Kicking the Hopium Habit

When my daughter was just shy of two years old, my wife and I were faced with a decision: to take away her pacifier—and endure a week of interrupted sleep as she cried her way to a pacifier-free world—or hope she would swear off her pacifier on her own, thereby preserving our well-earned sleep.

It wasn’t an easy choice for us. In the end, we decided to endure the sleepless nights because we recognized that the alternative simply wasn’t likely. (Not only was it not realistic, but the longer we waited for a different outcome, the more painful the inevitable taking of the pacifier would be.) By taking away her pacifier, my wife and I resisted the siren’s call of “smoking hopium.”

This term–introduced to me by one of my former managers–describes what happens when we allow emotion to trump pragmatism and when our vision for the long-term is blurred by short-term gains. That being said, if you’re the parent of a toddler, you’ll do just about anything for a good night’s sleep.

It’s not just new parents that are faced with the seduction of hopium. As I look around at the circles that I’m most involved in, transportation and startups, I see how hopium has inflicted casualties far and wide.

♦♦

Chris Pangilinan removes his gloves as he rolls his wheelchair into our meeting, his semi-permanent grin embedded on his face. A transportation advocate and researcher for TransitCenter in New York City, Chris is an expert on not only transit, but one of the more prosaic elements of many subway trips: the way you get from the street to the train. While most of us may just take the stairs or escalator, an elevator is a requirement for a wide swath of public transit users, from people like Chris who use wheelchairs to seniors who use canes to new parents with strollers.

The New York City Subway is the hidden workhorse for the city that never sleeps. The city simply wouldn’t function without the movement of 5 million people a day under the city streets. But the subway doesn’t function for many of the city’s residents. Less than 25% of its stations have elevators. Almost a third of elevators and escalators failed a recent inspection and nearly 80% of those have not received their preventative maintenance on time.

And while it’s easy to blame the subway’s age on its inability to serve all its citizens, not accepting reality is a classic sign that you are addicted to hopium. The subway inhibits Chris’s mobility because the New York City MTA and those that fund it simply haven’t prioritized building and maintaining elevators. They’ve spent billions–significantly higher than the rest of the world pays– on just a few short miles of subway. They’ve played politics with funding, sending some upstate and some to labor unions and contractors as kickbacks. They’ve hoped the problem would go away.

Only recently, with the commitment of new NYC Transit President Andy Byford, has the New York City MTA paid more than lip service to the fact that a lack of accessibility impacts millions of people everyday. Still, though, until the plan is funded, which would require the mayor, governor, and legislature to recognize that expectations for accessibility have changed significantly, something as simple as taking the subway is still an impediment for many.

♦♦

I was negotiating a job offer with an old friend who had started a company on the side and needed someone to run it for him day to day. They already had a handful of employees and customers.

“What’s the revenue?”
“The revenue will be $750K by the end of the year.”
“Wow, you’ve done an amazing job so quickly.”

I was a newly-minted MBA and running a small entrepreneurial venture was exactly what I had wanted to do when I graduated. And this one, right in the location I wanted with a local businessman I respected, was just what I wanted. I heard a revenue number and saw an office with real employees and pictured myself in the proverbial corner office with an opportunity to put in place all the lessons I learned in school.

To this day, I’m still not sure if it was him, me, or both of us smoking hopium, but let’s just say that the air was hazy.

Regardless, the end result was that when I stepped foot inside the company on day 1, I found the reality to be quite different than the rosy picture that both my friend painted and I had imagined. There was no malice. He was simply thinking positively and I was assuming positively. But neither was based in reality. The company didn’t have a unique value proposition, adequate funding to build a customer base, or any real way to scale the modest success they had locally.

My friend had wanted me to run the company and I ran it, alright. I ran it into the ground in about 6 months. I’ve reflected a lot on that time. Sure, the idea was flawed from the beginning, but I let hopium cloud my judgment. It was a lesson I won’t forget.

♦♦

Like any other bad habit that leads to bigger problems, smoking hopium manifests differently in each of us. It might show by deferring handling an issue with an employee directly and hoping that they will start performing. It could be losing focus too early in your venture or trying to do too much later in your venture.

I met Kenny Fennell over coffee in one of Ann Arbor’s many coffee shops after a couple of people had recommended we chat. Kenny was a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious graduate school and a finalist for the Go Ford Challenge for his startup Caravan.

Kenny shared some of the challenges that he was having building his social entrepreneurship startup, Caravan. He wanted to help community groups with transportation needs match up with other groups with underutilized vehicles, but was struggling with the business model as well as ensuring that he was solving real problems for his users. I gave him some advice and he promised to stay in touch.

Fast forward three months and Kenny called asking for more advice, but this time about a couple job opportunities he was exploring. What happened to Caravan? “We pulled the plug.” The clarity by which Kenny and his team moved on from Caravan startled me, especially considering how most start up entrepreneurs I talk to who are convinced that the next big contract or key employee or business model tweak was the one that would put them over the top.

For Kenny, avoiding the seductive call of hopium was fairly clear. He and his co-founder mindfully created a social contract that outlined each of their responsibilities and helped to create a culture where the expectation was that Kenny and his cofounder were “honest with each other because our social contract valued listening, being curious, and learning over winning discussions.” This strong foundation allowed them to define their personal limits so that they were clear on how much each was willing to sacrifice for their startup, a critical conversation that was missing in my entrepreneurial adventure. Finally, Kenny and his co-founder created strong decision milestones ahead of time so they could make an evidence-based decision that their startup wasn’t going to take flight.

Like any addiction, hopium is not an easy one to kick. But once you do, you’ll find that you are healthier and better equipped to accomplish what you want to accomplish. And, like my daughter, wife, and I, you’ll sleep like a baby.

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