The path to entrepreneurial success has become synonymous with becoming superhuman.
With shining examples like Richard Branson and Elon Musk to inspire us, it’s no longer enough to achieve mere business success. The new entrepreneurial definition of success should be dubbed “The Tony Stark” – you need to become a billionaire, genius, playboy philanthropist… and you should probably look like Robert Downey Junior too.
Even if you dial the ambition back from “super human” to merely “optimized human”, you’re still looking at a todo list that includes a successful business, an inspiring relationship with a total babe, epic mastery of high speed sports and/or intellectually complex hobbies, raising of Mensa level genius children, multilingual fluency, good-looking brilliant friends, effortless charisma… and the list goes on.
Ever felt that pressure to be better in every area?
The desire to “crush it” is a good ideology, but what if I told you that – in practice – it’s crippling the progress of the entrepreneurs mid-way through their journey to the top.
Over-optimization is dangerous. Here’s why…
“Crushing” turns into “Splitting”. And Splitting is terrible for you.
Ronald Fairbairn – a renowned psychiatrist back in the day – coined the term “Splitting” to describe the destructive force of All-or-Nothing thinking. He defined this tendency as a defense mechanism in which the subject would perceive others as totally amazing and sublime, or utterly terrible and nasty.
Splitting, in other words, is black and white thinking.
When people develop the habit of splitting their perception of others – loved ones, colleagues etc – they hold those other people to impossible standards. When the person fails to measure up, they’re written off.
Worse than that, when Splitting is applied to the self, you hold yourself to an impossible standard. One might say, a superhuman standard. And when you inevitably fail to measure up to your enormous expectations… you’ll write yourself off.
It goes a little like this:
An entrepreneur decides they need to achieve “mastery” in a few spheres of life; let’s say a conservative triangle of wealth, health and relationship awesomeness. A vision of idealistic perfection begins to form.
Over time, the entrepreneur becomes frustrated with themselves as they fail to hit 100% of their super human goal. Because they’re “splitting”, they have no appreciation for the 50% progress they’ve made. Instead they self flagellate, because their not perfect vis-à-vis they are a failure.
Relationship isn’t sublime sex and serene cohabitation? You’ve failed.
Crushed salads all week but caved for a sneaky burger and fries on Friday night? You’ve failed.
Business isn’t a masterpiece of freedom producing automation and purpose driven inspired labor? You’ve failed.
This is the psychological reality of a “Splitting” entrepreneur – torn between superhuman goals and very human (imperfect) results.
Splitting is the dark side of the super human, optimization, leverage seeking, self hacking movement. When you’re not Iron Man (or woman), you’re nothing.
Academic psychology aside, I see entrepreneurial splitting – aka Over-Optimized Entrepreneur Syndrome – in my practice all the time. It tears entrepreneurs up, ties them in knots and leaves some of the (objectively) highest achievers in the WORLD… feeling like pieces of shit.
Here’s a few examples – identities and details anonymized:
One entrepreneur, sitting on a seven figure business and personal income putting him in the top 1% of humans on this planet, felt that it wasn’t enough. He started “hacking” to improve himself – which sounds innocent enough. (I can’t fault it, since I too peddle a form of self improvement.)
The problems began when he over-optimized with his favorite self improvement method: Audio tapes.
This guy was studying another language on tape, listening to business strategy books and more. Every spare minute, household chore or commute was the cue to pump his brain full of new information.
The more he learned, the more aware of his inadequacies he became. He realized that he “should” be traveling to master language, immersing himself in foreign culture. But his family life wasn’t optimized for that – so there was yet another thing to be fixed.
Meanwhile, what about business? “Inspiring” content meant that he was now deeply unsatisfied with his work and in awe of the Rockefeller types who he was starting to measure himself against.
This client came to me in a mess. Absolutely paralyzed, with all motivation mojo run dry. He was overwhelmed, burnt out and fed up. He’d been listening to much superhuman self improvement, the quality of his life had become terrible.
Rationalizing the desire to improve, with the reality that you can’t change everything at once
The solution, of course, is to do things one at a time. That’s actually what this post is about. I’m dishing out advice that mothers give their toddlers when they find them frustrated with their building blocks.
Relax. Breath. Now pick up one piece at a time.
The rise of the Over-Optimized Entrepreneur means that some of the smartest, most ambitious people in the world are forgetting mom’s key lesson: Incremental progress builds big, strong and cool stuff… or businesses.
Another client was in a critical point in business – having just pre-sold a ton of his product, he had twelve months worth of product fulfillment responsibility. He was flush with cash and under pressure to deliver.
So where did Over-Optimized Entrepreneur Syndrome send him?
Straight to the juice machine! NOW, apparently, was the time to absolutely crush diet/nutrition/health… and not just by taking baby healthy steps, but by committing to a relentless on going meal replacement strategy of green juices. Plus daily workouts. Plus increased business networking. Oh and it was also time to get out there and start dating properly.
Innocently enough, a small bite of business success prompted him to try to become superhuman. In a grand effort to turn over of ALL the leaves, he accidentally started Splitting.
Needless to say, this entrepreneur regularly found himself at home watching Netflix, eating pizza. Because…
Over-Optimization DOESN’T WORK
The inner child – or simply that unconscious part of your mind whose job it is to protect your happiness and wellbeing – isn’t having any of it.
Your unconscious can do delayed gratification, but only with laser like focus and only when incremental rewards aren’t too far away.
Trying to hack EVERYTHING for optimum success – all at once – is a shortcut to burn out. You’ll keep “Splitting”, and end up so far in the dark side that you can’t see your way out.
We already know how to win at life. Hacking everything is not it.
We know because our athletes and scientists know. A moderate approach to improvement – in any area – built around incremental, sustainable and satisfying ritual is what works.
The entrepreneurs constantly leaping for superhuman status end up crashing back so far it breaks them. Self esteem gets destroyed. Hope evaporates.
That’s the danger of Over-Optimization
The missing chapter of the Tortoise and Hare tale would reveal that the Hare spent his days drooling and mumbling at walls. His mental steam would be all burnt out. They’d be nothing but regret and madness echoing around the vast – and now unfulfilled, empty – caverns of his over-zealous expectations.
Pick one thing people. I know Steve Jobs and Marcus Aurelius were obsessed with their mortality, but you do have some time. You vastly over estimate how much you can do in a day, but what you’re capable of in a year will blow your mind.
Get rich. Make an impact. Get a six pack. Find the perfect partner. Raise the perfect kid. Become a god among men – a prime specimen who causes the unwashed masses to bow down in awe.
Just do it slowly, one step at a time. It won’t work any other way.