Morale management for entrepreneurs

by John_Maxwell1 min read30th Sep 20125 comments


Personal Blog

One of the odd things about the procrastination equation is that part of it resembles an expected value calculation: value * expectancy.  Why does the equation's numerator present a problem at all then, if it's just the expected value of what you're trying to do?  Shouldn't that be the main factor in your motivation anyway?

One answer: In lukeprog's post, he conflates the "value" that task presents intrinsically (how much you enjoy doing it), and possible extrinsic motivators (some reward you hope to achieve after the task is completed).  So part of the reason your motivation system is miscalibrated is because not all valuable tasks are proportionately enjoyable.

But today I thought of another answer: Your subconscious expected value calculation may be falling prey to biases that aren't affecting your conscious expected value calculation.  Thus you correctly assign the task a high value consciously, but subconsciously, a particular bias may be bringing your estimate off.

Paul Graham writes:

Morale is tremendously important to a startup—so important that morale alone is almost enough to determine success. Startups are often described as emotional roller-coasters. One minute you're going to take over the world, and the next you're doomed. The problem with feeling you're doomed is not just that it makes you unhappy, but that it makes you stop working.

Let's pretend that we were running a betting market for your startup's chance of success.  If you and your cofounders are the only people in the market, you could picture the value of a contract in this market fluctuating up and down wildly.  But if you let others play in the market, there's an obvious money-making strategy: take the average of recent fluctuations.  Whenever the price fluctuates below that average, buy.  Whenever it fluctuates above that average, sell.  You and your cofounders can expect to lose a lot of money playing this market, at least early on in your startup's life.

The point I'm trying to make here is that this "emotional roller coaster" represents a kind of irrationality on the part of entrepreneurs.  And fixing this irrationality, especially in a way that hooks in to your motivation system and changes the numerator of your internal procrastination equation, could be very valuable for them.

One idea for a bias that contributes to this effect is the availability heuristic.  This suggests that your subconscious rates very recent, "available" events related to your startup higher than earlier less "available" events.  To fix this, you might be able to try to bring to mind older, less "available" data that suggests your startup will be successful and make it more salient.

Another possible bias is simple overconfidence.  It's really very difficult to know in advance whether your startup should succeed, so if you're either very bullish or very bearish, you're probably overconfident.  A common path to startup success seems to be discovering some fact about the market you're in that lets you re-make your business as something much better.  Since it's hard to predict the discovery of such facts in advance, it's hard to say much about how you will do.


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:43 PM
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One thing that seems to help me during the rough times is allowing myself to say "If it's still not going well, I'll give up / try to sell after ". Invariably, the few months come along and either I've pivoted, or have had some recent level of success, or learned something that makes me curious, and I have no interest in giving up. Repeat until success. :)

What's the point of thinking you're going to fail, unless you're rationally considering giving up? If you're feeling down but aren't going to give up, then there's little benefit to feeling down and more of a cost because of its impact on motivation. Maybe people should try to feel positive except whenever something happens to make them stop and consider if they should quit. If they decide not to quit, they should make an effort to go back to feeling bullish.

These are good ideas, but in my experience I can't always just make myself feel whatever emotion I want to feel. The nice thing about the procrastination equation is that it (supposedly) gives you a window in to how your internal emotional mechanics work and some ideas for influencing them.

Although yeah, "this emotion isn't useful" can actually be a somewhat decent emotion modulator.

What's the point of thinking you're going to fail, unless you're rationally considering giving up?

If I'm rationally considering also investing in a parachute while I'm learning to fly. Or maybe a safety net while I'm doing the trapeze.

Haha I guess when you're already committed to doing some course you can't swerve from, you can't be afraid or even consider the possibility of failure or you're more likely to plummet to your doom (in the trapeze case. Maybe in the sky diving case you're already falling so you can try to aim towards some water and hope to just break your legs or something).