Why epiphanies will destroy your business

by Peter Shallard

Why epiphanies will destroy your business

You’re just one big aha moment away from figuring it out. Right?

Isn’t everyone.

They spend their lives having one epiphany after another, always telling themselves that they’ve finally figured out what’s holding them back. An epiphany strikes and they think they’re finally going to be productive and creative.

At last, they’re going to turn their life and business around!

Except they don’t.

Because epiphanies suck. They don’t work.

A breakthrough… isn’t.

And yet, all around the world entrepreneurs keep pursuing the next hit of “I got it!” like they’re on drugs.

This article explains why you should avoid epiphanies like the plague. It also offers up the alternative: The tactic successful entrepreneurs use to rapidly learn and grow. 

As The Shrink for Entrepreneurs, this is a damn hard article to write.

I’m a purveyor of the world’s finest introspection. You’d think that I encourage big breakthroughs and skull-rattling epiphanies. I don’t.

Your next aha moment might actually derail your growth. It’ll hamper your bottom line and put the freeze on your psychological development.

Sudden Clarity should make you nervous 

The problem with epiphanies is that, by definition, they happen quickly. Talk to any seriously successful business owner about their past. Almost nothing will have happened overnight.

Hell, look back over your own life. Try to remember the really big realization moments (notice how hard it is?) and ask yourself “How did that work out?”.

Exactly.

Most entrepreneurs, when they look honestly at their lives, will admit that the biggest breakthroughs were slow-cooked. The slow growth is what really made mastery or a difference happen.

As much as we want the Karate Kid myth to be true, there isn’t a moment when we overcome our inner turmoil and multiply our skill and success instantly. Real life doesn’t include training montages.

The risk of the quick fire epiphany is the myth that we tell ourselves. A big epiphany gives you cause to believe you’ve broken through and that things are about to change. You pat yourself on the back and promptly do nothing.

The danger of epiphanies is that, having figured it all out, you promptly stop trying to figure it all out.

Epiphanies rob entrepreneurs of curiosity and uncertainty. It’s dangerous to live and do business without either.

There are two types of people who feel like they’ve got the world figured out: Entrepreneurs, at that pivotal moment of getting it. And schizophrenics.

Most people assume that the crux of a paranoid, delusional schizophrenic episode must be severely confusing for the person experiencing it.

They couldn’t be farther from the truth. The most psychotic moment is actually the clearest, when a sudden new explanation for the world makes total sense and everything is cast in a new light.

The crazy person has the most clarity at the precise moment they’re the craziest. A radical new hypothesis for why things happen and how the world works is confirmed and locks into place as a rigid belief.

The problem with epiphanies is that you’re certain you’ve got it. Too certain. 

Just like a crazy person, the entrepreneur and his epiphany dangerously simplify his world.

“I’ve realized that all I ever need to focus on is…” 

“I just figured out the secret to boosting sales, period!” 

“I know what my purpose is!” 

These are the utterances of someone flying high on grade-A epiphany.

Just like a crazy person, an epiphany causes the entrepreneur to adopt a rigid belief about the world. Simultaneously, they stop paying attention to alternatives and evidence to the contrary.

When an epiphany happens, rigid certainty begins and learning stops.

Fear not! Speedy, sexy epiphanies have a competitor! Insert tortoise-and-hare metaphor here.

If epiphanies are sudden, rigid and clear then the alternative is slow, amorphous and confusing. Let’s break down these alternatives:

Slow – The way real change and learning happens

Think about the primary skills your businesses success is built on. For me, it’s my understanding of psychology, sales and marketing. These three areas have taking years and years to figure out. I don’t even feel like I’m all the way there yet, either.

True mastery takes time. Anything that promises otherwise is a lie. 

Amorphous – Learning with complexity and subtlety

Life is complex. When you figure out the next big realization your business needs to “go to the next level” or “pivot”, it’s easy to let the epiphany seduce you. It convinces you that what you’ve decided is the only way.

It isn’t.

For every nugget of deadly definite insight you have, there are thousands of options available to you, that you aren’t aware of. Hovering on the periphery of your vision, metaphorical or otherwise, these options start to vanish the more certain of your epiphany you become.

Epiphanies give you tunnel vision.

The value of working with a coach and consultant, by the way, isn’t in having them suggest bigger and better epiphanies to you. In fact, you should avoid this at all costs. The value of a truly good coach lies in their ability to expose you to the options and resources you didn’t know you had.

When a coach attempts to deliver a mighty epiphany upon you, they’re no longer coaching but dictatorially teaching

Confusion – That feeling that precipitates real growth

A funny thing happens, right before any human starts to ride a rocket to the stratosphere of success. They get confused.

It’s as true in psychotherapy as it is in business. Confusion begets change.

In those moments when we can’t make sense of our world, we open ourselves up to serendipitous possibility. The entrepreneurs brave enough to take action despite their confusion get set firmly on the fast track to personal and bottom line growth.

The epiphany addicted entrepreneur, when met with confusion, will stop what they’re doing to be still. They’re sit and figure it out – hunting for another hit of epiphany and simplistic certainty.

Epiphany is the bastard child of Analysis-Paralysis. Real progress is born out of confusion and a relentless commitment to forward movement. 

As the Shrink for Entrepreneurs, I tread a fine line with epiphany. It’s something many of my clients want. It’s dangerously seductive for me too, in that it’s easy for me to manufacture the sensation of a big breakthrough.

Manufactured breakthroughs will always pale in comparison to the results simply “holding space” can produce. My hour-a-week space with clients is built explicitly to contain an enormous expectation for their success and a fierce commitment to forward movement regardless of temptations to pause.

Most of all, I aim to pivot back and forward. When a client seeks the certainty and comfort of a friendly epiphany I’ll push them towards complexity and uncertainty. When they’re overwhelmed with options, we’ll reel it back in toward the simple and clear.

A consultation with a coach could superficially be seen to enable “analysis paralysis”, but the point is for the entrepreneur to gain a perspective from outside the fishbowl in which they’re swimming circles.

By outsourcing your analysis, you can end the paralysis. Focus on the doing, and leave the epiphanies to the experts.

It’s the doing, after all, that gets you paid.

No article on epiphanies would be complete without a grand and sweeping conclusion. Except that there can’t be one. There’s a bunch of exceptions to what I’ve said here and you’ve probably already thought of some of them.

Let’s dive into the complexity and subtly! Leave a comment below (there can’t be wrong answers) and share this post with people whose perspective you’d value.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Cory August 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Oh, Peter! Now you’ve done it! You’ve exposed the difference between a really gifted therapist, coach, or doctor and a huckster evangelist. The latter peddles epiphany because making all our anxiety disappear REALLY sells!

It’s just not sexy to describe a genuinely helpful relationship as one that improves the client’s “distress tolerance” and can allow that two or more conflicting ideas can all be true simultaneously. Paradox? You want to sell Paradox? and Maturity?!

Dude, you’re hosed!!!
Thank [insert paradoxical universal force]!

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Peter Shallard August 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm

heheh damn straight

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Mark S. Wardrip August 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm

A friend’s father used to tell him, “Give a job a chance for three years to decide if that’s what you want to do.” I have a new explosive life changing epiphany every fifteen minutes. Three years? The newness wears off after the first month. Talk about “swimming in circles!”
I need a great idea to stick with. They are rare and the ones I’ve chosen to stick with made me feel stuck. All this freedom does not pay the bills… or does it eventually?

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Peter Shallard August 13, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Hey Mark, it sounds like you’re feeling the full effects of the 15 minute epiphany!

Maybe it’s time to try the opposite approach 🙂

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Mark S. Wardrip August 13, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Thank you Peter! No maybe to it. Yep. I’m a doin’ and I’m a grinnin’. 😉

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James Chartrand - Men with Pens August 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I love epiphanies. You spend weeks thinking about that THING, and then one day, it hits you. Everything clicks into place. YOU’VE GOT IT!!!!

Victory feels bloody sweet.

And then you walk around for the next six months feeling like the smug genius you are.

That’s it. That’s all that happens. Nothing else. You go back to whatever you were doing before you started trying to figure things out, or you decide you need to figure out something new (now that you know you’re such a genius) and it’s just chasing one bright shiny after another.

I say this by experience. In fact, after thinking WEEKS on a certain habit I have and reaching the epiphany point of WHY I have this habit… I realized just this morning that since the epiphany, I hadn’t thought of that habit at all and had stopped all efforts to figure it out and replace it with a better one.

Didn’t need to. I had an epiphany. And now I’m onto something else, because like I said… that feeling is bloody sweet. 😉

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Ainslie Hunter August 14, 2012 at 5:07 am

Hi James

When I read Peter’s post and your comment I thought immediately about where you both talked about the muse (and why it is a terrible idea to belief in one)

Maybe ephinanies are the teasers the muse sends down to us saying “come follow me and my easy wins”.

Ains

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Mike Turco August 13, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Hi Peter,

I totally agree with what you’re saying, as from your perspective.

To some extent, or maybe to great extent, my business consists of a series of epiphanies. Virtually all of them were these wonderfully amazing, earth shattering ideas that didn’t end up going as far as I thought they would, on their own. Which is part of what you’re getting at.

The difference, as I see it, is in how I frame and pursue these various thoughts and ideas.

First and foremost, I don’t “quit my day job” and go after the new idea like its some kind of miracle (although I’ve made that mistake a few times before, as I’m sure many of us have).

For example, I was hit with an epiphany not so long ago that related to the consulting aspect of my business. Execs and small business owners (my target market) tend to be really unorganized on their computer. So… my idea was to offer a service to help these people out.

I thought this was going to be huge — a true overnight success!

Well…. I put a site up and did some market research. That was pretty easy — about a hundred hours work and a small investment. Turns out that, based on my research, there’s not a big market for this kind of thing. At least not for me.

But… and here is where the “my business is a series of epiphanies” theory kicks in. I took the critical info from the test site and moved it to my main consulting site. So, while my grand idea is not grand enough to be a business in and of itself, it will probably bring in a few new clients now and then. So it was a good thing! Another not great but definitely worth something idea that will pay for itself time and again.

So, in short, when face-to-face with an epiphinickle moment:

1) I don’t shut down my existing business just because I have a great idea.
2) I isolate the idea so that it doesn’t interfere with other things I have going on.
3) I test the idea to see if it will stand on its own.
4) If the idea won’t stand on its own, I look for other areas in existing ventures where the idea can at least contribute.

Mike

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Bob Beverley August 13, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Hi Peter,

Clear and good thinking. Your experience shows, along with the ability to be
firm and yet not arrogant. Thanks.

Bob

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Peter Shallard August 14, 2012 at 10:16 am

Hey Bob! Thanks for the kind words 🙂

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Janice Salomon August 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm

whew … clarity IS overrrated…I KNEW it…cross that off my list of obstacles…

clarity was a joke in a former workplace…something we always knew was out of reach, but it sounded nice to have…who knew it belonged to the insane…we thought insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result….i suppose that is a form of clarity–

LOVE this site/blog!!!

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Peter Shallard August 14, 2012 at 10:27 am

Hey Janice! Right on – that’s a pretty apt description of insane behavior. Thanks for joining us here!

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Siita August 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm

For me the trick is to recognise the difference between developed thought and flash epiphanies.
Thinking clearly can be a challenge in a world of flying thought debris. But it’s really important along with endurance.
Coming up with fresh and new ideas or arriving at a pivotal thought juncture – sometimes is a combination of flash and developed. You might call that ephipany .
I think of it as thinking captured like a still shot in a movie. Something I can study and make sense of by applying and adapting.
It’s figuring out what thought moments are keepers in the epiphany box and putting those to excellent use that gets you closer to your goal.

btw
I love the way you write and align your thoughts. I read what you write hoping for an ephiphany that gives me that skill base immediately – deeper thinking suggests that I’ll have to settle for developing that with time and effort.

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Peter Shallard August 14, 2012 at 10:32 am

Hey Siita,

This is a good perspective I think. The key is that those flashes of insight are built on a wealth of experience.

As for the writing, thank you! Believe me, there were no epiphanies involved. Hundreds of posts and hundreds more drafts. That’s all 🙂

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Bob Gower August 13, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Thanks Peter, I really like how clear your thinking is here. Richard Feynman used to say that “the first rule is not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” When I look back on my experiences with epiphanies they always lead me astray for exactly the reason’s you articulate. And my usual reaction was to just believe harder in the direction I was going. This never ended all that well and it always ended.

For me the best teacher has been a daily meditation practice. I’ve noticed that my attention is never perfect but if I practice bringing myself back to the object of my focus over and over again over time I get incrementally better.

I believe the same is true of business and my personal life. Its very helpful to have a powerful and flexible vision to work towards but the trick is not to decide I’ve found THE way and then keep doing things the same way but to continually believe that there is a better way and work towards that.

Kathy Sierra articulated this really well a few years back in her “How to be an Expert” post. I sketch out her graph at least once a week with clients.

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Bob Gower August 13, 2012 at 10:24 pm
Janice Salomon August 14, 2012 at 7:58 am

Thank you for the link and thoughtful take on the subject. Very interesting post. We become obsessed with what we are trying to accomplish instead of staying interested in getting better at what we do. Her “suck” threshold is maybe the place at which people become “stuck” — suck with a “t” — the “practice” stops becoming interesting and complacency kicks in, creating a fertile breeding ground for epiphanies instead of true forward motion. As she said, being better is better.

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Peter Shallard August 14, 2012 at 11:13 am

Hey Bob,

This is great. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an ace at meditation, but it’s a really really useful metaphor for what we’re talking about here.

Thanks for the insight – I hadn’t seen that graph until just now.

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Ainslie August 14, 2012 at 5:02 am

Wow Peter. Are you talking about me or what? But I bet that is what all your readers say.

Your point of true mastery taking time really hit home to me. Each and every day as a teacher I am learning a little bit more about myself, how to be better teacher and how to reach more students.

And those little wins add up and have helped to grow my business.

My question though is – Can you ever move too slowly in your business? Or does slow and steady always win the race?

Ainslie

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Peter Shallard August 14, 2012 at 12:15 pm

hehe hey Ainslie! I know I’ve done something right when people think I’m writing at them 😛

GREAT question.

The answer is yes. The idea is to learn slowly, but act fast (or slow, or inbetween – whatever is pragmatic). Action can be hot and swift, but the big ass realizations should be mulled over.

It’s the difference between thinking and doing 🙂

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Bonny Brown August 14, 2012 at 6:32 am

WOW Peter, How do you do it?
Again, another post that sings to just where I am at at the minute.
In a good way, no great way.
Loved the metaphor – insert Tortoise and Hare here! So apt (and you know what I mean – lol)

Bring it on I say…where we open ourselves up to serendipitous possibility and let ‘real growth’ begin. Love it. Thank you 😉

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Peter Shallard August 14, 2012 at 12:19 pm

haha Bonny! What can I say, I knew you were reading 🙂

Seriously though, this just speaks to a fundamental phenomenon we all share.

Thanks for stopping by

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Tayven August 14, 2012 at 8:09 am

Hi Peter,

Funny I read this tonight I’ve been working on a problem for a week or 2 and finally worked it out, though I don’t think I had an epiphany I was just working to hard and managed to make sense of it through all the craziness.

Looking back any epiphanies I have had were bad ideas wrapped up in a shiny package that I either didn’t do or I had a go at and then realized it was a bad idea while making it so I stopped.

The good ideas I have had are the ones I started out of interest and I still work on. I didn’t need an epiphany to get started cause it was just a natural progression in my life.

Just gotta keep learning even when you think you’ve made it there’s still more to know.

Cheers,
Tayven

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Peter Shallard August 14, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Hey Tayven,

That’s exactly the type of problem solving I’m talking about – pushing through confusion to find the solution.

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James Fleming August 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm

While your thoughts are intriguing, clarity and success has in fact come in “an instant” to many an inventor and entrepreneur. That being said, most breakthroughs are the result of an organic, collaborative process unfolding and revealing itself gradually. As a n advocate for life long learning, this insightful interview with the Dr. Stephen Covey is a treasure for “business coaches”, owners and others to be listened to for life. Carpe Every Diem! Jim

http://training.tonyrobbins.com/1900/stephen-covey-1932-2012-a-model-for-what-human-beings-are-truly-capable-of/

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Ralph@Retirement Lifestyle August 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Peter,
I’m feeling a bit contrarian about this post. Maybe it is the feeling that you might have a very insightful epiphany which causes you to carefully reconsider some aspect of your life and form a new plan to change what isn’t working for you. What I’m feeling is that you may have sudden understanding about something you thought was all decided but it doesn’t mean that you have the information you need to change your life at that time. My insights seem to spring up suddenly (epiphany) but taking action isn’t so precipitous. Taking quick action with inadequate analysis might be a problem but where would you be without epiphanies?

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Anna Long August 22, 2012 at 9:46 am

Thanks for the post Peter. I sort of agree with you 🙂 I have had epiphanies that have been great for my life or moving me on to explore different areas of my business (and of course push me to grow that next great idea). So this blog post got me thinking…maybe my epiphanies haven’t really been epiphanies.

Because before these “epiphanies”, seeds of change were planted, my mind sorted through things, and eventually some event or maybe just some day I woke up and said “that’s it!”.

It feels like an epiphany at the time, but when you peel off the layers, there was a slow building and process to what I was doing. However sometimes others see these as “epiphanies”…because to those outside my head, they are.

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seyram July 13, 2013 at 11:25 am

Hi Peter, my name is Seyram Uwimana and my brother sent this link to me because I described to him that i was feeling awake and driven like I have never felt in my entire life. I have been depressed for some years now since 2011 to be exact. That was the time everything started to change, I made a huge decision which has now affected everything I have done up until now and this is only when am realizing it. From what you have written, i have been very touched and motivated at the same time because I do not want this feeling to cloud my judgments and the way I see life all together. its funny but i have to say its like there are two people in me and I at times have fights with them making me the Seyram the world sees as a third person. All am asking is that can I reach a balance and still achieve great things?

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Peter Shallard July 15, 2013 at 10:54 am

Hey Seyram,

I don’t know you but I can tell you with 100% certainty that you possess within you the capacity for superb balance and simultaneous achievement.

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Seyram July 16, 2013 at 8:28 am

hey Peter,

Thanking you so much for your reply. currently i have noticed that the slight headaches i was having before have disappeared, because before to tell you the truth i was not sleeping. I think I spent three days one after the other with out giving my body rest because i felt I had slept for many years and not achieved anything so I felt I had to punish myself and work hard and be creative. when I wake up the mornings I like to read your page and it has helped me because I think I needed a constant reminder so I would not fall back into that habit of self neglect. I find now that am understanding your advice more it has started to sink in that I still can get advice from my parents, siblings and friends and they took can build a better me.

Thank you so much once again, I know I type long messages so hope you dont mind. May God bless you and your work

Kind regards
Seyram

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