Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 4, 2019
“Let’s go for it.”
Those words have been uttered thousands of times by countless men and women who have studied the landscape and after assessing the risks, after weighing the odds, after reviewing their team and their rations, they have charged ahead, “forward into the valley of death rode the six hundred” (“The Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson). Everyone likes the sound of going for it. After all, it shows courage and determination and resilience — and from time to time, reckless stupidity as well.
On the other side of the mountain, there is another poem we could explore. “For he that fights and runs away, may live to fight another day.” — Demosthenes.
I am not an English teacher, and this is not a poetry class. But there is a significant question lurking in these two pieces, namely, what is the difference between ambition and aspiration? Who makes the fateful decision, and how did that person come to make that decision?
This puzzle is explored in part by Agnes Callard in her book, “Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.” Her main topic is how one makes the choice to have a child and become a parent (maybe that is akin to starting a company — a random night, a few drinks, a touch of romance and voilà — we are in the seed round for sure). Callard argues that we do not do as much rational, studied and thoughtful “deciding” as we do “aspiring to self-transformation by trying on values we hope to one day possess.” (Who said anything about twins?)
Our leader of the Light Brigade certainly saw himself as a hero. People like to be heroes and heroines. It is heady stuff. We all want to rescue the child being swept down the river, jumping into the cold water with no thought to our own safety. So we go for it, except we don’t. That is not what most of us do. Most of us are clouded by ambition and the path to a goal. We lean more toward Demosthenes and getting another chance, because our ambition is grounded in the personal goal of success and by extension sticking around long enough to enjoy it. We humans have our aspirations, but they are tempered by our ambitions.
The question for the investor is when to take the founder with the aspirational vision of glory, of changing the world, of being on the cover of Science Today and accepting the Nobel Prize, out back and explain that riding into the canyon is really cool until you get to the bottom and see the enemy on the ridge. That kind of founder is afflicted with the muddied confluence of personal and professional reputation, and thus is very reluctant to “face the music.”
By contrast, take the founder who is much less famous, with no professional hubris, unafflicted by unrealistic optimism, who is willing to save the horses, to turn away, to give back any monies remaining and leave the killing fields to another cavalry. That kind of decision needs to be made before you are halfway down the canyon and there is no turning back.
The balance of ambition (personal wealth and success) and aspiration (lauded by my peers and seen as a hero) is not an easy one to hold on any narrow beam. And sometimes the decision is made for us. But at the end of the day, I vote for living to fight another day — a decision unmarked by ambition, but rather informed by trying to do the right thing.
There is a body of neuroscience work on the subject of “mindful leadership.” It demands the listening to one’s inner voice, and hearing that voice gives you the confidence to make strategic decisions and build a constructive narrative that explains to the team with a sense of firmness what the next steps will be and why.
The leader needs to focus and then be transparent in the sharing of the truth of where the company stands. It is the intersection of ambition and aspiration. You cannot raise high the rifle, ride into the valley of death and go for it without remembering that you are taking some other folks with you.
Sometimes the enemy is just better armed.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly
about entrepreneurship in
San Diego. [email protected]
Rule # 888
— Kramer (“Seinfeld”)