How To Be A Visionary (and not drive yourself crazy)

“It’s so hard/To say goodbye/To yesterday.” (Boyz II Men)

We sure do love our visionaries here in the startup world.  Visionary companies, visionary founders, visionary investors…every year, SVForum hands out its Visionary Awards to the pioneers of the Valley.

Yet being a visionary is one of the easiest ways to drive yourself crazy.

By nature, a vision is of the future.  If your vision comes true, you’re hailed as a visionary.  If your vision doesn’t come true, you’re either a dreamer or a fool.  Either way, you’re fired.

It’s very easy to get attached to your visions.  They’re so beautiful, and seem so real.  Plus, if they come true, you usually end up becoming rich and famous.

The problem is, reality has a nasty habit of puncturing our visions.  Most of us react by desperately slapping on new patches and blowing as hard as we can to keep our original visions inflated.

Having visions is risky and uncertain.  It’s painful to be wrong.  It’s especially painful to be wrong if everyone else thought you were right for a long time, and praised you for it.  Just ask Andrew Mason.

But the world needs visionaries.  Without a vision of the future, it’s difficult to change the world.

The key to being a visionary is understanding the relationship between vision and reality.  You want your vision to come true, but reality has the final word.  Therefore, you must tether your visions to reality, and be ready to change them if reality invalidates your original vision.

This requires courage, because the world is often harsh to those who change their minds.  But you can make this easier by being humble about your prognostication abilities to start with.  When people call you a visionary, respond by acknowledging the unknowability of the future.  Offer your vision as a possibility, not a guarantee.

In the end, reality rules.  It may rock, or it may bite, but if your vision comes true, good things will happen, even if you took some heat along the way.  If your vision doesn’t come true, no amount of spin will allow you to declare victory.

(Inspired by my friend Lindsey Mead Russell’s post:

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