[Editor’s note: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur. He is Managing Director of Formula Capital and has written ten books. His latest books are I Was Blind But Now I See and 40 Alternatives to College. You can follow him on Twitter @jaltucher.]
I’m pretty mediocre. Particularly as an entrepreneur. I’m ashamed to admit it. Many of the readers here are great visionaries. I’m not even being sarcastic. I have reason to believe Larry Page reads all of my articles. Elon Musk prints out my articles and tapes them to his bathroom wall just in case he forgets to bring a book in there. Jerry Yang and his wife discuss over breakfast the merits of the points I bring up. You can say, “Hey, Jerry Yang should’ve accepted Microsoft’s buyout offer.” Ok, but Jerry Yang has made a few billion dollars just by getting a bunch of links together and assembling them by what category they are in. That was pretty cool back in the day. You and I should’ve thought of that.
I’ve started a bunch of companies. Sold some. Failed at most. I’ve invested in a bunch of startups. Sold some. Failed at some, and the jury is still sequestered on a few others. I can tell you overall, though, everything I have done has been distinguished by its mediocrity, its lack of a grand vision, and any success I’ve had can be just as much put in the luck basket as the effort basket.
That said, all entrepreneurs should be so lucky. We can’t all be grand visionaries. We want to make our business, sell it, make some money, raise a family, and try to be happy. My feeling, based on my own experience, is that aiming for grandiosity is the fastest route to failure. For every Mark Zuckerberg there are 1000 Jack Zuckermans. Who is Jack Zuckerman? I have no idea. That’s my point. If you are Jack Zuckerman and are reading this, I apologize. You aimed for the stars and missed. Your re-entry into the atmosphere involved a broken heat shield and you burned to a crisp by the time you hit the ocean. Now we have no idea who you are.
If you want to get rich, sell your company, have time for your hobbies, raise a halfway decent family (with mediocre children, etc), and enjoy the sunset with your wife on occasion, here are some of my highly effective recommendations.
- Procrastination – In between the time I wrote the last sentence and the time I wrote this one I played (and lost) a game of chess. My king and my queen got forked by a knight. But hey, that happens. Fork me once, shame on me. Etc.
Procrastination is your body telling you you need to back off a bit and think more about what you are doing. When you procrastinate as an entrepreneur it could mean that you need a bit more time to think about what you are pitching a client. It could also mean you are doing work that is not your forte and that you are better off delegating. I find that many entrepreneurs are trying to do everything when it would be cheaper and more time-efficient to delegate, even if there are monetary costs associated with that. In my first business, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head the first time I delegated a programming job to someone other than me. At that time, I went out on a date. Which was infinitely better than me sweating all night on some stupid programming bug (thank you, Chet, for solving that issue).
Try to figure out why you are procrastinating. Maybe you need to brainstorm more to improve an idea. Maybe the idea is no good as is. Maybe you need to delegate. Maybe you need to learn more. Maybe you don’t enjoy what you are doing. Maybe you don’t like the client whose project you were just working on. Maybe you need to take a break. There’s only so many seconds in a row you can think about something before you need to take time off and rejuvenate the creative muscles. This is not for everyone. Great people can storm right through. Steve Jobs never needed to take a break. But I do.
Procrastination could also be a strong sign that you are a perfectionist. That you are filled with shame issues. This will block you from building and selling your business. Examine your procrastination from every side. It’s your body trying to tell you something. Listen to it.
[See also, "5 Great Things About Procrastination"]
- Zero-tasking – there’s a common myth that great people can multitask efficiently. This might be true but I can’t do it. I have statistical proof. I have a serious addiction. If you ever talk on the phone with me there’s almost 100% chance I am simultaneously playing chess online. The phone rings and one hand reaches for the phone and the other hand reaches for the computer to initiate a one minute game. Chess rankings are based on a statistically generated rating system. So I can compare easily how well I do when I’m the phone compared with when I’m not on the phone. There is a three standard deviation difference. Imagine if I were talking on the phone and driving. Or responding to emails. It’s the same thing I’m assuming: phone calls cause a three standard deviation subtraction in intelligence. And that’s the basic multi-tasking we all do at some point or other.
So great people can multitask but since, by definition, most of us are not great (99% of us are not in the top 1%), its much better to single-task. Just do one thing at a time. When you wash your hands, hear the sound of the water, feel the water on your hands, scrub every part. Be clean. Focus on what you are doing.
Often, the successful mediocre entrepreneur should strive for excellence in ZERO-tasking. Do nothing. We always feel like we have to be “doing something” or we (or, I should say “I”) feel ashamed. Sometimes it’s better to just be quiet, to not think of anything at all.
Out of silence comes the greatest creativity.
Not when we are rushing and panicking.
[See also, "Multi-tasking will Kill You"]
- Failure: As far as I can tell, Larry Page has never failed. He went straight from graduate school to billions. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and a few others. But again, by definition, most of us are pretty mediocre. We can strive for greatness but we will never hit it. So it means we will often fail. Not ALWAYS fail. But often.
My last 16 out of 17 business attempts were failures. I made so many mistakes in my first successful business I’m almost embarassed to recount them. I remember one time I was trying to pitch Tupac’s mom that I should do the website for her dead son. I had a “CD” (what’s that?) of all my work. I went to Tupac’s manager’s office and he said, “ok, show me what you got”. The only problem was: I had never used a Windows-based machine. Only Macs and Unix machines. So I honestly had no idea how to put my CD into the computer and then view its contents. And I had gone to graduate school in computer science. He said, “you have got to be kidding me”.
It was a $90,000 gig. It would’ve met my payroll for at least two months. It was a done deal until I walked into his office. I left his office crying while he was laughing. When I came back to my office everyone asked, “How did the meeting go?” I said, “I think it went pretty well.” And then I went home and cried some more. I roll that way.
Then I bought a Windows-based PC for myself and learned how to use it. I don’t think I ever bought a Mac again actually. It’s possible to learn from successes. But it’s much easier to learn from failures. Ultimately, life is a sentence of failures, punctuated only by the briefest of successes. So the mediocre entrepreneur learns two things from failure: First he learns directly how to overcome that particular failure. He’s highly motivated to not repeat the same mistakes. Second, he learns how to deal with the psychology of failure. Mediocre entrepreneurs fail A LOT. So they get this incredible skill of getting really good at dealing with failure. This translates to monetary success.
The mediocre entrepreneur understands that persistence is not the self-help cliche “Keep going until you hit the finish line!”. The key slogan is, “Keep failing until you accidentally no longer fail.” That’s persistence.
- Not original – I’ve never come up with an original idea in my life. My first successful business was making web software, strategies, websites for Fortune 500 companies. Not an original idea but at the time, in the 90s, people were paying exorbitant multiples for such businesses. My successful investments all involved situations where I made sure the CEOs and other investors were smarter than me. I wrote a TechCrunch article on this titled “My Angel Investor Checklist”. 100% of my zeros as an angel investor were situations where I thought I was smart. I wasn’t. I’m mediocre.
The best ideas are when you take two older ideas that have nothing to do with each other, make them have sex with each other, and then build a business around the bastard, ugly child that results. The child that was so ugly nobody else wanted to touch it. Look at Facebook: combine the internet with stalking. Amazing!
And, by the way, it was about the fifth attempt at such a social network. Twitter: combine internet with antiquated SMS protocols. Ugly! But it works. Ebay, combine ecommerce with auctions. The song, “I’ll Be There”. Combine Mariah Carey with Michael Jackson. If Justin Bieber sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” it would be a huge hit. I might even listen to it.
- Poor networking - I’m that guy. You know the one at the party that doesn’t talk to anyone and stands in the corner. I never go to tech meetups. I usually say no to very nice networking dinner invitations. I like to stay home and read. When I was running businesses I was often too shy to talk to my employees. I would call my secretary from downstairs and ask if the hallway was clear, then ask her to unlock my door and I’d hurry upstairs and lock the door behind me. That particular company failed disastrously.
But many people network too much. Entrepreneurship is hard enough. It’s 20 hours a day of managing employees, customers, meetings, and product development. And the buck stops here sort of thing. And then what are you going to do? Network all night? Save that for the great entrepreneurs. Or the ones who are about to fail. The mediocre entrepreneur works his 20 hours, then relaxes when he can. It’s tough to make money. Not a party.
- Do anything to get a “yes” - Here’s a negotiation I did. I was starting stockpickr.com and meeting with the CEO of thestreet.com. He wanted his company to have a percentage of stockpickr.com and in exchange he would fill up all of our ad inventory. I was excited to do the deal. I said, “Ok, I was thinking you would get 10% of the company.” He laughed and said, “No. 50%”. He didn’t even say “We would like 50%”. He just said, “50%”. I then used all my negotiating skills and came up with a reply. “Okay. Deal.”
I’m a salesman. I like people to say yes to me. I feel insecure when they so “No” or, even worse, if they don’t like me. When I started a seo company doing websites we were pitching to do “miramax.com”. I said, “$50,000″. They said, “No more than $1,000 and that’s a stretch.” I used my usual technique: “Deal!”
But the end results: in one case thestreet.com had a significant stake so that gave them more psychological stake. And for my first business miramax.com was now on my client list. So Con Edison had to pay a lot more. I’m a mediocre salesman and probably a poor negotiator although I try to learn from the best. But consequently, I get more deals done, I get the occasional loss leader, and then ultimately the big fish gets reeled in if I get enough people to say “yes”. It’s like asking every girl on the street to have sex with you. One out of 100 will say “yes”. In my case it might be one out of a million but you get the idea.
- Poor judge of people. The mediocre entrepreneur doesn’t “Blink” in the Malcolm Gladwell sense. In Gladwell’s book he often talks about people who can form snap correct judgements in two or three seconds.
My initial judgement when I meet or even see people is this: I hate you.
And then I veer from that to too trusting. Finally, after I bounce back and forth, and through much trial and error, I end up somewhere in the middle. I also tend to drop people I can’t trust very quickly. I think the great entrepreneur can make snap judgements and be very successful with it. But that doesn’t work for most people.
At this point, when I meet someone, I make sure I specifically don’t trust my first instincts. I get to know people more. I get to understand what their motivations are. I try to sympathize with whatever their position is. I listen to them. I try not to argue or gossip about them before I know anything. I spend a lot more time getting to know the people who I want to bring closer. I have to do this because I’m mediocre and I’m a lot more at risk of bringing the wrong people into my circle.
So by the time I’ve decided to be close to someone: a client, an employee, an acquirer, an acquiree, a wife, etc I’ve done a lot of work into thinking about them. This means I can’t waste time thinking about other things, like how to put a rocketship on Jupiter. But overall it’s worked.
“I thought being mediocre is supposed to be bad?” one might think. Shouldn’t we strive for greatness. And the answer is: “Of course we should! But let’s not forget that 9 out of 10 drivers think they are ‘above the median in driving skill.’” People overestimate themselves. Don’t let overestimation get in the way of becoming fabulously rich, or at least successful enough that you can have your freedom, feed your family, and enjoy other things in life.
Being mediocre doesn’t mean you won’t change the world. It means being honest with yourself and the people around you. And being honest at every level is really the most effective habit of all if you want to have massive success.