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My favorite Disney song is “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” in the classic animated film Mulan. It’s fun to watch Mulan transform from struggling rookie to seasoned warrior in three minutes and twenty-two seconds.
The arc feels familiar: Mulan is struggling. She’s out of her depth, and her captain has decided to send her home. Then, something clicks. We watch her set her jaw and tackle a physical milestone none of her fellow soldiers could master. Her moment of brilliance changes everything. Suddenly, Mulan is sprinting with weights she couldn’t lift before. She vanquishes her captain in a sparring match. Everyone loves her. Who could avoid being inspired?
We know this is fiction … or do we?
I don’t think anyone expects their lives to turn out like a Disney movie. We know that stories leave things out. But I see the same myth of the magical turning point everywhere in entrepreneurship.
Successful entrepreneurs are often asked to share their stories. People want to know: “How did you do it?”
More often than not, those entrepreneurs tell some version of this story:
“I started out in my garage, and everything was tough. We were living on ramen noodles, and I made every mistake in the book. Then, one day, in the shower it hit me — I knew what I needed to do. 18 months later, I hit seven figures, and now we’re changing the world.”
The arc was just like Mulan’s — struggle, eureka moment, transformation.
When pressed, these same entrepreneurs would open up in other contexts about their full stories, and I was able to map out a clearer picture. It looked a lot more like a roller coaster, complete with unexpected dips, sharp turns and dark tunnels.
At first, I was frustrated. It felt like a bait-and-switch — like all the big players were lying to us about what it took for them to achieve their success. But I know that many entrepreneurs are genuine and want to help others succeed. The actual reason for this simplistic story arc turns out to be less sinister: When you combine hindsight with the need to tell a quick story that ha s a happy ending, you tend to smooth out the edges. Take shortcuts in the explanation.
It reminds me of how I might tell you about my experience of learning to play the piano. I would start with the day when I plunked on the keys of our dilapidated upright and decided I wanted to play “Für Elise.” Then I would tell you about my amazing teacher and our annual Halloween recitals. I wouldn’t bore you with a detailed account of the thirty minutes of daily practice spanning eight years of my childhood.
When successful entrepreneurs tell you about the moments that changed the game for them, they’re not lying; Those eureka moments did matter. Those are the moments that tend to stand out when they look back. But there is a marathon between the eureka moment and the beautiful outcome we envision. We must be ready for the long haul. If we expect immediate, exponential results and find ourselves in the midst of practice and difficult labor instead, we will suffer unnecessarily.
We could listen to our heroes and decide these people are freaks of nature — inherently better than us — or we could recognize what’s going on behind the scenes and get the tools we need for the roller coaster of real entrepreneurship.
In the meantime, how can we tell a healthier story as entrepreneurs? Three steps can get us started:
1. Stop glossing over the marathon
Most of us have been taught from childhood to tell stories exactly like Mulan does. Many concepts within copywriting follow the same framework. Is there a place for a struggle, turning point, transformation story arc? Yes. But it’s not in honest stories about real-life entrepreneurship.
I can tell my own story in two different ways. Neither one of them is a lie, but one of them sets a fair expectation of the journey of entrepreneurship, and one of them does not.
Here’s one version:
“I started my business in 2017 as a business manager for online entrepreneurs. I was good at my job, but after six months of working harder than I ever had in my life, I discovered that I was making less than minimum wage. I struggled for months to refine my business model, but nothing worked. Then, one day, I was talking with my coach when everything clicked. I knew exactly what I needed to do! I brought in over $10,000 in revenue the very next month.”
Here’s the more honest one:
“I started my business in 2017 with a desire to use my passion for systems and organization to support online entrepreneurs. Over the years, my business has gone through several iterations. My biggest accomplishments and most discouraging losses have sometimes come within 24 hours of each other. While my business’s revenue has grown every year, I remember every revenue target I have failed to hit. I am determined to build a company that is good for my team, my clients and the world. I’m grateful for what entrepreneurship has enabled me to do and become.”
If we want to set up the entrepreneurs after us for success, we need to knock it off with the hockey stick growth curves. “Not lying” shouldn’t be the standard. Let’s tell the next generation honestly what is awaiting them, and why it’s worth it.
2. Recognize the power of systems to help you achieve results
I’m tired of famous entrepreneurs telling everyone else to “work harder” and “believe in their dreams.” It’s as if they think every entrepreneur who is hitting wall after wall is somehow lazier and less committed than they are.
I’ve met too many entrepreneurs for this to make any sense. We all have bruised shoulders from throwing our weight against boulders we were trying to move. We’ve all told ourselves to keep going when things get tough. Entrepreneurs who feel stuck can be every bit as tenacious as the ones in the top one percent of their markets.
Good ideas matter. Hard work matters. Sometimes we need a kick in the pants to get out there and do the hard thing. But good ideas and hard work aren’t enough on their own. We need to understand how to use systems to make our best ideas happen.
When I say “systems,” I mean something broader than procedure manuals or checklists. A system is simply how you do things. When you use systems well, you’re being conscientious about how you work. Systems allow you to move consistently in the right direction and cut out the friction that is making your progress even harder.
If you find systems frustrating, you’re not alone. We tend to believe they stifle all creative energy. We think systems the cause of bureaucracy and the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way.”
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Systems determine what actually happens rather than what we want to happen or what we say should happen. When systems are bad, they make progress difficult. When systems are good, they make progress inevitable.
Systems turn ideas into reality. Without them, ideas don’t become reality. Without them, your ideas won’t become reality.
3. Bid adieu to the idea of ‘arrival’
In the process of writing my first book, Eureka Results, I got the chance to interview entrepreneurs with a wide range of experiences. No matter who they were, they all had one thing in common — not a single one declared that they had “arrived.”
One of my favorite clients once put it this way: “I thought when I hit that mystical $20k a month I would fall to my knees and throw my hands in the air, tears streaming down and feel amazing. But when I got there, I didn’t feel that way. It was just on to the next thing.”
For every mountaintop, there’s another summit to tackle. Every result can be easily missed as we turn our attention to the next milestone. Stopping to celebrate each accomplishment is critical, and so is giving up on any expectation of a final summit.
Entrepreneurship is an endless journey. It’s one of the most meaningful adventures we can experience, but we have to be prepared for never-ending change and iteration. We’re all on the road together.
Related: Nobody Likes a Success Story
Real entrepreneurship happens in the middle of the dust and grime of real life. It’s hard to watch our unblemished ideas make contact with experimentation and failure, but that’s how they leave the realm of ideas and become reality instead. It’s a gift to witness those transformations, both in our own business and those around us. Full stories are powerful and full of both inspiration and bracing truth. Let’s start telling the whole thing. Our fellow entrepreneurs need to hear it.