Pots of Gold

Here’s a painful contradiction at the heart of spending time on startups: all the good stuff you can create is in the future, but all the patterns you look at to learn what to do are in the past. This makes your brain do funny things. On the one hand, you see how huge things can get, on the other hand, it’s easy to think “well, crap, all the huge things already happened and I wasn’t a part of them.” So you start a new thing, and it is tiny compared to the huge thing. That can start a recursive loop of pessimism. My bet is that this kills a lot of interesting new things before they can ever get going.[1]

And ok it gets worse. Maybe you had a chance to join/invest in that small thing that’s now huge.[2] You look at your non-existent alternate reality success and that hurts. Maybe you had many of these opportunities. [3] So now you feel stupid on top of discouraged!

I know I’ve fallen prey to this mindset. It’s the source of most of my worst decisions as an investor. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with feelings of anger and stupidity about things I didn’t invest in which other people did.[4] It’s a rough place to be, but I’ve increasingly come to rely on a different way of thinking about opportunity and success that’s been hugely helpful.

For lack of a better and more unique term, I’ve been thinking of this mindset as “pots of gold.” You could also maybe call it unbridled optimism, but it isn’t quite. The core of it, silly as this may sound, is to think about three things:

  1. The origin story of the big things around you

  2. Remember that the future is bigger than the past

  3. Have confidence that either you or the smart people you know can build something significantly bigger than seems reasonable[5]

If you can hold this in your head and actually believe it, you get set free from all kinds of things. All of a sudden, the stuff you missed isn’t bad, it’s validation to take more risk in the future. Even better, each miss gives you something to learn, input to iterate your model of the world. This frame of the world says that there’s always more opportunity in the future than the past, so trying to build new things has a higher expected value than you probably realize.

This is hard to do. Thinking about the world this way means that you have to objectively understand why you were wrong in the past. Most of us don’t want to do that because it is painful. It also requires a significant amount of imagination, which is tiring for most people older than ten. You’ll also need a near endless reserve of patience since compounding growth takes a long time to manifest a significant outcome.[6]

But even though - or especially because - this is hard, it is much more fun than feeling sad about what you didn’t do. Go do something other than staring at what other people did and brag about on the internet. Take a risk, learn about something new, invest in it, start something. Find another pot of gold.


[1] For sure a corollary to the Innovator’s Dilemma, but happening inside the brains of founders.

[2] I wrote about this dynamic here: https://blog.aaronkharris.com/why-build-toys.

[3] A number of coins and tokens and NFTs means this applies to just about everyone.

[4] To be sure, I also got this right a few times, which is also kinda maybe the point here.

[5] I recently joked to a friend that I have total confidence in my friends and optimism for the things they do, and absolutely no confidence in myself and the things I want to build. He said he had the same mindset, which made us realize we should probably have some more confidence in ourselves.

[6] Zoom in on the early parts of even the most aggressive "hockey stick" and the growth and scale will look positively boring.

Thanks to Zach Sims, Adora Cheung, and Harj Taggar for the conversations that helped me figure out how to express this idea.