The person behind the message

I sometimes talk with a key candidate that one of our startups is looking to hire. This is after the founders have already spoken with the candidate.

I don’t say anything different than what the founders say. In fact, I’m not as knowledgeable as our founders are about their businesses. As a result, I’m probably less insightful than they are. However, I still have the conversation because I know that the candidate wants to feel valued. They don’t care only about the content of the message, but also who is communicating it. And hearing the same message from an investor can be more impressive than hearing the same message from an entrepreneur.

This doesn’t make sense because we can only be as successful as the entrepreneurs we back. Any success we have is because of our entrepreneurs. If we’ve chosen to back them, this means that we believe that they can run their business much better than we can. So candidates should value their messages more than ours. But since an investor often has a higher social status than the as of yet unaccomplished startup founder, my words are taken more seriously.

I can also be on the reverse side of this same dynamic. Sometimes I say something to a founder and they don’t take it seriously, or respond that it’s an unfair criticism. Then my partner Hasan says the same thing and they listen. Hasan has a higher social status than my as of yet unaccomplished self so his words are taken more seriously and he’s treated more respectfully.

While the content of a message is more important than who is communicating it, unfortunately it takes more mental effort to process the former than the latter. As a result we rely on shortcuts like valuing a message based on the social status of who is saying it. This is unlikely to change any time soon.

The only solution is to work hard to be successful. Then people will start listening to you.

When this happens, you run into another problem. People stop questioning what you’re saying simply because it’s you who said it. This makes you run the real risk of starting to believe your own bull****.

But this also has a solution. You need to always question yourself, and surround yourself with people who have the courage to evaluate you based on the content of your message rather than your social status.

This is why Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180, is said to have had a man walk together with him as he walked through Rome’s town square. When people praised him, the man’s job was to whisper in his ear “You’re only a man, you’re only a man”.