US High School students are taught that Samuel Coleridge conceived one of the most anthologized poems in Western literature, Kubla Kahn, in an epiphany. As Mr. Coleridge described in the poem’s preface, he dozed after smoking opium and reading Samuel Purchas’ The Pilgrimage. He suddenly awoke and manically began documenting the first few stanzas of Kubla Kahn, which he had “dreamed”, fully formed. Unfortunately, he was interrupted by a visitor and the poem evaporated like the dream in which it originated, never to be finished.
Despite the fact that Mr. Coleridge wrote Kubla Kahn over 200-years ago, the epiphany story has endured for good reason. It is romantic and compelling. Unfortunately, it is untrue.
Recent research has uncovered evidence that Mr. Coleridge labored on Kubla Kahn for well over a decade. It was years later, when the poem was first published, that Coleridge created the myth of the epiphany to add to the poem’s enchantment and to explainwhy it remained unfinished.
Wantrepreneurs desperately cling to the myth of the epiphany. It is seductive to believe one can achieve great things by daydreaming, sleeping or even becoming intoxicated. Unfortunately, most accomplishments, especially in the startup world, require a sustained and concerted effort. Overnight success is usually achieved over numerous sleepless nights.
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Let The Earbug Sing
Earbugs are songs that get “stuck” in your head. Whether you like the song or not, your mind returns to it over and over, without relief. Great ideas are like earbugs, you cannot shake them. They gnaw at successful entrepreneurs like an itch they cannot scratch, as Messrs. O’Connor and Mclean can attest.
If you do not annoy your friends, loved ones and acquaintances by your incessant focus on your earbug idea, then it probably is not worthy of your time and attention. In this sense, it is similar to falling in love. All of your thoughts revolve around your lover and you become frustrated when casual observers do not see the beauty and wonder in your mate.
If you have an entrepreneurial earbug that you cannot shake, listen to it. There is probably a very good reason the idea has remained in your thoughts for so long. Below are examples of two unrelenting startup earbugs that drove experienced entrepreneurs into action.
Sleep On It…For A Couple Years
Kevin O’Connor, Founder of FindTheBest, has noted that the original idea for his latest startup gestated over a two year period. After two multi-billion dollar exits (DoubleClick and ISS), Kevin had no intention of leading another startup. However, the idea underlying FindTheBest was beguiling. After months of denying the idea’s allure, he finally realized that he had to work on it.
In his book The Map Of Innovation, Kevin makes it clear that there are no shortcuts to business success. He states that the formula is simple: identify an idea about which you are passionate and which fulfills a need that a reasonable number of people are willing to pay an economically feasible price. Then work like hell to get your solution into as many willing buyers’ hands as possible. Kevin’s advice is clear, business success is based on hard work, not epiphanies.
Truck Driving Man
Malcom McLean was a twenty four year old truck driver when he sat in a long line, waiting to unload his truck’s contents onto a ship. As he daydreamed, he thought, “Why can’t my entire truck be loaded onto the ship?” Recalling the moment, he later said, “The whole thing sounded so obvious and natural, (I kept asking myself) what if someone else does it and I don’t? The thought was so obvious, it hurt.”
From a single second-hand truck, which he purchased for $120, Mr. McLean built one of the largest trucking fleets in the US. Twenty one years after initially conceiving of the idea of transporting an entire truck’s cargo intact, he bet his fortune to finally bring his vision to fruition. He purchased an oil tanker and began transporting truck trailers on the ship’s deck. Despite well-funded and tenacious fights with three massive unions (i.e., the teamsters, longshoremen and railroad workers), Mr. McLean led the creation of the $400 billion container shipping industry.
According to Harold Evans, author of They Made America, “Before containerization, transportation charges accounted for half the eventual cost of the good. Once McLean’s innovation became widespread, shipping costs dropped to about 10 percent.” By the late 1990’s a $200 electronic device could be shipped to the US from Japan for $2. We can all be thankful Mr. McLean listened to his entrepreneurial earbug.
Mr. Glass’ quote underscores the importance of discovering your passion and then working very hard to improve your skills. Someone born with musical talent does not develop into a musician until they hone their talents into skills. You may be born with entrepreneurial talents, but you are not born with entrepreneurial skills. Entrepreneurs, like budding musicians, develop their skills by practical application, as described more fully in Why Business Books (Still) Suck.
"Coleridge had dreamed he had written a poem in a dream"
Robert Southey, friend and contemporary poet of Samuel Coleridge
Many historians believe that Mr. Coleridge’s Khubla Kahn epiphany was apocryphal. Instead of dreaming the poem “overnight”, he actually labored on it many days and nights for decades. Great ideas have the same effect on successful entrepreneurs. No matter how much time elapses, worthwhile startup earbugs do not go away. They demand attention, just as Mr. Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn sought his creative attention throughout the final decade of his life.
Note: As with any worthwhile earbug, I started this entry about six months ago, after attending a talk by Matthew Weiner, the Creator and Executive Producer of the television show Mad Men. Mr. Weiner discussed how he fostered the basic idea underlying Mad Men for many years before it manifested itself on TV. He also mentioned the myth surrounding the creation of Coleridge’s poem. I decided to revisit this entry after reading Mark Suster’s The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get. If you haven’t read it yet, it is well worth your time.