Editor’s note: Dr. Anna Akbari is a sociologist, entrepreneur, innovation consultant, and author of the new book Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way to Happiness. The BFC blog recently chatted with Anna about her new book and what it means to lead a “startup life.”
BFC: What inspired you to write Startup Your Life?
Anna: It was the book I needed but couldn’t find. It was borne from my own struggles trying to be happy and feel “successful” in between large milestones. Often we think we’ll be happy once we reach major goals, like a promotion or getting married. But we forget the in-between stuff, which is 99% of our lives. So I wanted to give people a framework for approaching where there would be everyday victories, and where they could find happiness and contentment in the small moments of daily life, like having a successful date.
BFC: What is a startup approach to life?
Anna: I worked as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and I realized that you could integrate ideas from running startups into how you live your life. We often think that our personal lives just happen to us or that all we have to do to be happy and successful is to follow a model that’s worked for other people. But that’s exactly how large corporations think about their own operations, and it prevents them from innovating, and opens them up to disruption.
There are a couple of principles that define a startup approach to life. Startups have to be nimble. They can’t plan so much. Yes, they have goals they’re working toward, but there are so many things in flux all the time that they are constantly experimenting, assessing the outcome, and getting feedback. So they’re driven more by iterating than planning. In our lives, we often do the opposite. We want to plan and have everything conform to the plans we set. But that sets us up for devastating failure because it makes us unable to cope when things (inevitably) don’t go our way. Startups, on the other hand, expect failure and respond by pivoting—or taking what they’ve learned and applying it to the next project. Let’s say you’re trying to change your diet so you feel more energetic. You could try to formulate a strict diet plan that’s unsustainable. Or you could experiment, removing certain foods during certain weeks, and see how you feel. The idea is to stay nimble and learn throughout the process—not plan with the assumption that you already know everything or as if everything is static.
BFC: You write about the importance of “hustling.” Tell us more.
Anna: Hustling is another principle of the startup life. Sometimes it takes scrappy grit to give yourself the edge. Dating is a great example. We often think that Mr. or Ms. Right will knock on our door and if it’s meant to be, it will work out. But that’s not a realistic approach to love. Instead of waiting for love to happen to us, we need to hustle and seek it out by repeatedly finding opportunities to put ourselves out there, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Maybe you’re at a party and you think no one there is interesting. But instead of taking refuge in your phone, go out of your way to talk someone. Startups understand that every single connection leads to something else—every encounter is a data point, a learning opportunity. You might not fall in love with whomever you talk to at the party, but maybe you’ll become friends, or maybe you’ll learn something interesting from him, or maybe he’ll introduce you to your new best friend or future husband. So we should fight against complacency and put ourselves out there.
What is one thing we all can do to make our lives more innovative and entrepreneurial?
We all have mental models that help us make sense of the world and relate to people. Our mental models shape our perception of ourselves (how we think we “should” or “shouldn’t” appear and behave), our political persuasions, and our values. Mental models are obviously useful. They help us move through life efficiently and, when we need to, on autopilot. But mental models can also lead to stale thinking. Or they get lead us into a rut. If you’re the kind of person who thinks you’re terrible at math, you’re not going to try to get better. So while mental models have their virtues, it’s important to evaluate them from time to time. The best way to disrupt your mental models is by putting yourself in a new situation—like exposing yourself to media, art, or culture that you ordinarily would not seek out, or even just a person or group that challenges the way you think (which we successfully avoid more than you might think). Novelty helps disrupt the linear path you’ve been on and allows you to question your patterns of thinking, either leading you to affirm them or to refresh your mindset.
BFC: What was the most surprising thing you learned writing this book?
Anna: Most people think a startup life is something other people do. I’ve led a startup life, for example, which meant that the path I took professionally was not direct. It made many twists and turns. To some people, that seems too confusing or not secure enough, so they dismissed my life path as not right for them. And yet so many wonderful opportunities came my way because I stayed nimble, hustled, and sought out opportunities everywhere I could find them. There was nothing particular extraordinary about the individual choices I was making, and yet, collectively, they created a life that was so different and seemingly unachievable to other individuals. I’m hoping that by articulating my methodology for startup living in my book that people see this way of life as less a path for “other” people and more a framework for their own lives.
BFC: One of Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues is industry, which I imagine plays a role in the startup life. Franklin defined industry as “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” What role does industry, or what we might today call productivity, play in the start-up life?
Anna: “Cut off all unnecessary actions”—that’s the core of leading a start-up life. To keep yourself lean, nimble, moving forward toward your core mission with agility—while still creating ample space for play and exploration. Industry is nothing without imagination.