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Build your wings on the ground

I recently saw this quote:

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

- Kurt Vonnegut

This is one of a category of quotes about failure, risk taking and entrepreneurship which I think are misleading and dangerous.

I wonder if they are propagated by venture capitalists?

You see, if you're a venture capitalist, then this is sensible advice to give. If you invest in 100 jumpers, you don't care if the first 99 plunge to their deaths, as long as the 100th jumper succeeds and you can make all your losses back.

But if you're the first jumper in the queue, it's terrible advice. When you're dead, it doesn't matter how many others succeeded or failed after you.

In this example, we would say that the venture capitalist is involved, but the entrepreneur is committed; the venture capitalist has skin in the game, but the entrepreneur is betting the farm.

Quotes like this are meant to encourage entrepreneurs to take bigger risks. "Entrepreneurship is about taking risks", it tells us, leaving out the all important "Entrepreneurship is about mitigating risks".

Now, I appreciate that the quote is not mean to be taken literally. It's not advocating that people actually jump off cliffs. (And I am not suggesting that venture capitalists don't actually care about people plunging to their deaths.)

But it is proposing that people take extreme and, I will argue, unnecessary risks in order to make progress.

And even if you're not plunging to your death off a cliff, you may be losing your home, sacrificing your marriage, friendships and other family relationships, and ultimately your happiness. So I think it is worth thinking about this a little more deeply.

The person who posted this quote told me that:

  • taking that such risks would 'focus the mind', 
  • we need to take risks to learn, and
  • the advice is not meant to be taken literally.

Fear focuses the mind

It is undoubtedly true that risk and fear focuses the mind. I am sure that finding yourself plunging off the edge of a cliff would get your attention!

But is it the best way to focus the mind?

I doubt it. Fear invokes our lizard brain. This controls our fight, flight or freeze reflex. It is great in circumstances of imminent peril. But, at the same time, our higher order decision-making is impaired. This is not great for problem solving or learning.

Instead, in his book "Flow", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes "a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in an activity".

According to the author, Flow is achieved where we have:

  • clear objectives,
  • a good balance between the requirements of the activity and our own abilities,
  • a clear feedback loop.

Jumping off a cliff and developing wings on the way down, ticks only one of these boxes. The objective is clear: build wings so you don't die. But our ability to build wings in a matter of seconds is probably not up to the job.

And feedback really only works we we have multiple iterations. That is, where we can try once, get some feedback and then try again. It does really work well when we can only afford to try something once. That is when we're betting the farm.

We need to take risks to learn

I've debunked this argument before, in It's time we stopped idolising failure in innovation.

Sure, some risk is inevitable. But it's like the carbon dioxide emitted by internal combustion engines - an unpleasant by product which we take great pains to minimise.

We are fortunate that the Wright Brothers did not receive and take this advice. They built their wings on the ground. And they tested them as safely as they could. They conducted extensive research before, during and between numerous tests. They did everything they reasonable could to minimise their risks.

Had they simply flung  themselves off the nearest cliff we might have had to wait many more years before someone else achieved powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft!

It's not meant to be taken literally

This was the final defence of the quote which was offered to me.

But advice that is only good to the extent that you don't actually take it is bad advice.

If the opening quote is not advocating that we take extreme and potentially catastrophic risks, then what is it advocating? What good point is it making that a different example, without all the potential for misinterpretation of this one, could not have made more effectively.

I suspect that quote was originally made, and has subsequently circulated, because it is attention getting. Much like a tabloid headline. It's a cheap trick to draw us in. But like a sugary snack, it offers no nourishment.

We have millions of ways of mitigating risks. We have parachutes and wind-tunnels, we have startup incubators, we have countless ways of researching and testing ideas, and we can break big risky ideas down into smaller more manageable and testable chunks.

We should use them. We should not simply throw caution to the wind and leap off a cliff.

In short, we need a better-quality discourse about entrepreneurship, risk-taking, innovation and learning.

Risk is relative

If you're a wealthy billionaire, then betting a few million here and there is relatively low risk. After all, Elon Musk could lose $250bn overnight, and still be wealthier than most people on the planet.

The small entrepreneur who takes a second mortgage on their home to buy a neighbourhood restaurant is taking more risk than Elon Musk was when he tried to buy Twitter for $41.39bn. Their downside is greater and their ability to recover from failure is lower.

So perhaps Elon Musk can afford to be a little cavalier. The rest of us should be suspicious of those who advise us to act in the same manner.

My advice

My advice: "Build your wings on the ground, but start working right away."

Perhaps it won't sell as many tabloid newspapers. But it might just help you achieve more success in life and business.

Business strategy development and execution is about finding a balance between thought and action. It's about thinking and acting strategically.

It's about seizing the opportunities, whilst avoiding the threats. It's about being realistic about our strengths and weaknesses as they impact our ability to do so. It's about optimising the chances of success whilst mitigating the risks of  failure.

It doesn't always lend itself to pithy little sayings. It requires a little work. But its better than throwing yourself off a cliff.

Footnotes

  1. According to Wikipedia, Kurt Vonnegut was "an American writer known for his satirical and darkly humorous novels". There is nothing about his profile to suggest that he had any experience of or insight into business or entrepreneurship, or that the quote was meant to be taken in that context.
  2. According to quote investigator,
    1. the  quote actually originated from Ray Bradbury in 1986 in a keynote address about following your heart. He used the quote again in an interview in 1990 in the context of love affairs and friendship. According to Wikipedia, Bradbury was also a fiction author and screen writer. Again, there is no suggestion of any experience of or insight into business or entrepreneurship.
    2. the quote was adopted by airline executive Franco Mancassola, in an interview in 1998. He said: "I tell managers: 'I have absolute faith in your abilities, and should you fail, I'll have absolute faith in your replacement. I live by the rule, 'jump out of the plan and build your wings on the way'." It seems Mancassola believed that people were expendable in the manner in which I cautioned against above. According to Wikipedia and Jet Back In Time, the airline he founded survived for only 3 and a half years before ceasing operations due to financial problems.

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