Am I The Martian?
Let me tell you about Martians. They're different from you and me.
After several years of no new content, we’ve restarted the Origami blog. Our company has something to talk about again. Our first effort lays out a change in focus for the service we provide to small business customers. The second lists many reasons not to start a small business. The reasons post is the first in our Small Business 101 course, a series of articles we hope will give current and prospective small business owners new skills and understanding to help them succeed in business.
I’ve realized something after years of working with small business owners. For some people, business — a difficult game to win for most — is a game they can only win by not playing. It’s some unhappy combination of their personal qualities, their background and situation, and their chosen venture. This combination works against them, usually unnoticed. Over time or with one bad break, it all gets exposed and becomes obvious. But not until then, and by then, it’s too late. That’s why “What am I getting myself into?” and “Am I cut out for it?” are important questions to ask before jumping in to the small business game. And that’s why I decided to deal with these questions in the first lesson of the course.
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One theme in that post is the need to deal with adversity: the day-to-day kind and the catastrophic kind. Things don’t always go right in small business. And sometimes, things go terribly wrong. Owners have to cope, recover, and push forward. The only other option is despair, in varying degrees, and eventual surrender, on varying terms.
Adversity of the catastrophic kind deserved more time and attention than I was able to give in the Origami blog post. I’ve gone through that type of adversity with Darren, and I can think about the experience from the inside. That’s what I want to do here. Because catastrophe is really quite a different thing in my catalog of experiences: standing there, drink in hand, chatting with the others, watching me wherever I go.
In the fictional example I’m going to use, a catastrophic event puts a life at stake, not a business. I get that those stakes are different. Giving up on, shutting down, or exiting a business doesn’t carry the same consequences as doing the same for a life. But there is overlap, and it’s the overlap that’s interesting.
In The Martian, astronauts on the surface of Mars encounter a dust storm that cuts their mission short. They evacuate their surface habitat and make their way to the vehicle that’ll take them from the surface to their orbiting vessel. During the evacuation, one of their group, Mark Watney, is struck by debris and is lost in the storm. With no readings from his bio-monitor, he’s presumed dead. The remaining members of the team take off in the ascent vehicle before it topples in the storm. They return to the orbiter and begin their months-long journey back to Earth.
Mark Watney wakes up the next day, wounded but alive, the only living thing on a dead planet. The rest of the movie is about his survival and eventual rescue. If that’s a spoiler, it’s not much of one. The movie was released in 2015 and made over $630M at the box office. There’s no way Matt Damon, who played Watney, wasn’t coming home. Besides, all the good stuff — the good stuff involves a lot of science, engineering, and technology — is in how the problem gets resolved, not in the suspense over whether it does. Everyone, from Watney to the mission crew to the space agency people back on Earth, is hyper competent. They all get things done. The plot twists, they untwist it, and keep moving forward.
In the ending scene, Watney gives a short speech that summarizes this attitude to a class of astronaut candidates. “The question that I get most frequently is, when I was up there, stranded by myself, did I think I was going to die? Yes, absolutely. And that’s what you need to know going in, because it’s going to happen to you. This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything is going to go south on you, everything’s going to go south, and you’re going to say ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next one. And then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right. Questions?” In a nice Hollywood flourish, everyone in the room puts up their hand, Love Train starts playing and the credits roll.
According to my sons, I kept repeating these lines on the drive home (as though I’d come up with them): “You see guys. That’s absolutely how it works. You do the math. You solve one problem, then… you solve the next one.” It’s a good family chuckle, at least for my sons. I’m not happy about it. I must have been more open to Hollywood influence back then. I blame inexperience and not being able to think for myself. I was only in my forties. Listening to that speech now and trying to apply its lessons to the small business context that occupies me now, I feel like I’d be one of those people in Watney’s class with their hands up. I have questions. I also see more going on in that movie than I did then.
The main idea applies. I mean, in a situation where everything has gone south for your small business, the choice is binary. You’re either going to accept that “this is it” or you’re going to try. The choice to try means you begin, you solve one problem and then the next. Trying doesn’t mean winning. It means not giving up.
The Martian, of course, couldn’t give up. (Worst movie ever if he did.) His life was at stake. And he was an astronaut. An astronaut is an exceptional human being, the end product of a crazily intense and expensive selection and training process. Astronauts get more attribute points than we do. They max out on resourcefulness, resilience, perseverance, self-control, self-discipline, physical endurance — anything that helps them meet the challenges of space. We all like to think we’re above average, but no one’s putting us on a rocket ship, not unless we pay for our seat. On a rocket ship, we’d effectively be cargo. Worse than cargo, because we have feelings, and our feelings include fear, anxiety, despair, rage, and terror; and our feelings get in the way. Mark Watney isn’t like you and me. Whatever feelings he had, they didn’t get in his way.
This really jumps out at me now. Watney’s resilience is so strong and his sense of despair so anemic, I have a harder time relating than I did when I first watched the movie. I’m not sure if he actually processed the “This is the end” option in his first few days alone on Mars. I mean, why is the most frequent question he’s asked “Did you think you were going to die?” and not “Did you think you were going to live?” Just in terms of probabilities. Watney’s surrounded by smart people, isn’t he? Who’s asking this “going to die” question?
Here’s how I would process the situation in the first few days: “Everyone’s gone. You’re the only living thing on a planet that can instantly make you a not living thing if you mess up. Your kind is millions of miles away. They don’t know you’re alive. They can’t help you. Your food will run out. Your tech will fail. If there was one storm, there’ll be another. You have no one to talk to. You have no one to help you. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s a living nightmare. You’re alone, you’re alone, you’re alone.” That sort of gets in your head and scrambles whatever’s there, doesn’t it?
It’s the head scrambling I remember from our own small business catastrophe. Sitting beside N. in the school gym, watching the kids perform in the Christmas concert, and the whole of it shimmering, completely out of focus. I must have felt like George Bailey, wandering through his not so wonderful life in Bedford Falls after Uncle Billy loses the bank deposit. Watney seems superhuman to me now because he just skips that dark night of the soul part and gets right to work. (He gets Mars to give him potatoes, for goodness sake!) The moments where he doesn’t believe or loses hope are so small and unimportant. It’s like some part that I thought we all have — our sense of our finite, small, and vulnerable selves — he doesn’t really have. Sure, we came out of it, Darren and I, and we got to work too. But we came out of it by definitely going through it. At least I did. This is the problem I have with most modern advice. The people giving it seem to come from the Astronaut class. They’re not like you and me. They have qualities and reserves that we don’t. Though the advice in Watney’s case is still good. “You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next one. And then the next.” That’s good practical stuff. You just have to sort yourself out to begin. Regular people can’t just skip over that after a catastrophe.
Am I the Martian? The Martian is very humanistic. Humans solve their problems in a universe governed by laws that they’ve understood and mastered. This knowledge gives them enormous power and confidence to attempt and do things. In Apollo 13, another space movie involving astronauts and disasters, the men at mission control do a lot of improvising, calculating, and technical problem solving to get their boys safely back home. Like The Martian, it’s very rational and affirming of humanity’s ability to solve problems through knowledge, science, and technology. But Apollo 13 also shows the families back on Earth: wives, children, mothers. This group isn’t really doing anything, especially calculating. They’re simply watching, and, I imagine, praying. Because what else can they do? They have no control over the outcome. They’re in the foxhole, praying the shells miss. In The Martian, everyone has agency, everyone contributes. If they pray at all, they pray offscreen. They focus instead on the work, because their work affects the outcome. There’s a parallel in small business. Some things I can control, most things I can’t. For the things I can’t, I’m in the foxhole, and I should probably consider prayer, if only to make it feel like I’m doing something. As for the things I can control, I’m willing to take the Martian’s advice, even though I know I can’t play his part.
N. suggested a better and truer story of resilience and resourcefulness: Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray. Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill were the real life sisters. Members of the British gentry, they migrated to Canada in 1832 with their husbands. The couples assumed that “with their brains, education, and manners, they would effortlessly rise to the top of colonial society” and form “the land-owning cream of Upper Canada.” But both husbands proved unfit for the demands of pioneer life. It fell to the sisters, “tougher and more competent than their husbands,” to meet the challenges they faced. N. said the Martian had a top notch team that came to rescue him in the end. What happens when the team isn’t top tier or falls apart? Then it’s up to you, all up to you. She felt the sisters’ stories were closer to small business reality than the Martian’s supporting cast of Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers and astrophysicists. Catharine Parr Traill wrote: “In cases of emergency, it is folly to fold one’s hands and sit down to bewail in abject terror: it is better to be up and doing.” That sounds familiar. I wonder how she would’ve done on Mars. Reading the book to find out.
Giving up is sometimes the more sensible choice in small business. Some situations are beyond salvage, some problems beyond solving. By walking away, you limit the damage to what’s already done. It’s just business. There are no lives at stake. One young entrepreneur I knew lost all his work (and his business) on his first paying project. He was days from emailing the deliverable when his basement office flooded. He made the nightmare mistake of not taking backups. He’d been paid most of the fee up front. He’d already spent that money paying out his subcontractor costs on the project. Instead of a happy client, referrals, and more projects, he had an unhappy client who vowed to never work with a startup again. On top of that, the entrepreneur still had significant costs to pay out. The young man’s father was on the scene. I’d see them in the food court. It was the father who did most of the talking. There were long, tense gaps in the conversation.
Our paths stopped crossing. I assumed they decided there was no recovery for this particular venture. The losses were too great. I thought, well, this wasn’t a disaster. This was a response to a disaster that had already occurred. Not every problem needs to be solved and it's OK to admit defeat. As Churchill said “success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” But it turns out I was wrong. I looked him up and he kept that business alive. And it’s still alive and, apparently, doing well. I hoped he’d find strength in the broken pieces of his first attempt to start a second. But he did better than that by following the Martian’s advice. He absorbed the blow, went through it, and just began. After all, that’s absolutely how it works. You do the math. You solve one problem, then… you solve the next one, do the math, solve one problem, then solve the next one.
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