. This is a largely unconscious process driven by our brain's amazing response to the cyclical nature of both learning and software development. I was being rewarded for new information on a neurological level, which directly fueled my perverse glee at the presentation of new and exciting problems.
For those that know me, this declaration that I enjoy learning comes as no surprise. However, I was genuinely surprised by the intensity with which I've been seeking this learning as of late. The alignment and sense of center I feel when seeking new information is a recent development. It's a direct result of finding problems I enjoy solving and of the patience I've been fostering for what I recognize to be a long-term uphill battle. Once accepted as a marathon and not a sprint, learning can be attended to in detail as it arrives and not ignored in the pursuit of swift progress.
The joy of problem solving is hardly limited to entrepreneurs. Problem solvers are a cohort unified by our pursuit of the most appropriate vehicle to fuel our learning, and that vehicle is different for everyone. Some find it in music, or science, or exercise. Others are entirely unaware of their vehicle but pursue knowledge with forceful instinct nonetheless. In my case, The mindfulness I've been cultivating of the last year has led me to identify my vehicle. I know that in the next cycle, whatever it may be, this knowledge will fuel further explorations. These are likely to be painful. I couldn't care less. Just around the bend is more information, more knowledge, more inspiration. It's yours for the taking with the right mix of patience and mindful awareness.
Keep pushing. Keep learning.