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The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur

Lots of people who start businesses try to control outcomes:

  1. A vision for your business’s success.
  2. Goals to get you to the successful vision.
  3. Try to get the most productive day (out of yourself, or employees).
  4. Try to produce certain amounts, or hit certain metrics (pageviews, followers, revenue, sales).

Unfortunately, the ability to control outcomes is an illusion. This is one of the fundamental lessons I’ve learned in my six years of being in business for myself.

You don’t really know how things will turn out.

And this is OK.

In fact, it’s pretty awesome.

Yes, not knowing how things will turn out — day to day, month to month, year to year — is crazy scary. I’m not gonna front. It’s so scary you might wake up drenched in sweat.

But not knowing is what makes being an entrepreneur more amazing than working a regular desk job with a regular paycheck. We take risks, we fail, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we not only put our toes into the waters of the unknown … we dive in, headfirst.

Yes, not knowing is scary. But if you embrace it, not knowing can be liberating, and can be an advantage.

Let’s look at how it’s an advantage, and how to stay present in the middle of the unknown.

The Advantage of Not Knowing

Quiz question: What causes us the most anxiety? Million dollar answer: Wanting things to turn out a certain way. Wanting an outcome — wanting the person you love to love you back, wanting people at your meeting or presentation to like you, wanting a million customers, wanting to be the next Apple or Twitter or Starbucks. This is the cause of our anxiety, because when we want that outcome, we fear that it won’t come true, and we strive for it to come true, and of course it might not.

There are a million possibilities, and wanting just one of those possibilities is a little crazy. What’s wrong with the other 999,999? Will our worlds fall apart if that one outcome doesn’t become a reality? No. We’ll be just fine no matter what.

Seriously. You’ll be absolutely fine even if the outcome doesn’t happen.

So when anxiety comes up, if we learn to let go of needing that outcome, we can then let go of the anxiety.

So advantage #1: we have less anxiety. What happens when you have less anxiety? Well, you’re happier. You are happier when you meet with customers or clients or employees. They feel your happiness. They sense that you’re cool with how things are going. You are less desperate. You don’t need things to turn out a certain way — you don’t need this one sale. You do your best to make it happen, but you’re cool even if it doesn’t.

Other people bet everything on making their outcome happen — but what if it doesn’t? Then they’ve lost everything, with no clear direction of where to go when it fails to happen.

So advantage #2: we aren’t as tied to one bet. That’s a single point of failure. Not a great idea. Instead, we are OK no matter what happens, and so any outcome of a meeting, a project, a launch … we are good with that, and no outcome really messes us up. We flow.

Another problem is that people who think they know how things will turn out … they’re fooling themselves. No one knows.

And that’s advantage #3: we are more honest. Admitting to ourselves that we don’t know is much more honest than thinking, hoping, things will turn out the way we want. Honesty is important because if we’re going to act, we should do so with open eyes and a clear assessment of the situation.

Honesty with customers, readers, clients, employees is important too. Admit you don’t know. They will trust you more, because not only are you telling them you don’t know, you are clearly OK with that. You don’t know what will happen, but whatever happens, you’ll deal with it. That’s powerful.

Those are just a few advantages, but actually the advantages are many. You don’t have to plan as much because not knowing means you realize that detailed plans are useless, and actually a waste of your time. You spend less time worrying, more time executing. You aren’t consumed by the horrible fear that you’re doing the wrong thing, because you learn that there is never a perfectly “right thing” to do — not generally for your business, or specifically right now.

How to Walk the Not Knowing Path

The Not Knowing Path of an entrepreneur is scary, but honestly, what path isn’t?

Here’s how to walk the path:

  1. Admit you don’t know. This is obviously the first step, but it’s hard because we often want to think we know, or at least that we can make certain things happen the way we want them to. We think we can will things to happen. That’s not true. Many things fail despite Herculean efforts to make them succeed. We don’t control the future, we can’t know the future. We don’t know. Admit it to ourselves, and to others.
  2. Watch for anxiety. When you start feeling anxious (and that will always happen, probably numerous times a day), look inward for the source of the anxiety. What are you hoping will happen that’s making you anxious? This awareness is the key to everything.
  3. Tell yourself you’ll be OK. You become aware of an outcome you’re hoping for … now tell yourself that it doesn’t matter if that outcome happens. It really doesn’t matter, even if we’ve made up this story for ourselves that all depends on it happening. It doesn’t matter, and no matter what happens, we’ll be OK. Life-and-death situations are possibly the only exception to this, though I’m of the mind that even death is an outcome that I’d be OK with.
  4. Consider worst-case scenarios. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Someone doesn’t like you, doesn’t think as highly of you as you’d like, a meeting ends in anger, a sale doesn’t happen, the business fails. How bad is this worst-case scenario? How likely is it to happen? How would you cope if it did? Honestly, I think you’d be fine no matter what.
  5. Know your principles. Take some time to think about what should guide you, if you aren’t guided by trying to make something specific happen. If you’re not tied to an outcome or vision of the future you can’t control, what would guide you? Step back, reflect. What drives you? Why do you do what you do? For example, some of my guiding principles are wanting to help others, wanting to act compassionately, wanting to do things I love, and building trust by doing those things.
  6. Act on principles, not goals or detailed plans. Once you have your guiding principles, let them guide you on a day-by-day basis, moment-to-moment. You don’t know how something will turn out when you act, but you do know whether this action is in line with your principles.
  7. Breathe, and smile. In the end, not knowing can be scary, but liberating and profound. You are in the midst of a turbulent sea, and are afloat without knowing where anything will go. But that’s always true, even of people who don’t admit it to themselves. So enjoy the ride. Look at the amazing place you’re in, and smile. Because this path of not knowing … it is the path of life itself.

‘If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.’ ~Lao Tzu

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC