By: Tim Hamilton EO Austin member, founder and CEO of Astonish Design
As entrepreneurs, there’s no shortage of motivational advice to help us overcome the fears and doubts that hamper the best of us. But to realize any benefit from it, we have to relate the advice to our own experiences. Early on in my business career, one helpful expression I kept hearing was: “Focus on the process, not on the outcome.” What it meant, I hadn’t a clue. It wasn’t until I recalled a moment from my childhood that everything started to come together.
At the time, I had been in business for six years. I had two employees and my annual revenue was roughly US$500,000— and that’s where it stopped. For several years, that sum seemed to be my limit. When I finally became confident that my business was truly off the ground, I was ready to grow … but I felt stuck. To grow, I would need to hire a third employee to handle the extra work. But for some reason, I couldn’t take that next step. Fear held me back. I started to drag myself down with worry: What if I couldn’t bring in the additional revenue to pay this new employee? What if I became overextended? What if my business suffered, or worse, failed?
Being stuck was frustrating, to say the least. It reminded me of a time in my childhood when I felt that same intense frustration. I was 11 years old and living in Houston, Texas, USA. One afternoon, I was at the neighborhood swimming pool, staring at the high-diving board. All of the other kids my age would line up and jump off it like it was no big deal. They seemed like they were having the time of their lives. Maybe I could do that, too, I thought. So I waited in line, and when it was my turn, I climbed the ladder and walked to the end of the board. But then I looked down. Total fear. I couldn’t jump.
Humiliated, I climbed down the ladder and walked past all of the waiting kids. I was berating myself for my cowardice. My fear wouldn’t let me jump off the high dive and be part of the fun crowd. How did they do it? I wondered. How could they jump without fear? Then it hit me: All they were really doing was walking to the edge of the board and taking one more step. I could do that. Sure, I was afraid of what might happen, but the other kids showed me that it would probably be OK. So I convinced myself that if I just stuck to what I knew how to do—climbing a ladder and taking a few steps— I could handle what came next.
I climbed back up that ladder. And when I reached the end of the board, I focused on what I knew. I took the plunge, and it was fine. No, it was better than fine. The experience was thrilling in two ways: The physical thrill of the jump, and the thrill of using reason to get past my fear. When I recalled this childhood experience years later in business, I remembered how sticking with what I knew got me past my fear. And that’s when it clicked: Focus on the process, not on the outcome. I finally knew what it meant! Using this newfound knowledge, I decided to hire that third employee, and it was one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made. My company has grown steadily every year since I made the decision to “jump,” and it’s all because I took just one more step.
Looking back at it all, this experience taught me that it’s not enough to simply read or listen to time-honored advice or motivational messages. To really learn from it, we need to understand how it relates to us personally, to look to our own life experiences. Chances are the lessons are there.
Tim Hamilton is the founder and CEO of Astonish Design, a web development firm. Fun fact: Tim moved to the US from South Africa when he was 11 years old. While he has mastered his American accent, you’ll occasionally catch his old accent if you get him talking about Johannesburg, where he was born.