It’d been a tough couple weeks for Larry Ellison.
Oracle had just missed their earnings despite his recent promises that they’d be the exception to the dot com turmoil.
And his beloved cat Maggie had recently died.
He landed in Hong Kong in his Gulfstream V, got into one of the two Mercedes waiting on the tarmac, and then started to cry.
“Cancer. She was ten years old. Damn, f*ck. Sorry. She was my favorite cat.”
Larry Ellison, the alpha male billionaire, in tears because his cat had died.
And yet in just 30 minutes he’d be talking to the chairman of China Mobile, followed by hosting a meeting to sell to the CEOs of 9 local companies.
Even Larry Ellison has to deal with the emotional pain of normal life.1
Jason Freedman was having trouble sleeping:
"I’m concerned about how we’re going to get more high quality photos up onto 42Floors. We’re a site that makes it easy to search for commercial real estate. But it’s not a good search experience unless you have great photos."
Jason’s the founder/CEO of his company and they were struggling with one of the most important parts of their product.
He goes on in his blog post:
We’ve been doing tons of user testing in the last few weeks. People complain that [our product is] difficult to [use]… To see users, right in front of me, trying to use our product and getting visibly frustrated – Ughh! It’s like they’re calling my baby ugly, and I have no other choice but to agree.
I just got an email from an engineering prospect who has decided to turn down our offer. We put so much time and effort and passion into recruiting him….We’ve got like a gazillion open positions, and I need to get them filled. My team is depending on me. I hate letting them down.
All of that emotional pain comes from seeing reality: their product sucks, the site doesn’t have enough pictures, he’s letting his team down.
Seeing the distance between where you are and where you need to be can be excruciating.
But only once you recognize that gap can you have a shot at fixing the real underlying problem.
This says so much about how Blockbuster viewed its new position in a Netflix world:
Someone saw the gap between Blockbuster and Netflix and thought “the way to make customers come back is to run a contest.”
What needed to happen was for the CEO to have the emotional capacity to recognize the entire premise for Blockbuster’s existence had disappeared, and that to survive the company would have to change its entire business.2
I can already hear your response: maybe the CEO just didn’t see it coming. Even the stock market didn’t realize in 2011 how dominant Netflix was about to become.
But I say forget the intellectual part. We all ascribe too much behavior to human beings being “rational”.
The real blocker to seeing reality is emotion.
If you’re afraid of believing something you’ll always process new information in a way that continues to avoid the new belief.
Paul Graham has a great line about this regarding founders starting new companies:
Chasing down all the implications of what's said to you can sometimes lead to uncomfortable conclusions… the unsuccessful founders had the sort of conservatism that comes from weakness. They traversed idea space as gingerly as a very old person traverses the physical world.3
The bad founders were afraid to stumble into ideas that would require more work from them so they made sure not to stumble into those ideas!
In this case the Blockbuster CEO could find a thousand reasons to believe that customers would still want Blockbuster:
Emotional fortitude is so underrated as a place of business value.
Very few problems in business are intellectual. You have to know how to figure stuff out, sure, but often you can’t even see there’s a problem to consider solving because you haven’t come to terms with reality.
Emotional fortitude is required for the things that actually create value, like:
Seeing reality gives you a shot at fixing the real problem even though it will always be painful.
And even when the problem isn’t fixable it’s still worth knowing about. Because then you can decide how to deal with it.
The good news is that while no one really talks about it everyone goes through this. Even guys like Larry Ellison.
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