It took 2,200 miles by foot over 128 days. It took 500,000 up and down vertical feet from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. And it took moments of crisis in the face of an extreme physical and mental challenge. But San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur Chris Gibson figured out how to successfully manage a really big goal without becoming overwhelmed. Then he applied that knowledge directly to founding his startup, Wavelength, with the equally daunting goal of building a successful business in the face of extreme challenges and uncertainty.
‘I couldn’t think about Katahdin because a lot of times it was too overwhelming, that thought of how much farther do I have to go to get to Katahdin?’ Gibson explained to us. ‘On day one you’re just thinking about walking the 8 miles that you have to Springer. You cannot be thinking about everything else. And you just have to reward yourself for everything small. You break it down. Every state was really important. Every hundred-mile marker was really important. Every town that you hit, which was like every 3 to 4 days, was important. Everyday that you’ve finished your miles, that was important. Every 3-mile water break that you finished was important. Every step that you took was important.’
Change Your Goal Structure
‘By changing your goal structure and giving yourself short dopamine hits for a lot shorter tasks,’ he said, ‘it’s a lot easier to rack up those steps, those miles. I think it’s directly transferable to a startup. A lot of the grind is similar but I know I’m making progress.’ As Gibson admitted, right out of the gate he’d love to have a million dollar company with lots of employees that are making an impact on the world. ‘But I can’t think of that right now. The first thing I needed to do, in my case, was find someone who could work well with me, who could help me create this product together. And then you go on to the next day. What’s the next day’s goal? It’s just taking one day at a time and while it doesn’t seem necessarily hugely impactful, you look back to a month ago and you’re like wow we’ve come a long way. Same thing on the AT.’
So for founders, let’s say you set a big goal of ‘success’ with a three-year timeline. Then you ask yourself, What goals do I need to achieve in year one to support reaching that 3-year goal? Similarly, you then set quarterly goals to support the one-year goals. Then monthly to support quarterly and weekly to support monthly, etc., right down to what do you have to do when you wake up tomorrow morning. Then reward yourself for achieving each little goal. Ah, the dopamine rush.
Self-Reliance And Owning Consequences
Though not exactly an MBA program, the AT served as a graduate school, a testing ground for Gibson, who clearly boosted his self-awareness and emotional intelligence. ‘It was the most impactful and important thing I’ve done in my life,’ he concluded (though at age 26 he does have some living to do yet). ‘I knew I wanted to do the AT because I wanted to prove to myself that regardless of my background – I went to private high school; I went to Dartmouth; I had a privileged background – I’m capable of doing something like the AT if I put my mind to it. No connections, no network, nothing will help me finish – it’s just me.’ Founders need that same determination to be self-reliant and single-minded in their drive.
To crystallize and capture his motivations so that he could revisit them as needed, Gibson put it in writing: ‘On a piece of paper I wrote my motivations, and what would happen to me if I finish the AT or if I quit the AT.’ He wanted to better understand how he might be impacted if he succeeded or if he failed. How would he feel about himself? ‘The reason I bring that up is because I think it’s incredibly important to understand your motivations for pursuing any significant life path, any decision about your life’s path. I did that for my company as well. I knew if I was going to embark on the startup, creating a company from scratch, I needed to know from day one why I was doing it. It sounds pretty attractive at the beginning, but when you’re grinding away with little progress, you need to go back to what your initial motivations were to get you through that phase, because obviously there are lots of ups and downs.’
Getting To Know Your Head Builds Resiliency
With both literal and figurative ups and downs of hiking the AT, we asked Gibson about how he stayed on track mentally and emotionally. Again, his response translates to what entrepreneurs need to be thinking about to boost their self-awareness and resiliency to stress. ‘I got to know my head super well on the AT, which made me very comfortable in it,’ he said. ‘I meditated every day for the first half of the trail and sporadically for the second half. I did yoga every day. I would journal every day in order to be in a good mental place. I have certain mantras that I would reiterate in my head.’
Fueling his body with the right stuff was also critical to keep mentally and emotionally healthy: ‘I knew that if I was overwhelmed or not feeling great I was probably not eating right because I was eating four to five thousand calories a day and still losing weight. I needed more fuel in my body because that’s going to improve my mental state. If I was overwhelmed for whatever reason, I would say, Am I doing the things I know I need to do?’ One point in Pennsylvania – in the midst of 10 straight days of rain on top of exceptionally rocky terrain that hurt your feet – he found himself in a bad spot mentally. He meditated. He ate an energy bar. He called his grandfather, who’s always upbeat and easy to speak with. A friendly phone call to boost your spirits can’t be underestimated.
Focus On What You Control
Gibson also used positive statements to power through, including a couple of mantras. ‘One was the universe is going to do what it’s going to do. I don’t have control over everything else. I only have control over me. It might rain. I might not be able to hitch a ride into town for a couple hours. That doesn’t matter. All I can focus on is what I can do. I think it’s similar in the startup world. For example, I can’t control a customer. Or maybe my sales pitch is not 100% perfect, and if I’d done it a year from now I would get that customer. Another mantra is centered around my ability to accomplish things I set my mind to.’ A successful AT proved that.
Despite the great perspective Gibson brought to his startup, there are challenges that involve the uncertainty and the pace at which they’re moving forward … or achieving what can ultimately be elusive goals. ‘I think the biggest thing is just unknowns,’ he concluded. ‘You don’t have a stable salary. You don’t have an infinite time horizon. There’s a ticking timeline, so the questions always are how much work should I be accomplishing? Am I putting in enough time to get this off the ground? This versus I also need to be healthy; I need to exercise; I need to not work all the time or I’m just going to burnout.’ He also noted dryly, ‘A startup is an exercise in prioritization.’
‘I think the other thing is when you talk to other startup founders you want to put your best foot forward: We’ve lined up all these customers; we’ve done all of these cool things; we just won some VC money. It’s kind of too rosy of a picture from reality. You’ve put your big wins into a sentence or two, and all the bad things that you haven’t talked about aren’t there. So when you speak to other founders you think everyone is crushing it. So looking at ourselves, this is a stressor of mine. Are we going fast enough? Should we be where we are? And eventually I follow the idea of wherever you are is where you should be, and so I should be exactly where I am right now.’ That line bears repeating: I should be exactly where I am right now.