Letting fires burn

One of the oldest and most universal pieces of advice I have heard in the venture world is to “let some fires burn”. The simple idea is that a young company fights many battles every day and unless you build the muscle of knowing which problems are not worth solving, you’ll be spreading yourself thin across too many initiatives and likely not making much progress on any. In simple words, there’s an opportunity cost of spending time on non-critical problems which is that you will not be able to dedicate the time and attention demanded by the most essential ones. In even simpler words, prioritization is essential to survival.

I have realized, over the years, that this lesson is as much of essence for individual performance and success as it is for companies and management teams. Especially as a woman in the workforce. Why? Because you’ve likely grown up serving a larger spectrum of societal needs versus your male counterparts. It’s not enough to be smart and action-oriented, you’ve got to do it while walking the tightrope of being demanding yet caring, authoritative but not too threatening, and smiling exactly the right amount. And since the goalpost is vaguely defined and constantly moving, the internal pressure to meet this bar can very easily translate to inaction. This is the fear of rejection and failure — no matter which way you cut it, you’re disappointing someone. Loss aversion leads you down a path of taking little to no risk, deviating little from the default, trying not to rock the boat, and following the charter someone else has laid down for you.

Now how does one cope? This is where our comfort with fire (or multiple fires for that matter) comes in. Pick the handful of people whose judgment you trust wholeheartedly, let them influence your choices, and take their feedback seriously, BUT — and this is the most important bit — let yourself be disliked by literally everyone else. Their opinion doesn’t matter. Let them attribute your success to luck, let them believe you’re too pricey or too meek, let them think you’re too emotional or too cold. Opinions are cheap and entirely useless. The sooner you disconnect your personal reward function from the opinions of irrelevant people, the sharper your feedback loop with the people and goals that actually matter.

The other related psychological unblock for me (and I’m still on that journey) has been to lower the bar. Self-doubt is great, really, it helps you not take anything for granted and constantly push yourself to do better. But it can also be crippling. When the implied voice of society becomes your own mental chatter, you can be surrounded by the most supportive and generous colleagues and yet constantly feel ‘less than’. You’re never good enough not because anyone tells you so but because your mind is only focusing on how far you still have to go vs how far you’ve come. We’re all works in progress and the only way to learn and grow is by taking risks and accepting that you will suck for a very long time until you don’t. We only fail when we fail to try, when we fail to believe we are worthy because we try, when our glorified view of the destination comes in the way of even starting the journey. Lower the bar, and just get going.

Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, trust your instinct. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say ‘I had a bad feeling about this hire/manager/job/cofounder’ but they waited until there was enough evidence to intellectually make the argument… If something doesn’t smell right, investigate and escalate. If you feel strongly about an opportunity, pull on that thread. Don’t second-guess yourself, don’t assume your voice doesn’t matter, don’t defer to others just because. Several micro acts of confidence (or lack thereof) compound to make us who we are. If we don’t take small bets on our beliefs, we won’t take the big ones. If we don’t respect our truth, why should anyone else? We won’t always be right, but in the long run, we’ll be more right than wrong. More importantly, even when we’re wrong, we will learn.

[We all stand on the shoulders of giants and this note was a good reminder of all the firebrand women (and some outstanding men) I’ve had the good fortune of working with and learning from. Paying it forward with the hope that this community continues to grow and thrive, have the courage to make mistakes and learn, and the capacity to let some fires burn.]

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