The 1999 movie Fight Club offers more lessons than you’d think about being a successful entrepreneur. Like the book it’s based on, the film harnesses the fantastical angst of Gen X, confronting the hypocrisy and injustice in society with ironic (and mostly comically destructive) remedies.
Its central character Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) serves as the fast-talking alter-ego to an unnamed wage slave played by Edward Norton, and could be fairly characterized as the film’s prolifically entrepreneurial sparkplug. Durden offers a set of challenges to the travails of modernity including picking fights with random individuals on the street, and destroying the world’s financial institutions with massive nitroglycerine bombs—much of it under the moniker Project Mayhem.
Those particular strategies might not sit well with most of us. The movie so upset studio executives when it was released in 1999 that marketing budgets were slashed and the exec who greenlit the project was fired. But Fight Club has since found a huge following and massive commercial success.
Amid his, shall we say, creative set of approaches to modern life, however, rest a litany of lessons which will serve you, the real-world entrepreneur, as you set forth growing your business. If you aspire to nurture your own (hopefully less destructive) Project Mayhem to reach or exceed the success of Tyler Durden’s, try following his straightforward advice ripped straight from the movie (my interpretations follow his lines):
TD: “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.”
IB: If you’re the kind of person who’s happy defining yourself by titles, semi-monthly pay, the corner office, or the parking spot with your name on it, then startups aren’t for you. You’ll need to get way out of your comfort zone to succeed on your own. Some of those perks will come along anyway, if you’re successful, but that’s not the real reward.
TD: “I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.”
IB: This is akin to Steve Jobs’ advice to “stay hungry; stay foolish.” You’ll never grow unless you concede that you don’t have all the answers, and until you’re able to accept results that differ from what you expect. This is about putting yourself out there, warts and all, and rolling with the punches.
TD: “I don’t wanna die without any scars.”
IB: Seriously, what’s wrong with taking risks? Your scars denote experience, earned wisdom, and courage. That latter attribute is what will lead you down the path to success the quickest. Starting a new business is risky no matter how you play it, so don’t make the mistake of taking the conservative line.
TD: “Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.”
IB: Don’t get caught up believing your own press. By all means, in many circumstances you’ll have to “fake it until you make it,” but don’t internalize that performance. You are what you are. You know your limitations. You are not yet a chicken, but you’re working to get there… and the second you forget that fact, you’ll jump the shark. Therefore, stay humble.
TD: “Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. Like the first monkey shot into space.”
IB: Remember this: You will encounter resistance, friction, and obstacles. You will be frustrated. This is part of the journey. Progress is made one monkey at a time and for a time you will be that monkey, bewildered by the goings on outside your tiny little capsule. Embrace the challenges that beset you and understand the universe at its worst is benevolent, not malicious.
TD: “No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.”
IB: (Confession: This is my favourite). Know what does not matter? The colour of the sofa in the office lobby. Or even whether or not you should have an office lobby. Work on the big stuff; let others sweat the small stuff. Your mind is a finite resource. If you’re thinking about frivolities, you’re not thinking about the important issues for exactly that slice of time. Shame on you.
If you haven’t read it, the movie is very faithful to Chuck Pahlaniuk’s original book. It’s worth a quick weekend of reading. There are many lessons for living simply, and the book confronts our relationship with material possessions head-on. Most importantly, a major objective of Fight Club is to inspire those of us who might seek to leave their mark on the planet (hopefully constructively) to get off the couch and get things moving.
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Ian Bell is a Vancouver-based entrepreneur with 13 years’ experience in building and helping technology startups in the U.S. and Canada. He most recently founded Tingle and RosterBot. A former Apple Research Fellow, he worked at Cisco Systems and Telus before going rogue. He blogs about the industry at IanBell.com.
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