Like The Phoenix: The Discipline Of Becoming

April 05, 2020

The entrepreneur is an extraordinary creature. Like the phoenix, he rises again and again, each time anew.

I’ve had this thought (and variants thereof) running through my head this entire past week, and I think the only way to get it out is to write about it.

Note: this essay belongs to a series of posts I’m calling The SaaS Adventure. It starts here.

Phoenix A phoenix as depicted by FJ Bertuch (1747–1822) in his book of legendary creatures.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in entrepreneurship, it’s that the person who succeeds is not the person who set out to succeed. They can’t be, because to become the person who has succeeded, they must first become the person who can succeed.

Change implies both leaving something behind and gaining something better. This is why the phoenix is such a popular symbol: its old, frail body goes up in flames and a new, healthy one is gained as a result. Without sacrifice, there can be no growth.

What does this mean for us? We need to let go of the things that hold us back (bad habits, unproductive activities, even people with agendas opposed to our own), and reach for the things that can bring us higher.

This isn’t a particularly novel sentiment – many spiritual writers over the centuries have attested to its truth.

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Lao Tzu wrote, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Though the voice changes, the words always remain the same. Change. Leave the old behind in order to uncover the new.

But what kind of change am I talking about?

There’s really no black and white answer. It’s a spectrum that ranges from a shift in thinking about a particular idea all the way to a complete shift in self-identity. It could be as simple as “I’m going to stop thinking sales is boring, and start getting excited about it,” or as deep as “I’m going to stop being and thinking of myself as a lazy person and start acting as if I’m a successful, energetic person.”

In case you think that’s not possible, allow me to assure that it’s quite doable. After all, you are who you imagine yourself to be.

However, it can be quite difficult. For many, often subtle reasons, we are very attached to our current images of ourselves. We’re often even fond, in some devious way, of the person we think we are. After all, we didn’t construct a particular identity because we didn’t want to.

Sometimes, we did so to appease another person that is (or was) in our life, or to enable a bad, but pleasurable habit. Very often, it’s just plain old easier.

Whatever it may be, there’s always a why behind the way we think of ourselves. And when we need to uncover that reason, we must sacrifice it on the altar of growth. Until we do that, we will be stuck as the person we are now – the person that, very often, desires to succeed, and never will.

The discipline of becoming

The phrase at the beginning of this essay ends with the words “again and again.” It’s not enough to rise anew from the ashes of our past selves just the once. It’s a continual process. The reason is simple: we are not, in fact, immortal creatures from legend. We are mortal, limited and fallible.

Those things we thought we knew, we forget. Our decisions, like our memories, are ephemeral. So, we need to constantly be renewing our goals, visions – and sacrifices.

It’s something we have to practice. A discipline we must cultivate. We must always be becoming something new. The moment we stop becoming is the moment we start dying.

By way of practical example, just yesterday I was chatting with a friend and mentor of mine. He had followed up with me about a week after a conversation with him where I told him that I was planning on doing a bunch of outreach on LinkedIn for my new app Bicycle.

He asked me how my week had gone. My exact response:

I haven’t held to my public promise of reaching out to a bunch of people on LinkedIn 😬I’ve had one conversation so far with a BI consultant who didn’t really see a need for my tool. I’ve been struggling to balance blogging with the more boring parts of building the tool.

You can tell that I felt kind of guilty about not having done my homework. His response, though, was interesting:

That’s funny, to me validation is one of the exciting parts :) I get anxious if I haven’t talked to a customer in more than a few days.

My friend is a product guy. He’s worked at a lot of startups and at larger companies, too. But right now he’s working on his own company, and since he’s not an engineer, he’s approaching things from an entirely different angle than I am.

So, his response to me was edifying and just a little mindblowing. My response:

Yeah, I suppose that’s the engineer mindset holding me back there. I’d rather think the way you do about it!

Although I’ve been working on my mindset a lot, it’s amazing to me how the engineer within me keeps rearing his ugly head and preventing me from getting into the other parts of the product work that I need to do.

Fortunately, since that conversation I’ve gotten a lot better about my outreach and now I’ve got three or four calls scheduled with various BI consultants and data warehouse engineers, pursuant to my app’s target audience.

As a result of taking action and reaching out to people I’ve also improved my messaging a lot after realizing that how I was stating the value proposition of the tool is not clear. I’ve gone from “it’s kind of like a better Excel” to this simple, more polished elevator pitch:

Bicycle is a BI project management tool that’s insanely simple and way more visual than Excel.

It still needs work, but positions the product in a much smarter way. But I wouldn’t have gotten here if I hadn’t been thinking about what this friend said about being excited about the validation work. I can also say that, after having pondered what he said for a while, I’m actually a little bit excited to be starting and having all these conversations.

I guess the takeaways here can be summarized like so:

  1. We need to engage in conscious self-transformation, because the person we are today is not the person that can achieve our goals.
  2. It’s easy to lose track of that process of transformation and revert. Therefore, we must practice a discipline of always becoming.
  3. Often, we’re blind to the changes we must make. Therefore, the perspective of others is invaluable.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!


P.S. Please do not go off and set yourself on fire. This essay is metaphorical in nature.