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There’s a phenomenon in psychology called the “Galatea effect,” which says that a person’s expectations about themselves determine their performance. In other words, we create self-fulfilling prophecies.
We all start businesses for different reasons: Maybe we crave the autonomy that comes with working for ourselves. Maybe we have an idea we think will make us rich. Maybe we want a better work/life balance.
The problem is that the Galatea effect only goes so far. Yes, we’re more likely to do well on a presentation if we go into it with a positive mindset. But data shows that many entrepreneurs launch their own businesses with unrealistic expectations about the benefits and rewards, thinking they’ll automatically be healthier, happier, have more money and more certainty.
Reality can be a tough pill to swallow. If success doesn’t come as readily as we thought it would, we’re more liable to give up. I advocate instead for setting reasonable expectations, which means dispelling some common myths.
Myth #1: You have to follow your passion
I didn’t grow up dreaming about form building. But back when I worked for a New York media company, creating custom web forms was part of my job. It was tedious work, and it made me wonder whether I could automate the process to make it easier. It was from this idea that my company, JotForm, was born.
With more than nine million users, JotForm has clearly scratched an itch that plenty of people had. I might not have started with a particular devotion to online forms, but I do feel strongly about creating a quality product that makes people’s lives easier.
Rather than chasing a passion, I recommend following the advice of Paul Graham, who says that the best startup ideas share three characteristics: 1) They’re something founders themselves want, 2) They can build it themselves, and 3) Few others have done it.
Finding the intersection of those three characteristics is no easy task. But when you do, you’ll find the results are much more reliable than if you’d followed your passion alone.
Related: 10 Popular Myths About Leadership and How to Overcome Them
Myth #2: Success happens overnight
With very few exceptions, many of the “overnight successes” stories you hear were actually the result of years and years of hard work. Take Bill Gates, often considered the quintessential overnight success story thanks to the fact that he became a multimillionaire as soon as Microsoft went public.
But the truth is that Gates had been growing his company for 11 years before that day came.
We live in an age of instant gratification, and it can come as an unpleasant shock when things don’t happen at the drop of a hat. In many cases, “overnight successes” are just fads that fade away as quickly as they arrived.
In the book Great by Choice, Jim Collins examines companies that thrive under volatile market conditions, finding that those that flourished in the long-term were the ones that progressed consistently, neither moving too quickly nor staying in one place for too long. He asks readers to imagine they’re embarking on a 3,000 mile walk from San Diego to Maine. You walk 20 miles each day for the first three days. It’s hot and you’d rather march fewer than 20 miles, but you keep the pace anyway.
“You keep up the effort — 20 miles, 20 miles, 20 miles — then you cross into the plains, and it’s glorious springtime, and you can go 40 or 50 miles in a day,” he writes. “But you don’t. You sustain your pace, marching 20 miles.” Eventually, you reach Maine.
Compare this to someone who leaves San Diego on the same day. Fresh and excited for the journey ahead, he logs 40 miles off the bat. The next day, he’s exhausted, and it’s hot. He decides to wait until conditions improve, and it’s in this manner that he continues, moving in erratic bursts, trekking 40 or 50 miles in a day and then crashing. He eventually stumbles into Maine, battered and weak, where he finds you waiting. It’s not that your journey was easy — you both walked 3,000 miles, after all. But your willingness to grind on, 20 miles a day, no matter what, protected you from the near-death lows experienced by your compatriot. Consistent progress wins the day.
Related: 5 Myths About Successful Franchisees
Myth #3: Independence = happiness
One of the many reasons people become entrepreneurs is the freedom that comes with working for yourself. Unfortunately, research has found that independence isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.
In 2009, management professor Leon Schjoedt conducted a study among a large group of both founders and non-founders. He discovered that although entrepreneurs did derive greater satisfaction from autonomy than non-entrepreneurs, they also highly value variety and feedback — factors they might not have realized they needed.
The takeaway was that autonomy alone is not enough to make entrepreneurs feel satisfied, despite what they might think. It’s a perk, of course, but if that’s your sole motivation for going solo, you’re going to be unhappy and underwhelmed. Given this, Schjoedt has some suggestions for how entrepreneurs can achieve the other two characteristics they care most about — variety and feedback.
To add variety, he recommends seeking new but related opportunities to extend the business, which can help diversify things without distracting from the original mission. As for feedback, Schjoedt advises founders to regularly check in with themselves on their progress. The key isn’t to ask big-picture questions, like Is my business doing well? but to instead focus on smaller matters with concrete answers.
Related: 5 Myths Preventing You From Delegating Effectively
Myth #4: If you work hard, success is inevitable
I don’t need to tell you that a huge percentage of startups fail within their first year. It can be disheartening, to put it mildly, to pour everything you’ve got into a business only to watch it crumble before your eyes.
But successful entrepreneurs understand that failure is inevitable. No matter how well-laid your plans, no matter how hard you work, the fact is that things won’t go as you expect them to. Being willing to adapt to changing circumstances is every bit as important as having a winning idea — probably even more so.
Painful though it is, failure is necessary. It helps you grow, teaches you to learn from your mistakes and gives you a thicker skin. A lot of people let failure steamroll them. Those who are able to recover and keep going are much more likely to achieve what they set out to do.
Entrepreneurship can be incredibly rewarding and exciting — if you are clear-eyed about what to expect. Will you achieve overnight fame and more money than you can count? Unlikely. But with luck — and lots of hard work, tenacity and patience — it’s entirely possible to grow a business that you are proud of.
Related: Is Your Boss Controlling You Subtly Without Your Realizing It?