Sometimes, it’s easier to pee in the shower than it is to run a startup.
That’s what I thought one summer afternoon sitting at a conference table in NYC’s coolest co-working space. My management team had gathered for our quarterly strategy offsites.
(We were coming off the high of our company’s all-hands retreat.)
It’s part of our operating system. We come in geared up to review our assumptions and our year-to-day results, do some team building, and make course corrections on our annual plan.
But this time was different.
I was preparing to tell them we were about to start a fight for our survival.
(This article is part of the Antifragile Series.)
2022 was one of the darkest moments for me as a CEO.
(Being left at the altar during the sale of my last company was another.)
My experience was equivalent to riding a perfect storm completely naked.
We set out to achieve some ambitious goals at the beginning of the year. We wrote a clear plan.
All was going well until disaster struck.
By mid-year, the US central bank hiked interest rates to double digits to combat explosive inflation; a war broke out in Ukraine, and energy prices soured. As a result, the crypto industry entered a major collapse, and the capital markets cooled. It felt like a tsunami wave of challenges for our company.
If you’ve been in situations like this, you’ll know the most challenging part is figuring out where to focus your energy. Where do you start?
What plays do you implement when everything is on fire, including your mind?
Marcus Aurelius had this to say about it, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
His message is to focus on the things you can control.
But how? How do you pick the right actions to solve impossible problems?
Six months earlier…
In winter 2021, I decided to do a two-week staycation in New York City. People were slowly recovering from the hermit life resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
I read a few books during those weeks and a few on audio during my daily walks to Whole Foods to gather provisions for dinner.
One of the books was Tim Ferris’s Tools of Titans.
It’s a book about what he learned from guests on his famous podcast. “I created this book, my ultimate notebook of high-leverage tools, for myself. It’s changed my life, and I hope the same for you,” encourages Tim.
One of the chapters is about James Altucher, a successful entrepreneur.
Altucher is an American hedge-fund manager, author, podcaster, and entrepreneur who has founded or co-founded over 20 companies.
In the chapter, Tim relays the part of the interview with James where he shares an exercise he does every morning called “10 Ideas.”
It’s an exercise for developing your “Idea Muscles.”
James writes 10 ideas (or more) each morning in a notebook. He practices this to help him generate ideas on demand and increase his creativity.
He uses a myriad of random prompts, such as:
- 10 craziest things I could do
- 10 old ideas I can make new
- 10 ridiculous things I want to invent (e.g., the smart toilet)
- 10 books I can write (or rewrite)
- 10 Podcast ideas or videos I can shoot
- And more
“If you can’t generate 10 ideas, come up with twenty ideas,” James shared with Tim. “You are putting too much pressure on yourself. It’s your brain trying to protect you from harm. [And,] you shut this off by coming up with bad ideas.”
On the page, he writes two columns. In one column, he writes the idea. In the other column, he writes the first step and only the first step.
“No idea is so big that you can’t take the first step,” according to James. “If the first step seems too hard. Make it simpler.”
The genius is to go nuts on ideas rather than focusing on perfection. Focus on writing as many ideas as possible.
As James explains in his blog…
The problem is this: you’re NOT in a state of panic most of the time. States of panic are special and have to be revered. Think about the times in your life that you remember – it’s exactly those moments when you hit bottom and were forced to come up with ideas, to get stronger, to connect with some inner force inside you with the outer force.
This is why it’s important NOW to strengthen that connection to that idea force inside of you. This post is about HOW.
Nothing you ever thought of before amounted to anything – that’s why you are exactly where you are at that moment of hitting bottom. Because all of your billions of thoughts have led you right there, you can’t trust the old style of thinking anymore. They came, they saw, and they lost.
You have to come up with a new way of thinking. A new way of having ideas. A new way of interacting with the outside universe.
You’re in crisis. Time to change. Time to become an IDEA MACHINE.
Building your Idea Muscle prepares you for a crisis when you need to generate lateral ideas for impossible problems.
When I heard this technique, I stopped in a noisy street near a park, sat on a bench, and fired up my Evernote app. I started making all kinds of 10-idea lists.
I made lists about my writing. Lists about my role as CEO. I wrote ideas about how to surprise my wife for the holidays. I wrote ideas about how to start a new podcast. You name it. I started building that muscle.
Right after that time of solitude, I brought the idea to work and started using it everywhere. I used it to improve our marketing approach. I used it to raise money for the company. And I rolled it out to the entire company at our summer all-hands session just before Armageddon.
It paid dividends.
Back to the offsite…
Holding my matcha cup, I stood up from the table and started the meeting.
“We have some real challenges ahead of us,” I said somberly. “We will need every ounce of creativity to make it through. It’s not going to be easy.”
When our management team got wind of what was ahead of us, they didn’t panic because they were already tuned to generating ideas to solve problems.
First, we made a list of all the company’s biggest challenges. We hunkered down. And then we just started making 10-ideas lists.
The lists we built in that strategy session became the roadmap for navigating the company through 9-months of hell.
Here is how it worked…
- We sorted the list by priority — P1 meant it was a critical issue.
- The team voted on the best ideas from each list.
- We agreed on the first action and the owner for each item.
- We had a standing meeting daily to review our progress on each item.
- We executed.
- We repeated 1-5.
A year later…
It wasn’t easy, but the company was in a much better place a year later. We were growing again, morale was high, and we were eating new challenges for breakfast.
It was all made possible by a team that was beyond resilient and a simple tool.