Entrepreneurial BS: The Cliff

Jump off the cliff and build your parachute on the way down. 

There's a lot of advice out there on how to live well and, since the internet appeared, it's exploded. Social media is awash with feel-good memes that uplift and inspire the ambitious but, while it's lovely that people are trying to encourage each other, I think some of it is simplistic or even dangerous. 

Let's examine the advice to jump off the cliff and build your parachute on the way down to see what exactly is being advised. First, you have a cliff...somewhere dangerous from where you could fall and be killed. Then, you are encouraged to jump into this danger and, while out of control and in the briefest of timeframes, you are to construct a device to save yourself from the danger you just imposed on yourself. Presumably, you have no experience or qualifications in parachute-making.

 

Business Advice to Jump Off a Cliff

 

We all know it's not meant it literally but, the imagery is compelling and the choice of words is quite particular; the cliff/parachute advice is specifically encouraging you to take a life-threatening risk, intentionally avoid preparation, and try saving yourself while under pressure. It could have encouraged something more moderately risky like "Order the curry and take a bite," or "Say yes at the interview and figure it out on the job", but, it didn't. 

What happens if you take this advice? This analogy is usually used in a business setting, encouraging the listener to enter business without consideration for the risks involved despite the fact that the analogy itself is admitting how risky business is by using the cliff metaphor. This tallies with the oft-quoted statistic that 90% of businesses fail in the first 3 years (or some version of those numbers). Assuming what happens to cliff-jumpers will happen to business-jumpers, you won't manage to build a parachute/viable business in the brief time while you are struggling and panicking, and will crash to the bottom instead.  People who jump from cliffs almost invariably need rescuing and put others to a lot of trouble and risk as well. In business, this means that, not only will you suffer damage to your finances, reputation, and health, it might mean being unable to pay suppliers (who are real people with businesses), or staff, or harming customers, or damaging your family finances or relationships.

 

Jump from the cliff and build your parachute on the way down.

 

But what if you do manage to construct a half decent parachute/business...a hastily built business is often more trouble than it's worth - many people work longer hours for less pay in their own business than they could in a secure job. And there's the opportunity cost; while you're spending years trying to make an impulsive idea into a good business a bit of preparation could have built something better with a lot less drama. Many successful business owners will tell you what they wish they'd known before starting a business.

 

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. 
Benjamin Franklin

 

In fact, that's actually more likely to succeed after preparation. The idea that people flourish and are creative under pressure is a myth from spy movies. When you're under serious pressure the creative idea-generating parts of the brain actually shut down (because they are biologically costly to run) and resources are sent to the primal part of the brain by the fight/flight response, which focusses on short-term survival tactics. Creativity and sophisticated ideas are the results of calm consideration of the situation, the possibilities, problems and their solutions. And this is what you should be cultivating if you are considering a business; collecting lots of information and looking for the patterns that emerge when seen from a business perspective.

 

Unfortunately, there seems to be far more opportunity out there than ability.... We should remember that good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation. 
Thomas A. Edison

 

So, why is this advice given? There are two reasons I can think of...

  1. The person recommending it is selling you something and your impulsive decision will benefit them rather than you. They will seem daring, encouraging, and entrepreneurial and you will seem cowardly for not acting.
  2. The person recommending it has absolutely no idea about business success and would enjoy watching you tackle this course of action but bears none of the consequences of your failure so they can afford to encourage you.

Why might you take this advice? Because you feel under pressure from others to make a decision and pressure from others is a powerful influence. Or perhaps you have started to consider a business and the incoming information is complex, confusing and/or boring to work through; the jump off the cliff might be less an act of confidence and more an escape from proper planning. Or perhaps you are under financial pressure and you've been convinced that a business will solve that problem in a more enjoyable way than getting a job would - this is much the same logic that says having a child will improve a bad relationship!

But why does the cliff/parachute advice persist? What appeals to us is the idea that if you simply believe in yourself and make a single grand gesture it will conquer your fear and great things will happen. I agree that self-confidence is an important ingredient however, overcoming fear and creating great things are actually achievable by the opposite approach; through preparation rather than panic. You could believe in your ability to methodically figure-out how something works before you try it. And, reasonable preparation is actually a good way to reduce fear to manageable levels - conquering it by degrees rather than drama. Ignoring risk and fear, and unbounded self-belief, is why the Titanic sank killing hundreds of people. Literally, it was overconfidence! And there are hundreds of thousands of more mundane examples of people entering business relying on confidence, then losing money, their homes and their relationships. You just don't hear so much about those more common outcomes as you do the inspiring but vanishingly rare near-misses. And, I would suggest that even those snazzy, public speaker entrepreneurs who tell a story about their own cliff/parachute building success are probably leaving out some of the details that would make the story less dramatic and admirable.

If you're considering a business, I'd recommend changing at least one of the elements of this advice; either the level of risk or the level of preparation... 

 

 Low Risk + Preparation >> Go Ahead

Low Risk + No Preparation >> Proceed with Caution

High Risk + Preparation >> Proceed with Caution

High Risk + No Preparation >> Stop 

 

All-in-all, the cliff/parachute is dreadful advice to take and to give. It's a melodramatic flourish that makes the advice-giver look daring but, it's the jumper who pays the price. Business actually is quite a challenge to execute successfully and nothing complex is accomplished through impulse. If you're unsure about a business idea, get advice from successful people with experience and qualifications, I'm sure they will agree that...

 

Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.
Robert Schuller

Leave a comment