A little over two years ago, I started putting things in place to start and run my own business. It started out as a side gig. My old boss needed both of his websites refreshed, and I was looking to get into website development and design as a way to get out of my day job. It was simple enough: Learn the skills, make the sales, and do the work. And at the end of the day, that’s a really simple explanation of how to start a business.
As a self-starter, I expected that I’d be able to manage my time well and get the work done on time. I was right—to an extent. I also figured I’d be able to quickly scale the business. That one I wasn’t quite right about, but not for reasons you might expect.
In thinking about what to write this month, I thought I’d take the time to reflect on what I’ve learned so far as a business owner. The first two years of work was all on the side, and the last month has been full time (which is like doing it on the side, just all of the time).
If you run or are looking to start any business venture, I hope you find these insights helpful.
#1: Mindset is everything.
One of the first things I learned about when I started exploring my business was the idea of the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. These two mindsets are diametrically opposed to each other. The fixed mindset thinks that one’s talents are static, that there is only so much wealth and success in the world, and that most things are left up to chance. The growth mindset thinks that one can acquire skills, that there is plenty of opportunity in the world, and that the odds of winning can be increased through hard, smart work.
Learning this was a revelation for me, because I realized I have been a fixed mindset person for most of my life. I have done some personal reflection on why that is, but I think it comes down to one part of how I’m wired (my MBTI type is INTJ/INFJ) and one part of how I was raised (a middle-class, single-income household, which I’m thankful for… but didn’t really teach me how to “think big”). I’ve always been skeptical of notions like “if you dream it, you can do it” or “you can be anything you want to be”. I always felt like success was out of reach for me, like I could never “make it”. (More on success in a moment.)
Identifying my fixed mindset was the first step towards being better at business. I realized I needed to get outside of my shell, my comfort zone. To enter into a growth mindset, and to actually grow my business, I had to change the way I thought at a fundamental level. I had to learn to be comfortable doing uncomfortable things (like networking and talking to prospects). And doing this has made a huge difference in my self-confidence and how I approach the world.
While I still struggle with a fixed mindset, I’m getting better at dealing with it. Here are some of the tactics I use to work on my growth mindset:
- Pray and ask God to bless my endeavors, knowing that I dedicate my work to Him and that He has given me the abilities to do good work.
- Catch myself when a negative train of thought starts chugging away with my mind.
- Repeat positive affirmations, quotes, and Scriptures to myself as needed (mentally or out loud).
- Consume inspirational media (books, podcasts, videos) to help me keep a proper, realistic perspective.
- Spend time developing new skills, whether they’re related to business or not (I’m working on ancient Hebrew right now).
As a lover of knowledge, I’ve realized you can have all the knowledge in the world, but it doesn’t matter if you have a pitiful mindset. Knowledge only matters when you put it to use anyway, and (ideally) earn some kind of return from putting it to use. If you accumulate all the how-to but don’t have the mindset to get going, you’ll never get anywhere. It’s like the old Japanese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. You have to believe that you’ll get to your destination in order to leave your house.
Any successful endeavor starts with a fixed mindset. Stop telling yourself, “I can’t do that,” and start asking yourself, “How can I do that?” Then figure out what it takes to do that and execute daily on it. That’s all there is to it.
#2. Time management is everything.
I know I said that mindset is everything, but time management is also everything. You can have the best ideas the best visions, the best goals… but if you don’t know how to plan or manage your time, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
One thing I’ve learned about time management is that most tasks take longer than you think they will. This lone insight has helped me better budget my time when working on projects and responding to emails. It’s even helped me with non-work things like eating and running errands.
Another principle is that you will get less done in a day than you think you will. I’ve found that I can create a lofty list of ten things I want to do in a day, and I’ll be fortunate if I get half of them done. That’s not because I’m unproductive. It’s because the tasks take longer than expected and I tire out and have a harder time focusing on or committing to the remaining tasks as the day wears on. In short, I run out of juice.
To mitigate this, I’ve started doing the following:
- Time-blocking my day so I dedicate specific hours to specific tasks (and make note when I can’t finish a task in the allotted time, so I can devote more time to it later and budget better next time).
- Thinking long-term by planning the tasks for the week, then assigning them to specific days.
- Cutting out time sucks, or at least limiting those things to their own time blocks.
None of these things are easy. The brain’s natural inclination is to do things that conserve calories (like watch TV or scroll through social media). Blocking out time and getting stuff done takes mental fortitude. It’s not easy at first, but it is possible, and it’s worth it.
Cal Newport’s books have helped me a lot in this area. On a family trip to Broken Bow, I read Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, and immediately started applying them to my life. Am I perfect at this? By no means. But, I’m getting better, and always thinking of new things to try to better pare down my to-do list. (I plan to go into greater depth on how I’ve applied Newport’s philosophies to my life next month, after I read his latest book, A World Without Email.)
My key takeaways for time management are to 1) always assume a task will take longer than you think it will, and 2) realize that if you’re overly ambitious (like me), you will almost never get everything done in a day that you expect to.
And then there’s one more thing: Cut yourself some slack. You’re a human, not a robot. Give yourself the breaks you need and be sure to have some leisure time so you can keep yourself motivated. Not only does all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, it makes Jack a burnt-out entrepreneur.
#3: You define success.
The world likes to tell us what success looks like. We see it on TV and social media: a McMansion with a Lamborghini in the garage. Or an oceanfront property on the beach of your choice. Or hundreds of acres of land with a beautiful farmhouse. Or jet-setting (not so much anymore). Or having a billion dollars in the bank. Or starting the next revolutionary tech company. Or…
Those things may be markers of success for some people, but they aren’t for everyone. And that’s critical to remember whether you’re running a business or not. If you let the world define success for you, you position yourself for failure. You spend all your time running after money, after possessions, after status. And if that’s what you want, then more power to you!
But there’s so much more to life than the McMansion and the Lamborghini. Deep down inside, we all have what I’d call an “aspirational identity”. It’s that inner “self” that wants to pursue some higher calling. It could be opening a martial arts school, launching a nonprofit to feed the homeless, or even having kids and becoming a stay-at-home mom (like my mom did). It’s that aspirational identity that defines true success for us.
If we pursue what the world calls success, we start living a lie. We’re not being true to ourselves, much less the world. And when we’re living a lie, we’re much more ineffective in what we bring to the world.
Jesus pointed out that you know a tree by its fruits (Luke 6:43-45). When you look at any person, what fruits do you see? Do you see the marvelous fruits of hard work, mastery, and integrity? Or do you see the spoiled, rotten fruits of inauthenticity, short cuts, and deception?
As business owners, we don’t have bosses who define what success looks like for us. We don’t get performance reviews. It’s up to us to figure out what we need to do to be successful, and then hold ourselves accountable to our goals.
This is both daunting and liberating. Let’s tackle the daunting part first.
At some point, everyone in life should realize that their life is up to them. We spend the first eighteen years or so being told by our parents what to do, where to go, and how to live. Those of us who go to college, to a trade school, or into the military get more of the same for a while longer. But there comes a point when we no longer have people telling us what, where, and how. And that’s when it’s critical that we take responsibility for ourselves.
That’s no easy task. We have to figure out what job we’re going to take (or not take) and how we’re going to put food on the table. We have to think about things like getting married and starting a family. We have to plan for a rainy day in the short term and possibly retirement in the long term. No one can do it for us, and if we neglect to do it, it’s nobody’s fault but ours.
But taking control of our lives is also liberating. Each one of us has the ability to decide who we want to become, where we want to go. That’s not to say it won’t be easy to get there, but most of our goals are much more possible than we think.
We must first define who it is we want to become. Then we must cut out everything that doesn’t help us towards that aspiration (except things like family and existing responsibilities). And then we must come up with a realistic plan to get there. And most importantly, we must execute the plan.
Speaking from experience, it’s all fun and games until you get to the execution part. That’s where the daunting part comes in again. “What if I fail? What if this isn’t right?” Or, “You know, where I’m at right now isn’t so bad. I think I’ll stay put and just keep dreaming.”
Those are both voices that I’ve had to deal with in the last couple years. Fear of failure and fear of the unknown are paralyzing. And complacency with the status quo is alluring, because for most of us, life really isn’t all that bad. At least it’s predictable!
But nothing good came about from people letting fear run their lives. Nor did anything good come from settling for the status quo. We have to be like Bilbo Baggins and leave the comfort and familiarity of our hobbit-hole and go slay the dragon! Only then will we find the treasure and be able to return home rich in wealth and experience.
In reviewing this, I realize this section has rambled a bit away from the main point. The point is this: Each one of us has responsibility for defining success and happiness. Each one of us has responsibility for pursuing that success and happiness. We become our true selves when we define success and live daring lives in pursuit of that success.
I hope this stream of consciousness has inspired you in some way. There are many other things I’ve learned along my journey, but these are the three most important. If I could travel back in time two, five, or even ten years and teach myself these things, I have no doubt my life would be amazingly more successful than it is today. (Though I have no regrets!)
Here’s to your success in life and in business.