Disappearing Into the Fire

His anxiety was high. So high, in fact, that—at first—he wasn’t even aware of it. But I could hear it in his voice, feel it in my chest, as he spoke to me over the phone.

“What’s going on with your breathing?” I asked, “I can hardly breathe listening to you. Even more, your voice is way up in the back of your throat. Slow down and tell me what’s going on.”

He assured me that everything was great. The meeting he’d just come from was very promising—the potential client—a large consumer products company—was going to make a large ad buy and his company, my client’s company, was going to land the deal.

“Okay,” I said probing, “but what if you don’t land the deal.”

The balloon burst.

“Well then we’re fucked. If we don’t get this deal, then there’s no way we’re going to make our numbers.”

“But you’d nailed the last quarter. Doesn’t that count?” I said.

Silence.

“What happened?”

Turns out they hadn’t made the fourth quarter numbers. Both the top and bottom lines were off; expenses were up 10% over where they expected but, even worse, revenues were off by 40%. Forty percent.

He took a breath—maybe his first during the whole call—and he told me that the board had told him that if the company doesn’t make the first quarter numbers, his job was on the line.

“So?” I asked in my annoying coach-like way.

“So?!? So I’ll be out of work?”

“You get job offers all the time—is that what you’re really worried about?”

He paused again. “No. I guess I’m worried our business model is wrong.”

Again, the annoying, “So?”

“And if our business model is wrong, then I’ll have wasted the last three years of my life.” He was nearly shouting.

He paused again. His voice deepening as his breath steadied and the emotions rose.

“And worse than that,” he said, “I’ll be tagged with this failure for the rest of my life.”

The rest of his life defined by a missed quarter?

Few people understand just how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur.

I’ll often ask a client who’s struggling to deal with the burdens if they can really afford to be an entrepreneur. And by that, I’m not necessarily referring to the financial costs of living with a diminished salary—or even going without altogether. I’m referring to the emotional highs and lows of fundraising. 

One day, for example, the investor returns your email, inviting you in to present to the full partnership. You leave that meeting feeling great. You call your coach: “I nailed it.” You tell your spouse, “Don’t worry, honey, the funding’s coming through.” But then the investor stops responding to emails. Doesn’t answer their phone. Nothing. Not a word. Silence. 

And the killer-developer you hired on a wing, a prayer, and a slug of equity starts worrying about paying his rent and says that the job with that new iPhone app company is looking better and better.

Or you’re funded and one of your investor/directors starts making noises about doubting the business model, about doubting your head of sales, about doubting you…but you know that these doubts have less to do with your company than they do with the fact that the investor is having troubling closing his new fund and so to him, everything looks like crap. But, of course, you can’t say that, because well, he’s sort of your boss.

And you come home and it’s your daughter’s dance recital—“Geez, already?!? Didn’t she just start classes?”

No, your wife says, she started classes nine months ago. “Oh right,” you say to yourself, “that was version 1.2.” And you catch yourself and laugh a little thinking that you now tell time by counting versions of the software.

David Whyte—a brilliant poet who, among others things, speaks to and consults with large corporations, describes well an aspect of why the burden is so keenly felt:

There is an ancient Chinese story of an old master potter who attempted to develop a new glaze for his porcelain vases. It became the central focus of his life. Everyday he tended the flames of his kilns to a white heat, controlling the temperature to an exact degree. Every day he experimented with the chemistry of the glazes he applied, but still he could not achieve the beauty he desired and imagined was possible in a glaze. Finally, having tried everything he decided his meaningful life was over and walked into the molten heat of the fully fired kiln. When his assistants opened up the kiln and took out the vases, they found the glaze on the vases the most exquisite they had ever encountered. The master himself had disappeared into his creations.

How many of us create companies, create products where our blood and bone fuse with the glaze to create something so exquisite as to never have existed before? How romantically seductive is the image of giving one’s all to the fire? After all, as Whyte says:

“Work is the very fire where we are baked to perfection, and like the master of the fire itself, we add the essential ingredient and fulfillment when we walk into the flames ourselves and fuel the transformation of ordinary, everyday forms into the exquisite and the rare.”

I have to understand this viscerally if I’m going to be of service to my clients. But I have to be mindful, too, of the cost. In disappearing into the kiln, the potter created the most meaningful thing possible. But in the end, he ceased to exist.