I am a biased person.

We started a recent fad on our family car rides where we find a riddle site and try to figure out the answers. It is fun and keeps everyone engaged rather than buried in their own screens.  We came across this one.  

A doctor and a boy went fishing.  The boy is the doctor's son but the doctor is not the boy's father.  Who is the doctor?

If you don't know the answer keep reading.  If you do, congratulations.  You are much better than me.

Many people have written and talked about bias and how it impacts our daily lives (Look up the Ted talks by Helen Turnbull or Verna Myers).  It is everywhere around us and yet it is a completely uncomfortable subject for us to talk about.  Why?  I believe we are afraid of being labeled something like a bigot or racist by saying something wrong.  Trust tends to foster discussion and acceptance while our internal fear leads us to shut down and shut out our own thoughts and opinions.  Fear stops us from exploring our own thoughts to test them against other opposing views.  Fear allows bias to continue to play a role in decision making.  Isn't it better to just be quiet and go with the flow?  Why should we stick our necks out to speak out against what we see as wrong only to be labeled something we are trying to stop?

Fear.  Franklin Roosevelt knew it.  We all know it but most of us are unable to overcome it.  I am pretty sure that I am the most unqualified person to talk about bias and its impact.  I am a middle aged white male.  I grew up in the Midwest on a farm.  I went to a private college where I played baseball and studied history and political  science.  I still have all of my hair and I have been blessed with good looks from my parents.   I was taught to value hard work and, when combined with determination, anything is possible.  And it is.  For me.

I look back at all of the opportunities that have been presented to me.  Some I took and some I didn't.  Some opportunities were presented through circumstance and some through my own hard work  and experience.  However, I believe it was my hard work and determination that allowed me to be successful.  I could remain blissfully unaware of anyone else's experience and tell them that with hard work and determination that can have what I have.  I can choose to view the world through the lens of my own experience and see endless possibilities for everyone around me.  I can choose to remain quiet and go with the flow and let others talk about how to deal with biases that I will never have to experience.  I could do all of these things and yet I can't ignore the man behind the curtain once I have seen him.

It is interesting the way that life works and brings themes in and out of our lives.  I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is African American about (what else) but superheros.  The conversation bounced around but landed for a short time on the ethnic background of certain heroes.  Why is it so hard to see the Flash as an Asian and yet of course the Black Panther is black?  And what about those names?  Why can't he be named Lightning not Black Lightning?  Why do we have to qualify the name if the person is anything other than white or a man?  Or the conversation I had with another business counselor, Patti.  We talk about the differences between men and women founders all the time.  She tells me all the time that women think differently, in general, when facing obstacles.  "We are taught from a very young age not to question.  You men have ways been taught to question things.  If we have a question then we have been taught that we should be asking for help rather than to figure it out ourselves."  It frustrates her to no end that more women don't "grab themselves by the ovaries [her words]" and not take crap from anyone and figure out how to solve real problems with real businesses.  

These conversations opened my eyes to just how truly blessed I have been to not deal with bias.  It hit me.  At worst, I have started from a neutral situation when presented an opportunity or obstacle.  Building a successful business and/or career is really hard work.  And yet, there are people that are doing it everyday while overcoming bias because of the color of their skin, gender, gender preference, sexual preference, and on and on.  "No shit dumbass"  I can hear you scream at me.  Look, I inherently know this and none of this is new to me.  But up to this point, I never really put myself into another person's shoes.  I focused on myself and didn't venture out of my own little bubble of thought.  I focused on working hard and was determined to be successful.  Those were the same key items that I looked for when I built my teams and businesses.  All of the rock star teams that I have been blessed to be a part of were diverse.  I just didn't pay attention to that aspect of the team.  I don't really care about the other stuff as long as you do what you say you are going to do.  But just because I didn't care about their age, gender, preferences, etc didn't mean it was not an issue for them. 

I realized just how biased and naive I am.  I am biased because I view everything through the lens of my own experience.  I was not trying to understand what the other person was going through.  Typically, when I understand something a little deeper about myself, I get a release of exuberance and euphoria.  This time I didn't.  This time I was afraid.  Fear took hold because I had peeked behind the curtain and didn't like what I saw and I felt powerless to change it.  How can I fight bias?  It is so much a part of who we are as humans that even in the scientific community whole classes and discussions and arguments are made around the bias of the observer or test.

I look at my daughter and wonder if she will get the same opportunities as me.  Or my stepsons with a Hispanic last name.  Will they have to overcome more than just hard work and determination?  I told myself awhile ago that I would no longer let fear rule my life.  So now I talk about it because that is the only way that I know how to change it.  Call it out by its name.  I have biases but I am not going to let that impact the relationships that hold so much possibility. 

The answer to the riddle?  The boy's mother.  That riddle is so rich in cultural and social biases that it really hit me when no one in the family got the correct answer.  Not my wife and not my daughter.  Normally, I would've just moved on to the next riddle and would not have thought twice.  This time though, we stopped and talked about it.  I am not sure that we solved anything other than we are now aware of it.  The subject now comes up from time to time and we stop and talk about it.  And that is what matters.  No matter how uncomfortable the subject.  No matter how much fear you have of being judged.  Stop and talk about it.

The Power of a Cup of Coffee

One of the biggest questions I get is how do I find a co-founder or (in most cases) someone to help me with marketing.  How do I trust them with my idea?  How do I find the right person?  It is a tough process and is a leading cause of failure of startups.  Not having the right team is right up there with not having enough capital for reasons a startup fails.

Here is my advise that I always give.  Set aside $25 a month for coffee.  There is nothing more powerful than a cup of coffee... and a conversation. You may know nothing about marketing but I am willing to bet that you know someone that knows slightly more about it than you.  Even if you are not sure if what they are telling you is correct.  This person is more of an expert than you.

When I wanted to get back into the startup community, I went through my LinkedIn profile and started connecting with people that I worked with previously and had moved on to other opportunities.  That is when I met with Nima.  Nima and I had worked together several years earlier.  I had a fancy title in my company while Nima worked his butt off.  We knew each other in passing but really never had a significant conversation.  I asked him if I could take him out for a cup of coffee and to ask him about the startup community in Phoenix.

Let me tell you why this is a big deal.  I am a massive introvert.  People are usually surprised by that when I tell them.  I learned that I needed to stretch my comfort level and skill sets in order to successfully meet my goals.  Still, I am more at home cranking on spreadsheets and process flows than I am in crowds.  Oh and by the way, I am also massively competitive.  So again failure was not an option.  I heard Brad Feld give a speech once where he addressed his own introversion.  Giving speeches, talking to others, being in crowds takes energy away from introverts.  Extroverts, like my wife, get energized in these scenarios.  I get re-energized by reading and having time to myself.  That's when my wife falls asleep.

So when Nima showed up I was nervous and didn't know what to expect.  I really didn't have a game plan other than I knew that Nima was connected in the startup community and that I wanted to find a place for myself.  We exchanged pleasantries and asked about previous co-workers and reminisced about the good ol' days.

Like any good introvert, I have my standard opening question to deflect from having to talk abut myself.  Tell me about what you are working on?  Nima was running a bootstrap startup, was mentoring other entrepreneurs and generally was kicking ass in the community.  Then came the dreaded question from him. How can I help you?  WHAT?!?!  I was expecting the return "what are you up to?" to which I had prepared an answer for endlessly in order to not sound stupid.  But that is just the person that Nima is.  Give first.  I found myself stumbling initially trying to find the right words then I asked for his help in making introductions to people that he thought I should know and follow.  We talked through what I was hoping to accomplish and who he could potentially introduce to me in order to succeed in my goal.  

He did that and then some by going through his Twitter feed and showing me why each person was a potential key relationship.  Before I knew it, I had weaved my prepared statement into a real conversation.  I took those names and contacts and did not wait for him to introduce them to me but introduced myself leveraging his relationship.  I decided that I was going to meet at least one new person each week or at least reconnect with someone that I have spoken to in a long time.  I was getting brave.  I tried out new ideas  and thoughts that I had on the new people I was meeting.  I cautiously threw caution to the wind and tried new ways to tell my story and always asked for their feedback and more introductions.

After dozens and dozens of coffee conversations, I can now look up to see an unbelievable network of people in all aspects of business, investments and government that even an extrovert like my wife can envy.  I learned about new ways to build products, new approaches to marketing, cutting edge technologies and, most importantly, some of the most interesting people in Phoenix.  I learned a ton about myself and how to overcome some of the fears that hold me back.  It all started by asking someone that knew more about a subject than I did.  

 

It started over a cup of coffee.

The Price We Pay

A while ago after I left a startup where I dedicated ten years of my life I went through a transition.  This startup had become part of my identity.  It was nothing to work 60 to 70 hours a week both at the office and at home.  Text communications at 4AM were not uncommon.  I made the unconscious decision to put my career as the primary focus of my life.  And I was very successful.  I was able to grow into many roles and responsibilities.  I made some significant impacts and received recognition for those contributions.  Life was good.

Only after I left, I realized I had paid a significant price for my career.

The company was growing and we were acquired.  I quickly realized that the skill sets the company needed in its next stage of growth were not my strengths.  Although I had had similar positions with previous companies, I had grown to love the life of a startup.  I decided to leave the company I loved.  Only after I left, I realized I had paid a significant price for my career.  I was in a dysfunctional marriage and I had missed out on much of the first five years of my 3 kids lives.  My whole identity was wrapped around my career and now that was gone.  I was lost and fell into a pretty severe depression.  I didn't know if any of the skills I had acquired during my previous ten years were worth anything.  Could my skills translate into any other business?  I wasn't raised to put work in front of family.  How did that happen? 

A not so funny thing happens when you start to question yourself.  You stop listening to that little voice in your head.  That little voice is the early warning signal that you are about to make a mistake and go off the rails.  I took on consulting jobs in different industries challenging myself and my skills.  It wasn't sexy and it kept me busy but I was missing something.  I decided that I needed to find a business I could get passionate about.  One where I could build a new identity for myself.  I looked and quickly found an opportunity I could fall in love with.  It was perfect.  I could utilize my skill sets and it was a startup.  I could spend more time with my kids.  I entered into the business and ignored the problems I could see.  Trusting that these were the only problems, I forced myself to have confidence that I could fix them just like I had for the previous ten years. I poured myself into the business.  The more problems that came up, the more I fixed.  On and on it went until I found myself going down a rabbit hole of making my professional life my only life again.

My participation in the business unraveled.  I decided that I needed to move on.  During this time, I was going through therapy for my depression.  I had gotten through my divorce and was comfortable with my personal identity but I still had a hole in my professional life that I had identified with for so long.  I sought out help and my new counselor quickly kicked my ass.

He talked to me about the definition of insanity.  You know what that is.  It is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  I was doing the same thing over and over again professionally expecting to get a result that was not going to happen.  I am the type of person that sets extremely high expectations for myself.  What I learned is that every goal has a price.  What was happening is that I thought I could pay that price but was unable to attain my goals.  Mentally, I was spent.  But I didn't stop setting unattainable goals.

Understand that every goal you set has a price to pay to achieve it.

If you are unable or unwilling to pay that price then you need to change your goal.  If not, you will consistently set yourself up for failure.  I hate failure.  It is one of the things that motivated me.  It was driving my depression because I mentally and physically could not pay the price of the goals I was setting.

Here is what I learned and what I hope you can learn about yourself as you go through the startup life.  I changed my mindset from avoiding failure to craving success.  In order to do that, I make every decision based on the price I am willing to pay to see it through to its successful end.  If I am not willing to pay that price, I do not do it because I know I will not be successful. It doesn't mean I am running away from challenges.  It just means that I go through a process now of really understanding what it is going to take for me to be successful in that venture, up front.  It doesn't mean I will be successful but mentally I am prepared to do what it takes.  This was a tough mindset shift for me.  I have passed on some opportunities that I would have jumped all over in the past.  The stuff that I work with now are things that I am passionate about and they fit within the price I am willing to pay and they will be and are successful.  

Understand the price you have to pay for the goals you are setting.  Have a real conversation with yourself and those around you.  Are you willing to pay this price? No? Set a different goal.  Yes?  Let's do this.