Life Is a Startup
What Founders Can Teach Us about Making Choices and Managing Change
Noam Wasserman


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Introduction
chapter abstract

The spark for this book came from a jarring encounter with a student, who insisted that a course about founders had changed his marriage instead. His assertion sparked the realization that life is a startup and that we have to be the founders of our own lives, entrepreneurially making decisions, building our relationships, and managing our careers in ways that diverge significantly from conventional approaches.

1 The Future Calls; Do You Answer?
chapter abstract

Our desires to make a make change in our lives are often harmed by our inability to change or our headlong rush into doing so. Some people are constrained by handcuffs that they progressively create for themselves. Others get so excited about a change that they become blinded by passion and rush in too quickly. Neither approach is a recipe for successful change.

2 Your Best Answer: How to Move Forward
chapter abstract

The best practices of founders can show us how to overcome our fear of leaping while keeping even our most ardent passions in check. We can break our handcuffs by proactively reducing our personal burn rate, progressively loosening our psychic handcuffs, escaping the handcuffs of perfection, and gaining strength through staging. We can keep our passions in check by focusing on the gray areas where we lack a key ingredient necessary to make a successful change, examining our missing pillars to road-test our flaws, by trying before we buy, and by getting outside eyes that aren't looking through rose-colored glasses.

3 Will Failure—and Success—Bring You Down?
chapter abstract

Our ability to make a change faces challenges posed by failure and by success. Our fear of failure prevents us from making changes, and when failure occurs, we suffer greatly. On the flip side, we don't appreciate the potential perils of success—how achieving our dreams can lead to its own set of problems. These challenges apply to everything from applying for a promotion to contemplating a relocation to planning a radical career move.

4 Fail and Succeed Productively
chapter abstract

Founders proactively increase the chances that they will be able to fail well and to anticipate and manage the perils of success. We can do likewise by harnessing failure to gain strength rather than losing motivation, finding something to appreciate even during the darkest days, avoiding overpersisting, and proactively planning an "Undo" key. We can also avoid perils of success by educating ourselves ahead of time about the potholes in the road to success, taking control of the "can" and the "want," aggressively bolstering our support, and considering refusing the seductive move "upward."

5 Are You Blocked by Your Blueprint and Hooked on Routine?
chapter abstract

Challenges arise after we have envisioned the change we want to make and move into the "doing" phase. We rely too heavily on our blueprints, or the well-worn personal mental patterns that we use to make choices. A powerful part of our blueprints is the inclination for birds of a feather to flock together, also known as homophily. We are naturally drawn toward collaborators who are similar to us, often to our peril, by causing heightened tensions due to overlapping capabilities and gaping holes in our teams.

6 Redraw Your Blueprint and Rethink Your Routines
chapter abstract

Founders think ahead despite, and even because of, the natural temptation to respond reactively to new developments. They tune in to the potential disconnects between their existing blueprints and the challenges they are about to face, and they reduce those disconnects before they get blindsided by them. They create reminders and checkpoints, demand pushback from others, and develop blueprint flexibility. Rather than depending on too-similar collaborators, the best founders relentlessly take stock of their own weaknesses, recruit people with skills and viewpoints that differ from their own, and "go ugly early," even if that makes the founders uncomfortable.

7 Are You Playing with Fire and Overemphasizing Equality?
chapter abstract

When making changes, we succumb to two powerful but problematic magnetic pulls: the tendency to involve family and close friends in our endeavors and the allure of equality. We are playing with fire when we involve those who are near and dear to us. The powerful pull of equality sets in when we strive for fairness and architect egalitarian personal relationships. Few collaborators—whether cofounders or couples—truly contribute equally, and pretending otherwise can be counterproductive or even destructive. Although we take pride in egalitarian arrangements, they tend to increase tensions rather than increasing stability.

8 Fight the Magnetic Pulls of Family and Equality
chapter abstract

When involving family and friends in their endeavors, the best entrepreneurs diagnose the areas with the highest potential for blowups, creating "firewalls" and disaster plans to prevent those blowups. They "date" family and friends even more than the strangers with whom they might engage, resist the involvement if it's not a good fit, and force difficult conversations rather than avoiding them. Effective entrepreneurs also know that an overreliance on building a unified view can prevent progress. They divide responsibilities and give each person, or "mini-Zeus," sole authority over a particular area; proactively arrange tiebreakers; tag-team; and resist the siren song of equality when it comes to splitting ownership among themselves.

Conclusion: Conclusion
chapter abstract

Most of us face a rich versus king trade-off at one point or another: What do we give up when we fight to maintain control, whether in a job, a project, or a relationship? And what do we gain when we yield control? When does it make sense to give up control to get those gains? In startups, if founders want to get rich, they can't expect to be the absolute monarch; if they intend to rule single-handedly, they can't expect the startup to reach its full potential. In life, we face such trade-offs when we make career decisions, encounter leadership dilemmas, and marry. The best founders are able to separate the "my" and "baby" when it comes to decisions affecting "my baby," keep their eye on the long term even when the short term demands their attention, and build self-awareness—practices we can adopt, too.