What’s your career story arc? What creates a sense of “flow” for you?

One of the fascinating parts of my job is that I sometimes get to listen to the story of someone’s career from start to finish. I have them begin with being a little kid in school, and talk about what they studied, how school was for them, what beliefs their family had about work and accomplishment, and every job they’ve held leading up to present day.  I get to find out what they loved most, what grated on them horribly, and what their patterns are around work, colleagues, partners, and so on.

I find  that *everyone* has an career story arc with common elements that form a discernable pattern. Even people who have held wildly different jobs during their career have striking commonalities, especially in the positions or situations that they loved most. They’ll often describe one or more positions during which they were able to create “flow“. When they describe these situations, their eyes light up and you can feel the excitement and love for the work they were doing.

As each person matures in their abilities and skills, the situations that create flow change: what was challenging and energizing 10 years ago becomes rote, or at least has to be approached in a different way. A great manager will be looking to understand what each person loves most, and to create that flow experience for their staff as often as possible by matching the right assignments with the right people. When you can do that as a manager, you have people practically clawing their way into the office every morning. Flow is addictive!

Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh: Failures and Pivots along the road to Happiness

Last night I read most of Tony Hsieh’s new book Delivering Happiness, due out in June.  In it, he describes his career as an entrepreneur from the age of nine, when he started a worm farm in his parents backyard (not a single worm lived through the month!).

I was struck, especially after my last post, at how many different businesses he tried in his life before he started Zappos, and how many were either “meh”, or failed completely. Here is a fairly complete list:

  • worm farm (fail)
  • garage sales (meh)
  • neighborhood newletter (fail)
  • paper route (meh)
  • custom button making (success)
  • greeting card sales (fail)
  • magic trick mail order sales (fail)
  • crowdsourced study guide (success)
  • games tester for LucasFilm (meh)
  • programming job at GDI (meh)
  • Quincy House Grill at Harvard (success)
  • Oracle (meh)
  • LinkExchange (success)
  • Zappos (success)

Throughout his life, he has been continually trying new things, and gaining experience at succeeding, failing, and making decisions about when to keep going, and when to give up.

If you look at Zappos today, it seems like they’re on top of the world. But when you read Tony’s book, there have been some harrowing and very risky pivots they undertook to get to where they are.

Here are the Cliff Notes : Zappos started as a web-based company that contracted with shoe brands to drop-ship product to customers. It was hard to convince large brands to do business with them, so they bought a retail store to have access to more brands. A large percent of customer purchases were late or never delivered. They started stocking products in their office to increase reliability, outgrew the office space, and rented space across the street. They dumped their drop-ship business (which accounted for significant revenue), so that they could make reliability a cornerstone rather than a hope. They outsourced their warehousing operation to a vendor in Kentucky, lost 20% of their inventory in a truck crash, watched the oursourcer fail, then built their own warehouse operation in Kentucky. Tony sold everything he owned to raise money to buy more inventory. They decided that customer service was their #1 priority, and moved the entire company to Las Vegas. During all of this, they almost ran out of money multiple times, and had to negotiate with vendors, investors, and employees to try to bridge the gap, as well as sell off everything Tony owned to make payroll and stock inventory.

The end of the story is something we all know now: He went on to create a very inspiring culture where “Delivering Happiness” is the company’s brand promise. (As an ex-raver , any CEO who bases his company on the concept of PLUR warms my heart. I’d love to go out dancing with him and the Zappos folks someday).

But along the way, Tony and his team has learned to stay creative, positive, and solution-focused in the face of dire, difficult circumstances.  Then, and only then, did they arrive at the place where they could choose to create happiness, rather than just staying afloat.

Business Failure Hurts, Bad

I had a great talk today with a dear friend about the demise of his business that he had invested heart and soul in, and about the rise and fall of Critical Path (where I was co-founder during Web 1.0 boom and bust). People tend to talk a lot about what circumstances or decisions cause a business to fail, but not much about how it feels.

I know from experience how awful this is: if I had to pick the most poignant day in my career, it would be a toss-up between (a) the day I had to lay off 10 close friends from the company they’d helped me take public, and (b) the day the news broke that last quarter’s earnings were falsified, and the stock plummeted to under $1. (It wasn’t the money that bugged me, although that was awful too; it was the shame of having the company I’d helped to create tarnished by underhanded business dealings.)


Originally uploaded by Erik Charlton

As an entrepreneur, you are probably spending more hours a day on your business than you would with your significant other, and maybe even your child. You’re pouring so much energy into it that you end up identifying with it, as if it is a part of you. Every time you pass out a business card for your new venture, you’re essentially saying “this is me; this is my dream! come join me! the world will be a better place when it has this thing!” After months and months of doing that, the business name might as well be your last name… And you pretty much *have* to be this crazy, this passionate, and this committed, to have a chance as making something work.

When your business doesn’t work out, or when you get forced out, what do you do?

If you lost your partner, you would grieve, nonstop, for weeks or sometimes even months. No one would ask you “so, will you be registering on match.com?”  So when you lose your business, why do people think it’s OK to say “wow, tough luck”, and then in the next breath, to ask cheerfully “so, what’s next for you?” as if there is no emotional content to having a business fail whatsoever?

My guess is that people are uncomfortable with grief, and maybe don’t understand what a big deal it is to have your startup collapse. I’m all about helping people have more success, more happiness, and more joy in their work and their lives. But if you’ve just been through a dramatic business failure, you will likely be consumed by that experience, and you won’t be able to pull through to the other side until you’ve dealt with it. And, if you don’t deal with it, stuff will pop up at inopportune times. You get to do it now, or do it later. Might as well tackle it while it’s fresh…

Take some time to be sad. The five stages of grief will apply:

Denial – “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”

Anger – “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”

Bargaining – “I’ll do anything if it will make my business go”; “I will give my life savings if…”

Depression – “Why bother with anything?”; “What’s the point?”; “Business just sucks”

Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “There is something else out there for me.”

You might have to give your close friends some cues so they know where you’re at, and how to support you. You might want to lay low for a while, but don’t do it for too long. If you’re supporting a friend who lost this business, you can always ask what would be most helpful. Just having someone to talk to that doesn’t have any agenda is a great starting point.

It’s only when you get to Acceptance that you will have the energy and perspective to choose something new that isn’t a reaction to what just happened. Just like when you break up with a partner, you might think “I’m unloveable” or “I’ll never meet another person as perfect for me as so-and-so”. Then with time and perspective, they get to see that they learned some valuable lessons, had some fun times, had some hard times, and they’re ready for something new.

In hindsight, you’re going to get to say exactly the same thing about a business failure: you learned some valuable lessons, you had some fun times, you had some hard times, and now, the person you became by doing all those things is ready for something new.

Thanks for sticking with this; it’s a hard topic, but seemed worth an entry, since it’s rarely talked about.