Empowered entrepreneurs

Some entrepreneurs are empowered learners. They learn from their customers and changing market. They make sense of their rivals' maneuvers and what's being written about them. They exhibit a sense of adventure and gamesmanship that plays with happenstance. This outlook enables them to take things in stride, utilize their setbacks as lessons and enjoy the challenges they are facing. Venture capitalists are reportedly thrilled when they encounter proposals with these obvious signs of continual learning by the founders.

Most entrepreneurs are not empowered learners. They assume they know enough about their customers and market. They ignore valuable lessons, disregard their rivals and get devastated by setbacks. They exhibit signs of powerlessness in spite of having gone into business for themselves. By thinking "I can't" and failing to learn from what happens, they contribute to the staggering failure rate of start-ups.

Yesterday I was a guest blogger on Joe Hauckes' Working at Home on the Internet. I explored how blogging makes it much easier to learn from customers than small businesses that are relying on complaints and feedback forms. With the right tools making the job easier, it seems likely that more entrepreneurs will act like empowered learners. Their start-ups will thrive and their customers will be satisfied.

In most cases, the better tools are not enough of a change for entrepreneurs to start acting empowered. Powerlessness is usually addicting and self perpetuating. Self sabotage is deeply subconscious and defiant of mentors, rescuers and counselors. The victim stories poison personal ambitions and optimism. Learning is prohibited by their deep-seated strategy for finding safety, staying out of danger and avoiding reenactments of previous traumatic incidents.

At this subconscious level, powerlessness is a solution, not a problem. When mistreated by a pathological diagnosis, the powerlessness persists. The resistance to change is a form of cooperation that signals the immediate need to understand, allow and accept the solution in use. The resistance tells us to stop negating the powerlessness.

Trauma is stored in the body and the amygdaloidal portion of the brain. Our neurophysiology is imprinted to be hypervigilant about that kind of danger we've encountered. We live in the past so we don't mistake the enemy for an ally again, and don't foolishly fall in the same trap of false promises. This part of our mind is like a seismic recorder. It remembers personal history like it just happened -- in order to improve our chances for survival. It overrides rational thinking with strong urges, self-sabotaging reactions and panic attacks.

When all this subconscious trauma is understood, immediate dangers can be reassessed. Paranoia and suspicions can be reality tested. Crippling fears can be put in the enlivening context of more recent experiences with success, efficacy, admiration and respect. New and old solutions can be compared for finding safety, avoiding danger, and preventing reenactments of trauma. Choices get considered that were previously inconceivable. The victim story finds closure. The facts of life about limitations, dangers and cruel fate -- get revised. A preferred narrative replaces the chronic tale of woe and persecution.

When seen this way, we don't really empower other people. We help them find their own power, freedom and choices. When we see their powerlessness as a solution, we help their self-sabotage feel understood. That creates a far-from-equilibrium situation where personal transformation and renewal occur


  1. Given our recent email conversations, Tom, this is of course a timely post.

    The difficulty lies, I think, in getting a true, visceral understanding of the past and of your victim stories. I find that this is very slippery territory for me at times and that I'll think I have a handle on things, and then it slips away and I'm back in unconscious modes of thinking and behaving. Very frustrating.

    Good post--thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for adding to our dialogue here, Michele. I pondered your comment for awhile and got a positive image of your losing "a handle of things" and then "slipping back into unconscious modes of thinking and behaving".

    From your standpoint of wanting a handle, control, consistency -- it's frustrating to be slipping. Yet there's the frame of reference I described in this posting where slipping is a solution. Perhaps it's not slipping out of control, rather slipping into safety after too much professionalism and ambition. Perhaps it's slipping out of the world that expects your best behavior and mechanical consistency of effort. Perhaps it's slipping from pleasing others to pleasing yourself. It only seems unconscious because the "why now?" and "where am I going?" when this happens is not conscious.

    Hope this adds to your understanding.


  3. Hmm. . . you may be right here, Tom. I'm beginning to think that I should have been paying YOU $165/hour, instead of my psychiatrist. :-)

  4. You're in good company Michele. More than one of the entrepreneurs I've mentored has told me I'm "better than their M.D. shrink" :-)

    There's an experiment you can conduct to see if this solution frame is right. When we oppose our "solution in use", our urges are dysfunctional. When we are in favor of our own safety, balance and comfort, the urges turn healthy and comforting.

    When the slipping begins, ask yourself what you've been extreme about that needs balance now? See if you can get a sense of wanting to slip into something good for you. See if it makes a difference to approach this in favor of slipping into balance instead of slipping out of control. If not, the solution frame missed the mark and calls for more learning and a different frame. If this approach reduces your anxiety and feels understanding to you, this may be right or close to what works for you.


  5. Tom, when discussions get this deep, am I guilty for wondering that the ocean is so big I am helpless and tired for want of trying to make a difference? I'm also thinking that all human beings are learners; we are learning all the time, otherwise there is just too much information for the brains to process if it has to constantly relearn. Some days I get such a sense of satisfaction, be it in the form of progress with my work, or simply helping someone find a-ha moments. Some days I just feel so helpless. Would you call that dysfunctional or does that help us to help someone else?

  6. Great question Adele. I think there are two kinds of helplessness. One results from a loss of perspective that turns into the overwhelm you describe -- facing the ocean of too much information to process. That disorientation loses track of:
    -- the now moment,
    -- doing what is on our plate right now,
    -- making this difference,
    -- trusting we can handle what comes along next.
    The overwhelm is too much in the future, too considerate of all the possibilities, and too ambitious about fresh challenges.

    The other kind of helplessness is a valuable perspective. As you're seeing, it helps other people, it opens up to other people, it puts us back into context, community and conversation. The helplessness establishes the fact we are not alone, not expected to perform heroically and not in trouble for being incapable of solo accomplishments.

  7. Michelle's right - you are quite shrink!

    What disorientation does is that it can generate fear and insecurity, while the other end of the spectrum generates action and inspiration. But I don't suppose one side can exist all the time without the other side showing its head. I suppose it's healthier to have smoother cycles between the two ends than to 'battle in the head' the wild fluctuations between both extremes. Your view?

  8. Thanks Adele.
    You're wise to anticipate smooth cycles replacing wild fluctuations between extremes. We are naturally given to extremes when we are dealing with any single dichotomy -- like the two ways to be helpless or insecurity/confidence, passivity/activity.

    Smooth cycles (virtuous, energizing, empowering ) are assembled from four components. Balancing occurs naturally by bringing two dichotomies together. As far as I've discovered, any two distinctions will do. The structure makes more difference than the choice of dichotomies to combine. What makes the difference is resolving a different issue when one extreme is causing a problem again.

    For instance, when you're going back and forth between insecurity and inspiration, consider a different switch: like between logical and imaginative explorations, verbal and visual processing, or working issues and listening to music. Then when disorientation raises fears, it will be time to switch to something other than action which would put you into oscillating fluctuations.

  9. I like your recommendation. I foresee some practical difficulties on my part but I will figure it out. I'd like to know though, what you think is/are the role(s) of 'focus' and/or control in this instance, for they can either be barriers or allies (again opposite ends).