Stubbornness vs. Adaptability

Josh Hoffman, co-founder and CEO of biotech startup Zymergen, said in a recent interview, “Good founders are both stubborn and adaptable.”

He’s right. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Because achieving goals is hard, some dogged stubbornness supported by faith to finish a goal is necessary. Because unexpected things happen on the journey to achieve the goal, adaptability is needed.

But figuring out how to become the right balance of stubborn and adaptable is incredibly tricky. These two things are warring with each other constantly inside the mind of anyone on the journey to achieve something.

Balancing these two things is an art form. I’m increasingly convinced that becoming skilled at this art form is possibly the essential skill for an entrepreneur or creative person trying to have his or her work validated externally in some way.

Both stubbornness (or persistence) and adaptability are difficult to outright endorse as objective “goods” because their value is completely connected to the outcome of an endeavor.

Persistence: If you persist with something despite external skepticism and win you’re heralded as a persistent, enduring visionary. If you fail your persistence is judged negatively: “What an idiot! I knew he would fail all along.”

Adaptability: If you make a switch in your tactics or mission and win then you’re, again, thought of as a nimble mastermind. If you switch course and fail, you’re likely to be branded as an unfocused flip-flopper “without a clear vision. But consider all the billion-dollar companies that essentially were birthed from a “flip-flop” (or pivot)? Slack, Twitter and Twitch are just a few recent, notable examples of companies that went on to scale to serve hundreds of millions but started as something significantly different.

I am not complaining that strategies are evaluated by outcomes. This is the necessary scientific method of experimentation and evaluation. I am trying to argue that the modes of behavior that drive certain strategies are harder to objectively evaluate.

Sometimes people persist for too long. Sometimes they pivot too soon. But even more should have persisted a little bit longer, they were so close! And maybe there was a group that just should have changed course one more time.

Anyway, it’s tricky. The battle between these two modes of being is currently being waged in the hearts and minds of millions of creative people.

I think there are formulas that can be used to help one work towards achieving a better balance (listening, seeking feedback, monitoring market forces, having a clear plan) but even when you’re equipped with the best information and do a masterful job of being both persistent and adaptable your mission can still fall short of expectations and, as a result, be evaluated as a failure.

Perhaps one universal rule I can put out there from this: Finding balance in life between contradictory or warring “modes of being” at all levels is important but difficult. Evaluation by outcome (in this case, defined as commercial success) is necessary but imperfect because of all the variables attached to the outcome of a commercial endeavor.

Update / afterthought: This post could be split up or expanded but, in keeping with the spirit of this blog, I just wanted to hit publish and get it out there for further refinement at a later date. I liked the usage of “modes of being” I came up with here. I think this is more clear than something like “personality characteristics” as the former seems more like a habit or routine you decide to get into and the latter seems more associated with something innate or congenital and I’m a big believer in human adaptability and the power of habit. But this antagonism between the two modes of being written about in this post is connected to Conservatism vs. Progressivism as these become warring modes of being, or thinking, as well.

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