“Respect the deus ex machina.”

I said these words during a recent virtual Chairman Mom event about burning your life to the ground and starting again. We were talking about how you know it’s the moment for radical change, and I said to “respect the deus ex machina.” I’d never thought about it before I said it, but so often we get a dramatic sign that things in our lives are NOT at all working or serving us. The challenge is whether or not we listen.

I can think of a few Chairman Mom threads that speak to that, but this one is probably the most staggering and the recent. So often we are sent signs by the universe (or whatever/no power you believe in.) But it’s up to us to listen.

Has someone betrayed your trust?

Do you feel physically ill every time your boss’s name shows up on your phone? 

Have you gotten laid off? 

These may all be deus ex machinas trying to send you a loud and clear signal about where your life should go. I’m always amazed at the number of people who sit there ignoring sign after sign while asking for a sign. 

This was a lesson I learned reporting my first book, Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good, about Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, although I thought of it slightly differently at the time. Marc Andreessen was frequently depicted as getting his “big lucky break” as this young brilliant kid who Jim Clark—then the most successful founder in Silicon Valley history—called and asked if he wanted to co-found the next company together. 

To put this in historical context, this would be like Elon Musk cold-calling you before you’d ever held a job to ask you to become his partner. (Let’s put aside some of the horrific things Musk has been tweeting of late and just focus on Elon Musk the business success for the purposes of this example!)

I asked Andreessen about that moment when Jim Clark called, and he told me something that blew me away: He was not Clark’s first choice. Or second. Or fifth or even tenth!! If memory serves, he was something like Clark’s 12th choice. At the time, Andreessen said he was constantly shocked at how many people are fundamentally risk-averse. They talk about it. They want to be risk takers. But when presented with a substantially de-risked version of doing the thing they keep talking about, they come up with reasons why not to do that thing.  

It’s two sides of the same coin: Jumping to something new, versus burning down the old. But any dramatic change may need to have a little of both. 

Now obviously, there are real risks in burning your life down to start anew. It is an inherently privileged thing to consider. But sometimes it’s easier when you have less to lose. A lot is changing all around us, a lot is getting destroyed, more than 100,000 people are dying from a disease we can’t control or wish out of existence, our social fabric has been ripped in two, and we’re in a horrific recession. It’s hard to think of more dramatic deus ex machinas crashing into our lives right now.

Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:

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