When I first began working on my startup, I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Though there have been days where it felt like success was written in the stars, far more days have been spent solving problems that felt like mortal threats. Bringing technology from lab bench to production to the market in the form of a desirable product is not easy. Doing all of that while building a company around it is even more difficult.
Elon Musk described entrepreneurship thusly: "Creating a company is a very difficult thing. A friend of mine has a saying: 'Starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss.' You have to do lots of things you don't like. You have to put in incredible amounts of effort and huge amounts of stress--and it's much more painful than most people realize."
The imagery of eating glass and staring into the abyss is quite stark. And yet on that entrepreneurial journey when I face tough times, my perspective comes from people who have survived even tougher times. My grandmother while traveling via train during the partition of India with my infant father and his brothers and sisters, with devastation all around them, faced adversity with poise and a smiling face. Her example showed her children how to be strong enough to face any adversity in life. Later in his life, when my father was hitchhiking across Europe to get back home to India and got stranded in Turkey without money or possessions, his calm demeanor and smiling face made even strangers his best friends that helped him out.
One thing stands out about the way my father and grandmother approach problems. A calm mind, steady hands, and always ready to laugh and smile through problems greater than those that have crushed many an entrepreneur.
I remember taking my father to the hospital when he was having a heart attack. As they were preparing him for the operation, he smiled and joked with me. The doctor was worried because he thought someone so relaxed must not understand what is going on. In fact, he was relaxed because he knew he had done everything he could, he was there at the hospital on time, and now it was out of his hands.
This reflects the attitude of karma yoga, the secret of work or philosophy of action, we talked about a few weeks ago. Indeed, an attitude of karma yoga is certainly part of surviving difficult times. But while this helps a great deal in day-to-day problems, there is a deeper mentality needed to face those great tribulations life throws at us from time to time.
In the Mahabharata, as we discussed previously, the Pandavas go through many trials and tribulations. Their cousins the Kauravas, jealous of their virtue and Yudhishtir's status as crown prince, put them through many difficulties. In the Bhagavad Purān Queen Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, prays to Krishna after he saves them from the last of the tribulations - an attack on their last surviving descendant after the conclusion of the war. She says:1
viṣān mahāgneḥ puruṣāda-darśanād
mṛdhe mṛdhe ’neka-mahārathāstrato
drauṇy-astrataś cāsma hare ’bhirakṣitāḥ
My dear Kṛṣṇa, Your Lordship has protected us from a poisoned cake, from a great fire, from cannibals, from the vicious assembly, from sufferings during our exile in the forest and from the battle where great generals fought. And now You have saved us from the weapon of Aśvatthāmā.
vipadaḥ santu tāḥ śaśvat
tatra tatra jagad-guro
bhavato darśanaṁ yat syād
I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.
An average person, when faced with such terrible experiences, would wish to stay as far away from such things as possible in the future. Yet here a remarkable fearless attitude is shown by Kunti. Instead of running away, or even bearing through such events, she actually invites more. In each of these calamities she sees not just a silver lining, but an opportunity to serve a higher purpose, and thus embraces events rather than shunning or even passively accepting them.
If you recognize that much of the world is not under your control, then you also must recognize that trials and tribulations are inevitable. Having a mentality to face these challenges and relish the ability to improve yourself through them is incredibly transformative in how you approach such challenges.
It was not just in ancient India, but even in ancient Greece and Rome, philosophers recognized the importance of this attitude. In Stoicism, the concept of amor fati, or embracing fate, was a core tenet. The Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius famously wrote in his private journal published today as Meditations, "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." In his book built off this concept, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes:2
Great individuals, like great companies, find a way to transform weakness into strength. It’s a rather amazing and even touching feat. They took what should have held them back—what in fact might be holding you back right this very second—and used it to move forward. As it turns out, this is one thing all great men and women of history have in common. Like oxygen to a fire, obstacles became fuel for the blaze that was their ambition. Nothing could stop them, they were (and continue to be) impossible to discourage or contain. Every impediment only served to make the inferno within them burn with greater ferocity.
This idea that the great trials you face are not storms to be weathered but just more fuel to the fire of self-improvement is incredibly powerful. Oftentimes we speak of resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from setbacks. But this is deeper than bouncing back, it's the concept of anti-fragility coined by prominent author and professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In explaining this concept in the prologue to his book Antifragile, he writes:3
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.
If you think of resilience as the ability to weather a storm, anti-fragility is riding the storm to your goal. This is a very important lesson to learn in the context of business and management as well. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, famously said, "Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, Good companies survive them, Great companies are improved by them." This goes towards founding companies as well. Airbnb was founded during the financial crisis of 2008, Netflix was founded shortly before the dot com bubble of 2000, even Disney was converted from a cartoon studio into Walt Disney Productions during the Great Depression.
Problems and limitations require innovation and force out greatness. One important point to understand is that a lack of limitations leads to excess, which forms the seeds of the destruction of the enterprise. One example is the OTT platform Quibi. Buoyed by very successful founders, the company raised $1.75 billion. However, it shut the same year it opened and was sold for $100 million in January 2021.4 This is one of many such stories.
Next time you are faced with a major problem or great difficulties, remember the attitude of Queen Kunti in the Bhagavad Purān. Embrace your problems, and remember that difficulty is the seed of your opportunity - to improve yourself and your organization. Treat crisis as an opportunity to forge yourself into something greater and stronger.
Have you faced crises before? How did you respond? What resources do you turn to, and what has helped you face difficulties in the past?
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His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam, First Canto (p. 374-375). The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Kindle Edition.
Holiday, Ryan. The Obstacle Is the Way (pp. 3-4). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile (Incerto) (p. 15). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.