Making Survival First: Part 2 - Research
This is Part 2 of the Making Survival First book series. For the previous sections click here: Part 1
I admire authors who distill decades of research, studies, and experience into single books. Some of my favorites are Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Will and Ariel Durant’s Lessons of History, anything by Robert Greene, and Nassim Taleb’s Incerto series. Because of them I can light-speed my way to deeper levels of understanding than I ever could have otherwise.
My book - Survival First has none of that. In fact, in the three years it took to write it, I spent almost no time on research.
Survival First has no studies, exactly one statistic, and no new information. What it does have is a gallery of new frames to see the world, a myriad of stories of ordinary entrepreneurs you’ve probably never heard and lessons reflected on 6 years running my inconsequentially small taco-themed real estate business. In this post I'll explain why I avoided a traditional research process and describe what I did instead.
Like any good millennial entrepreneur I’m influenced by people like Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, Derek Sivers and many others. Their ideas have became foundational parts of my entrepreneur-mind. Their ideas can be found inside my work. But by time I started Survival First I was long burnt out on business books.
I was tired of same shit over and over again. Marketers shilling formulaic get rich quick schemes. High status gurus offering say-nothing platitudes like "crush it" without any context to be useful. Academics using misleading statistics and misinterpreted "studies" to fit pre-determined narratives. Self indulgent success-porn stories ghost-written for personality cultists. Sure, some of it is good, but most of it is garbage.
I sensed a problem. Many people outsource their thinking to higher status people and institutions rather than using their own critical thinking and observational senses to come up with their own ideas. Ideas were valued not by how useful they were, but by who said them.
This ties into the next problem. We have too much information. All of us are drowning in too many books to read, podcasts to listen to, and content to sift through. A lot of it is great, but what’s missing is the ability to organize this information overload. This is what frames are for. Good frames are words and perspectives that help us organize information so we can understand our realities and make better decisions.
My approach with Survival First isn’t about more or better information, but better frames. Each frame in the book is constructed with ordinary off-the-shelf tools that can be used by anyone - basic questions, simple logic, ordinary observation.
Survival First took three years to write because that’s what it took to build and refine these frames, demonstrate those frames the stories of other people, and reflect how they applied to me.
I’ll show you an example. Let’s take risk - the main character of the book. If I was going to write a book on risk I had to ask the obvious question - what is risk? After much musing and soul searching I came up with a brilliant definition.
Ready? *drum roll* You'll love it.
Risk is...potential bad stuff.
Ok, I'll forgive your tepid enthusiasm.
Rather than stop there I split this definition into multiple ideas. Splitting ideas is something I do throughout the whole book. It’s a useful way to get deeper into an idea. Here, potential bad stuff, is three separate concepts - potential, bad, and stuff. Let’s look at each.
Potential is the observation that we never know what's going to happen. We're all making decisions under uncertainty. This is the default state of reality. Bad is a negative. Stuff is the most important idea. Stuff is what we're solving for - survival.
Next, what does survival mean? Survival is what you need to run your business. I split survival down to three elements - money, time, and energy.
Money is obvious. You're not a charity. You're here to make money. No money. No business. You need time to make money. No time. No money. No business. Energy is the big one. You can have all the time and money in the world, but nothing happens if you don’t have the energy to turn money and time into a business.
Let's go deeper - what's energy? Energy is the force that makes you want to do business. I split energy in two forms - rational and emotional.
Rational reasons are the cocktail-party answers you tell strangers. You want to solve a problem, make money, save the world, so on and so forth.
Emotional reasons include exciting stuff like the thrill of making money, the sense of meaning from helping people, the pride of supporting yourself and others. There’s fearful parts too like going broke and defaulting on your mortgage, having to go back to the 9 to 5, feeling like an idiot, and letting people down.
It’s observationally verifiable that people are driven more by the emotional reasons than the rational ones. If you keep asking somebody why they’re running their business, you will get rational reasons first, but invariably find more emotional reasons at the core.
Energy, specifically emotional energy, is the most important of the three elements. Even if you were making a ton of money, you probably won’t want to run your business if you work 90 hours a week, can't keep a relationship, have no friends, hate your business partners and can't stand your clients.
All of us have unique cocktails of energy powering our businesses. In my case my energy comes from the thrill of making money, the sense of meaning from helping people solve an important problem, the pride of having my own business, the conspiratorial glee of having the freedom to travel and spend time with my family whenever I want. It’s also the fear of going broke, feeling like a failure and having to update my resume so I could to sell myself to employers.
Therefor risk is about understanding what can cost us money, waste our time, and drain our energy.
More! Let's go deeper!
Inversion is a mental trick I learned from Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power. Each chapter ends with a "reversal" where he counters his own ideas by looking at things from the opposite perspective.
Let's use it with our risk definition - potential bad stuff. Invert the "bad" from a negative to a positive and you get potential good stuff - my definition of opportunity. Risk and opportunity are perfectly inverse ideas.
What this means is that the exact same frames to look at risk can, and I argue later, always should be, inverted to look at opportunity. Looking at both together is the central tension we experience as entrepreneurs - that between risk and opportunity. The tension is the core frame in Survival First.
This is one example of how I untangle a word or an idea to create a new frame. I apply the same process to other tackle other questions in the book. How do we calculate risk? What do we do about it? What's a business model? How do we adapt to a world outside our control? What's is competition (and is it real?) How are we the biggest risk to our businesses?
Survival First won’t leave you with a bunch of random knowledge to forget. Instead you’ll come away with a collection of new ways to understand and approach the risks and opportunities you face in your business.
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