November 20, 2007
I just read in my alumni magazine that at Opening Exercises for incoming freshmen this year, Princeton President Shirley Tilghman closed her remarks with the following:
For the next four years, you will be encouraged – and indeed sometimes even exhorted – to develop the qualities of mind that allowed Katherine Newman, Simon Morrison, and Alan Krueger to change what we know about the world. Those qualities are the willingness to ask an unorthodox question and pursue its solution relentlessly; to cultivate the suppleness of mind to see what lies between black and white; to reject knee-jerk reactions to ideas and ideologies; to recognize nuance and complexity in an argument; to differentiate between knowledge and belief; to be prepared to be surprised; and to appreciate that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness but of strength. We ask you to be open to new ideas, however surprising; to shun the superficial trends of popular culture in favor of careful analysis; and to recognize propaganda, ignorance, and baseless revisionism when you see it. That is the essence of a Princeton education.
While some of these comments are more appropriate for an academic setting, how many of us who run businesses want to encourage the same behavior and thoughtfulness of our employees? Here are a few examples taken from the above.
To change what we know about the world — a hallmark of a successful startup is to invent new products and services, to change the way the world works in some small way. In our case, to fix some of the most critical problems with email marketing.
The willingness to ask an unorthodox question and pursue its solution relentlessly — reinventing some part of the world only comes by challenging the status quo. Return Path was started by asking an unorthodox question: why isn’t there an easy way for people to change their email address online?
To cultivate the suppleness of mind to see what lies between black and white; to recognize nuance and complexity in an argument — the longer I run a company, the less black and white I see. When I do seev it, I think of it as a gift. The rest of the day is spent trying to figure out the zone in between. Making 51/49 decisions all day long is difficult, but it’s easier when the rest of the organization is capable of doing the same thing.
To appreciate that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness but of strength; to be open to new ideas, however surprising — perseverance in business is critical; stubbornness is deadly. How does the old saying go? The definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. If the only thing we were still doing at Return Path is ECOA, we’d be long gone by now, or at least MUCH smaller than we are today.
I don’t know too many entrepreneurs that don’t espouse most of the above principles. The trick is to build an entire company of people that do.