If it hurts, it’s probably true

Here’s a mental framework I found very useful, and that helps me to keep it real: The truth is always simple. If it’s complicated, it’s probably not the truth. When things seem too complex, it’s probably a mind trick you’re playing on yourself because you don’t want to face the truth.

I learned this back in 2011 while attending Y Combinator. A lot of founders and big time VCs would come to YC give a talk, share lessons they believed would help us build better ventures.

But one group of founders completely blew my mind when they talked about their approach to handling the challenges that come when you build a startup:

When something is too difficult, stop doing it

This was the opposite of how I viewed the world back then. I thought that as an entrepreneur, it was your job to do very difficult things. That’s what being an entrepreneur was all about: overcoming obstacles, battling through hardship, persevering through pain.

And these founders completely changed my perspective when they said:

If something is too hard, we stop doing it. Because it usually means one of three things:

  1. This is the wrong time to do it.
  2. We’re the wrong people to do it.
  3. We’re using the wrong tactic or strategy.

But ultimately it didn’t even matter which of the three was the case—the end result would be that they’d just stop doing it, and instead do something else.

What would happen was that things which were difficult at that time became very easy later on. Or they’d hire another team member that had the necessary skillset and was able to execute the idea. Or they’d discover a better tactic or strategy do accomplish this.

But most of the time, what happened in the future was simply that they learned that not doing the thing was just the right move.

It was surprisingly hard for me to implement this framework. It felt true to me, but it also was pretty much the exact opposite of how I had lived my life. I’ve always been the guy that pushes through obstacles. I’ve always loved accomplishing things others thought I’d not be able to accomplish. I wanted my success to be like the epic hero story of a movie: facing improbably odds, crossing the road of trials, barely escaping the claws of almost certain defeat, to only then, finally, emerge victoriously, scarred and hardened from war.

My chair assembly struggle

Weeks later as we were moving into our new office we were assembling furniture, and there was one chair that I really struggled with. The parts wouldn’t fit together, and I was convinced that I had gotten a faulty chair.

I walked away, and after a short break came back to the chair only to realize: I’ve been trying to put the pieces together the wrong way. When I turned them around, they easily locked into each other and I had a perfect chair.

And in that moment, I thought back to the founders who shared that advice: If it’s too difficult, you’re doing it wrong. If you do it right, it’s effortless.

Stop seeking answers you already have

Many founders and sales people ask me for advice, and there’s one thing I’ve realized: Most people already know the answers. Most people already know what they should do. They just don’t want to do it, so they’re looking for another way of accomplishing the same thing: A way that’s less frightening, more convenient, or just “smarter”.

That’s why there’s a new diet, a new fitness method, a new weightloss system trend every month, that’s why there are thousands of books and courses and supplements.

Even though there’s been a perfectly foolproof way for losing weight for hundreds of years, that’s still going to work hundreds of years from now. I call it broccoli and sweat. Move more. Eat less, but healthier food.

My challenge for you

What’s one current struggle in your life? What’s an overwhelmingly complex problem you’re facing, something that’s complicated and where you lack clarity, an area where you feel lost and uncertain about how to proceed.

And then ask yourself: What would be a simpler truth, a simpler way of looking at this problem, but a way that I would hate?

Try to find the simple truth that hurts. If it hurts, it’s probably true.

The goal is to gain clarity, and get out of the confused and overwhelmed state where you’re uncertain about everything. Once you have clarity, you can then act forcefully and change things.

Got a complex and complicated problem and can’t come up with a simple truth? Let me know, I’m happy to help you find it. (Just know that you might not like it.)

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