This article applies broadly to anyone who has ever attempted anything huge, uncertain, difficult and troubling. People who run businesses and especially start-ups are in this category. So are many people who want to live and work overseas.
I’d like to illustrate my point by discussing a common email I receive. People often write to me and ask me how to get started in Japan.
How do I get a job in Japan from America/Ireland/Canada/etc?
Unfortunately my stock standard answer is, “You don’t.”
For every person overseas who wants a job in Japan, there is a person in Japan who wants the same job. Unless there is an extremely compelling reason for someone to hire you from overseas, you’re going to find it very difficult to compete with someone who is on the ground, has a visa, and is immediately available.
“So then, what should I do? Just come to Japan without a job?”
When I’m asked for advice on anything, I ensure that everything I say is from my own battle-tested experience. It drives me gently insane when people who do not have direct experience with a subject provide gospel-like advice to people. I say this to provide myself a modicum of credibility for what I’m about to say next.
If you want something enough, you put your heart and soul into it, and preferably give yourself no escape route. You put your blinders on, set your end goal, and start marching. I read a great article about this recently, inspired by Alexander the Great, called Burn Your Boats written by Scott Britton.
So if you’re asking for my advice, and if your dream is to live in Japan, then here’s what you do. You save up the minimum money you need, immediately book your ticket, fly to Japan and do anything you can to find a job. Go to networking events. Knock on doors. Meet with as many people as you can. Tell people you’ll work for free just to get your foot in the door. Cold call people. Force your dream into reality through nothing but your steely, stubborn determination.
If after 3 months, you’ve done your best but your tourist visa runs out, then what a ride. Fall back and re-group. If you’re going to fail at something, at least fail by being too aggressive, rather than failing by default through passivity.
This is exactly what I did when I first got to Japan in 2001. I had no university degree (and I still don’t), I didn’t speak Japanese, and I didn’t have much experience, but I managed to find a job.
When Is Enough, Enough?
The question is though, how do you know when to give up?
I’ve been watching a few episodes of a show called Shark Tank, where budding and seasoned entrepreneurs go to present their ideas to a panel of investors who have built companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
There has been some stunning displays of entrepreneurial talent and hustle, and some equally stunning examples of terrible ideas generated by people who believe in them so thoroughly they’re clearly delusional.
You have cases where the entire panel of investors – five very experienced people who became rich through their understanding of business are repeatedly telling someone “This is a terrible idea. Every dollar you spend on this idea is wasted. Stop wasting your time, money and life.”
These same entrepreneurs are inevitably shown on camera after they leave the room saying “I’m surprised they couldn’t see the potential. Oh well, this isn’t the last you’ll hear of TerribleIdea Incorporated!” as they walk on their merry way.
They are also following the program of turning their dream into reality through steely, stubborn determination.
This situation seems quite obvious. These people need as many entrepreneurial interventions as it takes for them to get the picture.
Unfortunately however, most situations are rarely this cut and dry. What if you’re running a startup, and you’re only one feature away from huge success? What if you’re always one customer away from break-even? For a few weeks this is sustainable, but after months or years, where do you draw the line?
Paraphrased for brevity
Cory Johnson: So, when do you know whether to fish or cut bait?
Paul Graham: You just get your product out there. The first iteration might not be good, but it doesn’t matter if it’s not great, because it starts the conversation. Users say “Well, it’s alright, but it’d be better if you did this,” so you do this, and you repeat that process 200 times, and then you have something really good.
The lesson I take from this and from my own experience is as follows. Once you commit to a business, a dream, a product or a goal, you need to be 100% committed. Put on your blinders, remove your escape routes, and start marching. This is really the only way to generate real progress on your goal or idea.
However paradoxically, you need to be open to the fact that you’re marching in entirely the wrong direction. Sometimes, the more time and money you’ve committed to a goal, the harder it can be to take a objective view of your strategy and actions. So above all else, generate real feedback as quickly as possible, and be open to interpreting it correctly.
So what does it mean to interpret real feedback correctly? I could give you the standard Edison quote:
“I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
Which is a great quote, and I’ll also provide you with my own real life example. I came to Japan and applied for 120 jobs before I got an offer. I would consider around 100 failed applications to be ‘real feedback’. There are two clear diametrically opposed ways to interpret this.
“I have failed 100 times, no-one will hire me, this is a disaster. I’m going back home.”
“100 down. This is going to make a great story when I finally land a job. I haven’t been getting much interest though, I wonder if theres any way I could improve my application. I’ll give that friendly recruiter a call and ask him. Soldier on!”
The bottom line is to interpret the feedback in such a way that helps you along your path from two perspectives; improving your implementation through positive iteration, and boosting your morale and motivation. Accomplishing big goals is difficult, and with when you have big goals you need to be prepared for big set-backs, and big failures.
It’s the people who set out to achieve big goals that actually do. Good luck.