Oct 122014

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

I recently had an interesting conversation with an old friend. To some extent, we have both traveled the same path. In earlier years both he and I made a habit of starting and building companies. We were what I call “recidivist entrepreneurs”. Now both of us spend a good deal of time helping others build their companies. For both of us it is a kind of giving back. And there is another similarity. Both of us have developed a habit of writing extensively. For each of us, the effort represents a chance to put into words some of the lessons, experiences and wisdom that we have gained over the years.

As the evening wore on, the conversation turned to the writing that each of us was doing. And, as sometimes happens when writers commiserate, the conversation turned to writer’s block. Over the years both of us had experienced that mindnumbing inability to find a first sentence or a train of thought that would effectively communicate something that we thought our readers would find useful. You see, for people who reflexively write, there are two needs in play. The first is the need to write. It is almost a compulsion. The need to communicate. I sometimes equates this first need as being akin to the need to talk

The second need is to write something useful or important. You would think they’re the same thing but they really are not. As a writer, I can always write something. But I know when that something is trash rather than useful. It’s easy to loose a cascade of words onto a keyboard. But there are times when the results are unedifying. There are times when the process of writing is simply a waste of time. Of such efforts, I remember what Truman Capote once wrote; “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

What makes writer’s block a particularly painful experience is that while the first urge is in full flower the second, the need to write something important or useful, remains elusive. The core of the frustration is the second need as it remains unattainable. All this while the first meet is still pressing.

At some point in the conversation, my friend introduced an idea which I found fascinating. Both of us work almost exclusively with CEOs. Particularly CEOs who are also founders of their companies. My friend suggested that founders face the same conflicting dilemma that we, as writers, were discussing.

According to him, the first need is the need to start and build a company. The urge is generic. “I want to get out there and build something!” His suggestion was that this core urge was what made entrepreneurs. Without it, they become managers. But what sets them apart, as what sets writers apart, is the urge to do some specific thing. In this case to start a company.

As with writers, founders experience this need for variety of reasons. Some are afflicted with it because they simply cannot operate within someone else’s organization. Others are driven to found companies simply because they cannot think of anything else to do. Many founders believe that they have some unique perspective, skill, knowledge or range of contacts that make them good candidates for starting a company. Whatever their reason, founders like writers, have an urge.

But then there is the disconnect between the need in the first sense and the ability in the second. A person may feel a driving need to found a company but have no clear idea about how to go about it, what kind of company it ought to be, how to build a team around their vision or how to implement that vision. This dynamic is similar to the writer’s block we had been discussing.

As the evening wore on we began to focus on the process of building a company. And here we hit upon a very interesting application of our writer’s block discussion. Both of us had recently been working with companies that had become stuck on a plateau. When we started comparing notes we realized that one of the underlying dynamics was that the founder had the equivalent of writer’s block.

Perhaps a bit of explanation might help you see what we were getting. When I start writing an article, I generally have a fairly clear idea of the subject I want to deal with. Ordinarily the first few paragraphs flow out of that idea. Frequently they are easy to write, concise, focused and ordered in a particular direction. There are times when, after those first few paragraphs, the thread runs out and I find it difficult to continue. My efforts at the next few paragraphs can be ham-handed. The article seems to drift. The writing slows down. Uncertainty begins to creep into the process. And, before you know it, writer’s block is in full bloom.

Both of us had recently worked with founders that had this experience. My friend, unleashing his tendency to romanticize, put it this way, “It all starts with a dream of a company. But sometimes the dream loses its way or just stops. When the dream stops, the future dims and the vision forward becomes uncertain. When the founder ceases to extend the dream, they experience the equivalent of writer’s block.”

Now I apologize for the mixed and fractured metaphors, but maybe it gave you some understanding of what I’m getting at. A company will thrive as long as the founder’s dream is going on before it. When that dreaming slows down or stops, the company begins to drift and then, possibly, die.

The balance of our evening together was spent talking about how we would help our CEO clients to break out of the writer’s block and resume the dream. But that is a matter for another article.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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