This article was originally published on swombat.com in December 2011.
Some time ago, I read an excellent historical novel about a character called Sinuhe. Set in ancient Egypt, it charted the life story of a talented doctor who travelled through Syria, Minoan Crete, the Hittite Empire, and other similarly exotic locations. Sinuhe got involved in intrigues, wars, mysteries, and all kinds of fascinating adventures, masterfully narrated in an autobiographical style.
It was an incredibly infuriating book, probably one of the most frustrating that I’ve ever read.
Sinuhe takes the concept of the doctor’s oath of non-intervention to the extreme. Through this monumental example, Mika Waltari shows how remaining passive and uninvolved can lead to great evils. Time and time again in the book, Sinuhe finds himself in exactly the right time and the right place to take actions that will change the course of events, of history, even. And yet he consistently fails to act until it is too late. Through this passivity, he loses both of the great loves of his life, as well as his only child, to stupid and avoidable deaths. Throughout the book, Sinuhe only ever acts when the evil has become manifest, obvious, immediate and urgently needs a cure – which, in most cases, is too late. And then he proceeds to rant about the evils of men, gods, delusions, and other forces of the universe, forever failing to see that every mysery that befell him was a direct result of his own actions, or lack thereof.
There’s a point in there about both startups and life in general.
I’ve argued before that the ability to take responsibility is an essential trait of the successful entrepreneur. Sinuhe is the quintessential example of someone who would consistently fail at business (much as he fails at life), because of his inability to accept that he is responsible for what happens to him, and that he can make a difference to those events.
To paraphrase Stephen Covey, until I accept that who and where I am is a product of the choices I’ve made (conscious or not), I cannot take the next step, which is to say: “Today, I choose otherwise.”
It’s easy to blame external factors for playing a part in your startup’s failures. “It was too hard to raise funding”, “the industry was in recession”, “people just weren’t ready for our product” – I’ve used those excuses myself. But that’s what they are, they’re excuses. Ultimately, successful entrepreneurs make things work despite the barriers standing in their way, by focusing on what they can do, and then doing it.
Accepting the results
Which brings me to the final point of this article, one which most of the self-help books out there fail to cover: taking responsibility, getting involved, throwing yourself into the thick of things and making decisions, all that is really, really hard (for most people). Sinuhe, in fact, deserves our pity more than our anger.
Psychologically, it can be very daunting to realise that taking action makes us responsible for the outcomes of those actions. If we get involved in making something complicated better, and we fail, we have no escape from the reality that we personally brought about a result that we did not want. We can’t blame it on circumstances, on external factors, competition, general human stupidity, and so on. It’s our own lack of competence that brought about our failure. If I take responsibility for things that affect others (like running a business or helping someone who needs emotional help), and I fail, I also accept responsibility for hurting others, maybe directly. Some people are so afraid of accepting this possible consequence that they shy away from making any decisions that impact other people.
Unfortunately, such decisions get made with or without our input. When we refuse to take responsibility, we let others take those decisions for us, or, even worse, we let the decisions be taken by the faceless system of default behaviours that composes the world. This is disastrous both in business and personal life. The default outcome for any startup is death. The default outcome for life in the western world is being normal, unremarkable, unnoticeable. If you are unhappy with either of those results, you need to take responsibility and take action.
Had Sinuhe acted, perhaps he would have brought about his and his friends’ downfall. But perhaps not. By his inaction in times when he had the opportunity to do something, he achieved failure anyway.
Thoughts from 2018
This article is an evergreen. As illustrated by the central example (set in ancient Egypt), the points being made here have applied throughout human history – and will probably continue to apply as long as there are humans about.