5 Steps to Escaping (Entrepreneurial) Mediocrity

This comment originally appeared in response to Ask HN: Does reading HN ever make you feel like shit? I got a few points for it, and I thought that it was worth reposting here. Here it is, extended and edited for style.

I know you are out there. You watch the improbable rise of a startup based on the same idea you’ve had for years. You ponder the immense paydays for founders which seem no more capable than you are. You obsessively follow them on Twitter (all the while putting up with their smug comments) somehow hoping to find something in what they say that would justify your own relative obscurity. You read the press coverage on TechCrunch detailing their startup’s next (naturally unprecedented) round of funding. And you wonder: “WHY THEM? WHY NOT ME?”

If that’s any consolation, you are not alone. It seems the celebrity culture crossed with the world of startups and entrepreneurship has gotten many capable folks twitchy and anxious about their own chances. Not willing to fall into the same demoralizing “why I fail” trap, I tried to come up with simple and actionable strategies for getting myself past mediocrity and out of obscurity.

Every situation is different, so here are some general principles that I think apply regardless of your background and past accomplishments. I feel like they definitely apply to me.

  1. Learn by doing and trying, not by thinking. Aimless reflection and introspection are bottomless pits that can suck up enormous amount of time that could be put to far more productive uses. If you have a choice between reading a book on a programming language and going through a tutorial that forces you to try examples, go through the tutorial. Immediate, tactile learning is better than abstract success stories which paper over important ingredients for success.
  2. Social networking is key. Grow by connecting yourself to communities of peers, mentors, gurus, etc that you can actually rely on and that you can benefit from. If HN is making you depressed, stop reading it. Instead establish meaningful professional and personal connections with people that are supportive. The value of your circle is often overlooked. I am a firm believer that the quality of the people you know is the great predictor of your overall happiness and achievement.
  3. Focus on the things you need to know. The number of programming languages you know doesn’t matter. It is a meaningless metric. What matters is how comfortable you are with the tools that help you get your job done. This is related to point 1). Having mastery and proficiency of something that you use daily is far more important than having the breadth of knowledge and mastery of exotic languages.
  4. Stack your skills. Time is short so the best way to advance is to leverage maximum of what you already know. In other words, don’t jump around and shift gears all the time. Think of a long term goal(s) and try to segment the path toward that goal such that you can (a) complete each segment without getting distracted, (b) get feedback after each segment (c) learn something in each segment that you can use in the next. It doesn’t have to be one project. In fact it’s better if a sequence of projects, so you can adjust your course along the way.
  5. Don’t stop. Giving up is an attractive option. Our society has many different ways to cushion your fall, which can make quitting tempting and virtually painless. If you want to achieve something, idleness is definitely not OK.

I want to be perfectly clear about the list. It’s definitely something that I believe in enough to apply it to what I do everyday, and I obviously can’t guarantee that it works (although plenty of evidence suggests that at least it shouldn’t hurt your chances). For now, it’s just a theory with one practitioner. If you think I am completely off my rocker, let me know in comments.


3 responses to “5 Steps to Escaping (Entrepreneurial) Mediocrity

  1. Came here from your comment on 37signal site.

    Your article is also great. “Wanna do a start-up, so start it up!” :)

  2. Pingback: LinkPeelr: A side project to the side project | one budding entrepreneur's story

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