Always Swim Downstream

Being in London for Le Web this week brings back fond memories.

In 2001 I was living here, working for a startup. I was hired as VP business development, but within a week after arriving in London to take the job I was promoted to acting COO – they guy doing that job had been fired over some resume discrepancy.

I was thrilled to have an exec position that was one step away from the CEO. At the time that was my goal – to become the CEO of a startup and successfully take it public. Being the Decider. Final responsibility for success or failure. Win or lose, at least you were in the arena. Etc. Gladiator stuff.

I was terrible at my job though.

I had little management experience at the time and I was suddenly managing the teams that were building the product and preparing for ops afterwards. It was all on a very tight schedule and I lived and breathed Microsoft Project all day and all night. I was also managing the sales team out trying to get deals done for the launch and the marketing person. And a bunch of other people doing various jobs (HR, etc.).

My weaknesses were glaring:

Stress was eating me up.

I snapped at people pretty regularly. I was (and am) mercurial.

I micromanaged, failed to delegate properly and tried to do people’s jobs for them.

I probably did more harm than good.

etc.

The person running the sales team, a guy named Peter Morgan, became a good friend and I often confided, over pints of surprisingly strong beer, my dream of being a proper CEO someday as well as my knowledge that I lacked a whole host of skills to be that CEO.

I was beating myself up over all my failings as an executive. But beating myself up wasn’t making me any better at my job. It just added to the stress.

One day Peter said something after another one of my whining sessions that changed everything about the way I worked.

He said “Stop worrying about what you’re bad at. Focus on what you’re good at and do more of that. Swim downstream. That’s how you become successful. Play to your strengths.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation. It still took a few years for it to properly sink in, and during those years I did finally become a CEO. I was lucky enough to have a right hand guy who ran things internally for me, though, so my management weaknesses didn’t hinder things.

I’m glad I was able to be the CEO finally, because I never would have realized that (in addition to the fact that I wasn’t good at it) the job wasn’t all that great anyway. I’ll write more on why being CEO isn’t what it’s cracked up to be in another post.

But I’d finally learned my lesson. There was no way I’d ever fix the personality traits that led me to being a terrible manager. I’d spent too much energy trying to be this perfectly well rounded executive.

Peter’s words came back to me, and I started focusing on doing the things I was actually good at already. Talking to people. Focusing like a laser on a given task until it was done. Researching. Learning. Selling. Communicating.

That’s when TechCrunch was born. When it became more than just me and a couple of others I made the spectacularly brillant decision to hire Heather Harde to be the CEO of the company because she’s great at all the things I suck at (to be fair, she’s also great at all the things I’m good at, too).

That gave me the flexibility to continue to be myself and not have to try to swim upstream all the time. And things worked out pretty well.

There’s an important point here, though. When I say “swim downstream” I don’t mean “take the easy way all the time.” That definitely doesn’t lead to success.

Sometimes you have to be a salmon, which literally swims upstream to get what’s needed done. That means exhausting yourself. Getting clawed at by bears and smashed into rocks, and then dying at the end.

Which sucks. But in the salmon’s case, it’s the way things are. That salmon knows what it has to do, it’s resolute, and it does it. A salmon who never swims upstream never reproduces. That salmon is a loser.

I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about this weird need a lot of us have to ignore the things we’re already good at and focus too much time and energy on being better at things we’re not good at. Not because we’re necessarily interested in those things, but just because we think we’ll somehow be happier or more successful if we fix it.

But sometimes it’s better to just let it go.

A good current example is Jack Dorsey. Dorsey was, say some people, terrible as the CEO of Twitter. But he’s fantastic at being the guy who focuses on product, at both Twitter and Square.

Jack Dorsey shouldn’t spend his time trying to fix whatever personality traits cause him to suck at being a CEO. He’s better off (as are we) if he just focuses on imagining and building new products.

Another example of this is Michael Jordan, who yearned to be a great baseball player. It’s fine that he tried and failed, sometimes you need to scratch an itch. I’m just glad he gave it up after a year and went back to the Bulls. Where he won three more championships. That was probably a lot more fun for him than struggling to play baseball.

There’s tons of nuance here, and caveats. I don’t think this applies to people’s personal lives at all (people who aren’t great parents, for example, should probably not just give up trying). And even at work we sometimes need to spend time doing things we aren’t good at. In general, though, I say stop worrying about what you suck at, and focus on what you’re good at. It’s more fun, and you’ll be happier.

14 thoughts on “Always Swim Downstream

  1. Great piece Mike. Speaks a lot to me after having to spend too much time (while in SV) trying to fit in which is totally against my DNA.

  2. Perhaps my favorite post ever by you Mike.

  3. zz says:

    I too have been struggling with the same feeling and keep asking myself the same question. So how can one be great when he knows he has weaknesses to be able to do great things?

    Like many others, I don’t want to live a mediocre life! I want to have a great one, I feel like I deserve it as much as anyone else. But while all these weaknesses make me worry and feel stressed constantly, how? Being stressed and worried makes it only harder and more frustrating and most of the time leads to failure because it sucks my energy and motivation.

    That being said, for a long time, I have been really trying to figure this out. I have to admit that there have been times I really felt like maybe I am destined to live a mediocre life. Seriously. I thought maybe lowering my expectations and ignoring my dream, I could be only happier. Expecting nothing, maybe I could reach that famous nirvana state, or live in the best seller present moment. But I deeply knew that I am not that guy too. So it would be 100% bullshitting myself. Since childhood, I was never good at accepting failures. I hate failures. I hate loosing any game. In that sense, I know I am in the dark side. That is why I never dreamt of being an Eckart Tolle or Buddha or Oprah so to speak…

    Reading your post made me feel lighter. I didn’t know that you had similar challanges earlier. You will laugh at this but watching you at nyc disrupt event for the first time, I was asking myself, who the hell is this arrogant guy? I could never think that you could be the guy who co-founded techcrunch. I mean I read techcrunch all the time but never was curious enough to search what you look like. I mean, I bet noone knows or cares what Stilson Hutchins -cofounder of washingtonpost- looks like. It is the Post, you just read it. It is great stuff.

    And then watching your interviews, I just felt amazed. I saw that you have a great skill set of being able to make hard conversations without crossing the line. And you are so direct with people without being awkward. In a way you make me think of Chris Christie. I really liked that and respected that. And then I started following you on facebook. And then serendipitously, saw this post and clicked on it because I was curious about learning more about you. I read it and one more time, I felt great respect for you.

    So I just wanted a drop this note to thank you and(eventually thank Peter) for sharing this great wisdom. I feel like this is what I have been looking for a long time.

  4. Igor says:

    It is always better and more fun to do something you are good at or you like to do. I am CEO all my life, but I like it (and hopefully I am good at it), so no stress at all :)

  5. straight from the heart Mike, thanks!

    Are you still in London today? If so, i’d love to catch up over a beer…

  6. Marissa says:

    Thanks Mike, great thoughts. As a young founder and “CEO” , curious what you think makes a good CEO- when you were running a startup, what qualities have you been proud to call your own ? Things you recommend avoiding?

  7. Blublers says:

    Well put. It’s articles like these that I miss most on the “new” TC :)

  8. would you give another guy with potential the chance to prove himself? if you would I’m here…

  9. Your post addresses something that is hard for each of us to do- admit we need help. Alone we can be amazing at several things, but together we can be amazing at everything. A good team goes infinitely further than a good individual.

    • Admitting that you need help is first, then you need the courage to ask for help, then you need to find people willing to help, then you need to find good individuals able to help, and then, last not least, you need good friends amongst them helping you to not drown in responsabilty while swimming upstream.

      Michael E. Hubertz, founder and CEO of Hubble Enterprises Unlimited

  10. terra says:

    Great piece. When I worked at Yahoo! many moons ago, they had all managers participate in a leadership series by Marcus Buckingham (who happens to be British) which I will never forget. He provides the same sentiment that your friend shared with you – play to your strengths and manage through the weaknesses. We are trained from an early age to focus on our weaknesses – less talk about the A in science and more about the C in history… And this flips that upside down… I’ll never forget it. Here’s a great trailer to his series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58Do0wxRVbs

  11. Even when I lost, I learned what my weaknesses were and I went out the next day to turn those weaknesses into strengths.
    -Larry Bird

  12. I think this is relevant especially now in times of job market slumps when people’s instinct to be employed and earning overrun the need to be in the right job.

  13. jubina says:

    Great Peice

    Jubi

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