“You’ve got a law degree. You’ve got an MBA. We have no food for the kids. You’ve got to get a real job.”
These were the words that came out of my wife’s mouth, and it’s when I knew I didn’t just have a struggling business on my hands, but a real problem. With a lot of soul searching and some key adjustments, I’ve been able to move out of a delusional state and see my company on to success. But I was recently asked, “What is the difference between an entrepreneur who is passionately pursuing a dream and someone who has become delusional?” This insightful question brought me back to a time when I walked that fine line.
The passionate entrepreneur who turns delusional is an interesting phenomenon.
And it’s one that may not be avoidable, because the thing that is required to make your business go happens to be the very thing that plants and nourishes the seeds of delusion. You must be positive. You must have an undying belief you will prevail. You must be passionate. Let me take you back about a decade to a time when I had slipped from a state of being very passionate about my business to being totally delusional about it.
Truth be told, I think the difference between passion and delusion isn’t even very distinguishable. I suspect many an entrepreneur has fallen too far down the rabbit hole without even realizing it. It happened to me. Maxed-out credit cards, empty cupboards, and a frustrated spouse helped me wake up to the delusion I created in myself. I was laser-focused on the belief I had to succeed no matter what, which led me to lose sight of reality. My story fortunately has a happy ending. But if I hadn’t faced that reality head-on (and it did indeed feel like a crash), I wouldn’t have been able to honestly evaluate my business and redirect toward a healthier course.
So how can you gauge whether your passion is bordering on delusion and when it’s time to reel it back? I’m a huge Jim Collins fan, and I think he teaches something that can be applied here. Collins refers to it as the Stockdale Paradox and I’m going to explain it in two parts–backwards. The second part says, “Maintain an undying belief that in the end you will prevail.” The entrepreneurial rally cry! The first half of the Stockdale Paradox, and the part that I think may be the antidote for delusional thinking, is that you must “confront the brutal facts of your current reality.” A true paradox.
Here’s how I interpret Collins’ wisdom to walk that fine line.
1. Develop the personal discipline to stop and take stock of what is really happening with your business, finances, and with the other people involved such as family and employees. I’d suggest scheduling time on your calendar quarterly to make this a priority.
2. Have periodic temperature checks with loved ones. They are in the absolute best position to observe delusion setting in. And yet, because of their love for you, they are also in the worst position to tell you what they are seeing. Invite their candid and caring feedback.
3. Build an advisory board (whether formal or informal) to provide unbiased perspectives. This is different from your governing board, which is likely comprised of investors and stakeholders. The advice, therefore, will also be different and can help lead you to decisions without competing interests in mind.
4. If you find your perception isn’t matching up with your reality, you can always readjust. There’s no rule in entrepreneurship that says you have a shut things down when they’re not working out. For me, facing my delusion caused me to think about how being “all in” with the business was affecting every other aspect of my life. Luckily, we found enough success before the rest of my world came crashing down, but it was a close call.
5. Know that this is a fine line that every entrepreneur walks and you are not alone.
Why would I still wholeheartedly encourage entrepreneurs to go for it given the risks of becoming delusional? The rewards of personal growth and self-actualization that come from creating your own success far outweigh the risk of stifling your entrepreneurial passion.
Your passion to do something great can bring with it the risk of becoming delusional, but stifling your passion to go the safe route brings a far greater consequence. The key is to learn to recognize when the reality of your situation isn’t jibing with what’s going on in your mind, and change course. So ask yourself, are you in a healthy, passionate state or have you become delusional?