The phrase “frog in a blender” was in my head all afternoon. Earlier in the day, one of my partners described a situation as the cliche-ish “boil a frog slowly” and I responded with “We’d all be better off if we just put the frog in a blender.”
That generated grimaces.
I couldn’t find any “Will it Blend” for frogs, but I found the next best thing – Pickled Pigs Feet.
It doesn’t have quite the same rhythm, but you get the idea. As I hummed the song I made up to the phrase “Frog in a Blender”, I figured there must be a real song named this. There is, it’s awful, and the lyrics are horrifying, but whatever. My song is much better.
As I was driving home, working on the second verse, I flashed to a conversation with a friend I had a few months ago.
He said, “How do you eat a shit sandwich”? I responded with “Gross – no idea.” He said, “Quickly.” After I chucked, he said, “Ben Horowitz told me that.” So, I’m going to attribute that one to Ben Horowitz, which fits nicely with some of his anecdotes about shit in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
I like to be as deliberate as I can about decisions. I try to make them quickly, but with a reasonable amount of data and critical thinking. Sometimes this works, other times it doesn’t. When I reflect on the things that have caused me the most pain, it’s when I let a shit sandwich sit in my refrigerator for a while, looking at it every day when I get a kombucha. Or, when I wake up one day and realize that I’m the frog that has been boiling slowly.
I wonder if eating a shit sandwich quickly is the same as putting a frog in a blender. Both are pretty awful, but it seems like the best approach is to get it over with quickly.
I’ve made a lot of major decisions in my life – both personal and professional. For the professional ones, I’ve come up with an approach that I now use consistently. I try on the decision for a period of time – the more significant the decision, the longer the period of time. For the really major decisions, I try them on for 30 days.
Here’s an example. In 2003 I seriously thought about quitting Mobius Venture Capital. I was tired, burned out, and very frustrated. While I’d been a partner in Mobius from the beginning, I hadn’t really been engaged in managing the overall firm. I had my office and a small team in Boulder. I did my deals. I flew to the bay area often (where everyone else was located) but focused most of my energy on the boards I was on and the investments I’d made.
My whole world blew up in 2001. My portfolio melted down with the bursting of the Internet bubble. I was on way too many boards (over 25 – including four public company boards) so the entire thing was a total shit show. In addition to being miserable at work every day, I was 30 pounds overweight, drinking too much, traveling constantly, and involved in laying off thousands of people and shutting down over a dozen companies.
Then, on 9/11, all Americans participated in a massively traumatic event. I was in New York for it, having taken a redeye the night before from San Francisco. I was never in harms way, but 9/11 triggered a major depressive episode for me. When I got home to Boulder the night of 9/12 (after driving all night on 9/11 and all day on 9/12) I shut down all travel through the end of the year.
The depressive episode only lasted three months, but the shit show continued through 2002 as most VCs and Internet companies suffered a massive collapse. While my world started to settle down in mid-2002, the rest of Mobius started to more aggressively fall apart. There was no joy anywhere.
In early 2003, I started to think about leaving Mobius. While I was trying to be helpful in general to the firm and my partners, I didn’t like the way we were operating. I felt like we had way too many people, too much denial about the reality of our situation, and were making many bad decisions simply to defer the inevitable pain that was resulting from the collapse of the Internet bubble.
I woke up one morning in February 2003 and decided to spend a little time each day pretending like I had quit Mobius. I allowed myself to think about it twice a day – when I first woke up and when I went to bed at night. During the day I continued to work my ass off on everything I was doing for Mobius. But I gave myself two periods a day where I contemplated what a different work life might look like.
During these periods, I wrote down what I was relieved about. As the month went on, at the end of the day I started writing down what I was unhappy about at Mobius. In the morning I’d clear my mind as though I didn’t have anything in front of me to deal with that day, and then go into battle and deal with whatever was in front of me. At the end of the day, I’d repeat the thought process. And, at least once a week, I talked to Amy about what I was thinking about.
A clear pattern emerged for me. I didn’t dislike the work, even though most of it was not very fun. I felt a strong sense of responsibility for Mobius since I had helped create and contribute to the mess we were in. I felt a deep obligation to all the various people involved – the founders we had invested in, our LPs, and all the people who were still working for Mobius. But I didn’t feel engaged in the decision making that we – as a firm – were doing to get out of the ditch we were in.
After 30 days, I had a clear understanding that quitting Mobius was not the right answer for me. Instead, I needed to commit to engaging completely and taking responsibility for the whole firm, not just my corner of it. This didn’t mean taking over everything, but it did mean going all in on trying to make things better, whatever that meant.
In March 2003 I fully engaged in Mobius. While 2003 – 2006 was an incredible grind, I look back on that time period as one that I am satisfied with as we did manage to get Mobius to a stable place. I learned an incredible amount about running a VC firm through the work I did in that time period. And, with my partner Jason, we still manage what is left of the portfolio (still several hundred million of assets) simply because it is the right thing to do for the LPs.
When I reflect on the decision, I was only able to make it because I gave myself 30 days to really consider the decision and the various options. I’ve used this approach many times since, for decisions large and small, and it has served me well.
I heard a great phrase the other day: “he’s a 99% committer.” It was in the context of trying to get something to closure where I felt like someone had committed but it was ambiguous. The person ultimately committed and all was good, but there was some question about outcome for a few days. To be clear, I separate this from a process issue – where the person is on board personally but going through an internal process with a partnership, an investment committee, or a decision making group. Rather, I’m focusing on the person who is able to make a unilateral decision, gets 99% of the way there, and then leaves it a little open.
I pride myself on making quick and definitive decisions. However, when I reflected on this phrase, I realize that I’ve played out the 99% committer role a few times in the past year. In each case, I made things more difficult for everyone, including myself, but not simply taking the extra time and energy up front to get to 100%. In one case that I can think of I let things drag on at the 99% point for several months; in another it was only a few weeks. In both cases, I let plenty of extra anxiety build up on my end as I wasted time churning on the 99% decision rather than figuring out what I had to do to get to 100%, running things to ground, and being done one way or the other.
Now, I’m not criticizing the 99% committer – it’s a very effective style for some people as it generates a lot of control and option value in situations. Specifically, from a control perspective, by not fully committing the 99% committer gets to keep playing out things on the edges, poking, prodding, and getting more information. As long as the other party doesn’t disengage, this is effective, although it definitely runs the risk of creating real fatigue on both parties. Furthermore, there is a lot of option value associated with being a 99% committer. You are almost there, but you stall, so the other party feels compelled to give you more information and hold the door open as long as they can.
But this isn’t me. And when I reflect on the few cases where I’ve played the role of a 99% committer, I’m not unhappy with the outcome, but I’m annoyed with my own behavior. By not being a 99% committer, I’m always able to make a decision, deal with the consequences (good or bad), and move on. As a result, the velocity of what I get done is extremely high and I have very little emotional decision backlog stored up.
It’s a great phrase. I expect I’ll use it plenty in the future.