When having difficult conversations about something that needs improving, there is a line I often get and hate every single time.

“Come on… it’s like this in every company.”

I always thought it was such a cop-out, a cheap way to justify whatever garden-variety mediocrity it happened to be referring to. It's never used to explain something we nailed. What we suck at, it’s OK because it’s like this everywhere, anyway. “That’s how startups are”. What we’re good at: that’s because we’re unique and pretty awesome at what we do.

It’s like the poker player who attributes winning to skill and losing to bad luck. That’s the majority of poker players, by the way.

Likewise, the majority of startups don’t make it, in large part, for the same reason. It's easy to explain away our mess by saying that "the Amazons and the Netflixes of the world are also messy, yet look how successful they are". So we can be messy too. It's fine.

Except it's not. Those companies are the 1% of the 1%. They don’t explain mediocrity away by resting easy on the belief that everyone else is mediocre too. They succeed despite a ton of mistakes, not because of them. It is best-in-class practices – competent hiring, above average management, visionary leadership, all of which makes their flywheel turn – that affords them room for error. But ego and survivorship bias lead a lot of people to believe it's all good as long as they're mimicking the big boys, that somehow things will just sort themselves out. Loserthink.

One way to explain this is by exploring the line between professionals and amateurs.

Professionals know who they want to become, and work relentlessly to be world-class at it. Amateurs never do the work to figure themselves out, ending up average (or worse) at everything.

Professionals are clear on what they should not do, to not be distracted from what they must do. Amateurs try to do it all and accomplish little.

Professionals focus on the process, trusting best practices will lead to best results. Amateurs obsess over outcomes, blaming everything but their practices for bad results (which happen often).

Professionals focus on effectiveness over "busyness". Amateurs are busy all the time, with very little to show for.

Professionals take the time to connect the dots between company mission and every individual’s work. Amateurs are too busy “executing” to even consider it.

Professionals look at their people training and development budget as an investment. Amateurs see it as a cost.

You get the idea. If I sound angry, it’s because I am thinking of all the great people who become jaded working at amateur companies. People who, if they had better managers and leaders, could go on to deliver incredible value but instead are left figuring out how to live to fight another day.

We can and must do better.

So no, it’s not “like this in every other company”. Just the ones that wither and die, lying six feet under in the graveyard of startups nobody (conveniently) remembers anymore.


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