I n Zero to One, Peter Thiel writes that a company that enjoys monopoly profits “has the wider latitude to care about its workers, its products, and its impact on the wider world.” In this case, he is describing how Google’s dominance of the search engine market makes it a monopolist and “(m)onpolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t.” Thiel’s point is that Google is thriving and its profits enable it “to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival.”

In the world of the startup or small business, survival is the watchword. The realities of limited resources force an economy and pragmatism that aren’t as critical in an established organization. Each hire is a make or break decision and every dollar spent is a gamble on the future. Time is the enemy as you bury yourself in the day-to-day necessities of survival. Can you balance it all long enough for the effects of your investments, decisions, and efforts to outrun your limited resources?

In the world of the startup or small business, survival is the watchword.

When you’re building a business, survival-mode thinking is critical. Survival mode is about doing the critical things to stay alive, to stay in business.  It is daily triage. Every decision has a high sense of urgency. Pressure is constant. Operating at this heightened level is intoxicating and exhilarating.  Until it’s not. Soon, it becomes toxic and exhausting. Let’s face it, although survival is a worthy goal, no one wants to exist in a perpetual state of trying to survive. We want to thrive.

For small businesses, it can be a challenge to exit survival mode. Thiel would argue that brutal competition makes it impossible for you to exit survival mode because it limits your profits. I would argue otherwise. For many, survival mode becomes a habit, a business model. Our decisions, approach, and attitude foster a perpetual battle for survival — real or imagined. I’m not saying that stuff doesn’t happen; we live in a very dynamic world and must be prepared to respond to bumps and barriers.  However, I think many of us choose to exist in survival mode because it is actually easier to keep reacting than to take deliberate steps to move to ourselves into thriving mode.

For many, survival mode becomes a habit, a business model.

Wait a minute! Easier? Survival mode is high stress and exhausting. Why would anyone think that was easier? The answer is simple. It is not easier to endure survival mode. It is easier to maintain it.  Put another way, it is more difficult to break the habits that foster survival mode thinking. Wonder if you live in survival mode?  It is likely you already know but here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you often dread going into your place of work?
  2. Are you often strapped for cash?
  3. Do you feel like you don’t control your life or are constantly being buffeted about by external forces? Are you a victim of circumstances?
  4. Do you feel that your options are limited?
  5. Are you happy?
  6. When someone asks you how you’re doing, do you vomit all of the battles with which you are dealing?
  7. Do you often feel overwhelmed by your commitments? (Financial, personal, professional, family, etc.)
  8. Do you long for something different?
  9. Do you feel that you are enduring rather than enjoying elements of your life?
  10. Do you often blame everything but yourself for your challenges?

As you consider your answers to the questions above, what do you notice? They look like some kind of attitude test. Interestingly enough, survival mode seems to align with our attitude. Our responses to these questions are reflective of choices we make, how we see ourselves, and how we see the world around us.

There are times when life demands that we enter survival mode to endure difficulties. However, it can become a habit. If our goal is to thrive, then we have to be willing to recognize the signs and to take the steps necessary to break the habit. Here are some ideas on shifting from surviving to thriving:

  • Honestly assess yourself and your situation. Are you in short-term survival mode or have you created a habit?
  • What are the critical items holding you back? Money, job, customer, staff, etc.  What is your desired state?
  • Who is responsible for your situation? If you can’t take responsibility, you are not ready to step out of survival mode.
  • What can you do today to change your situation? What can you do tomorrow?  The next day? The next month?  The next year?  It is in the small steps taken diligently that you will change things.
  • Who can you recruit to help you along this journey? Discussing this with your team (or your spouse, or your boss, or your friend, etc.) can be cathartic and empowering…for all of you.
  • Be intentional. Be deliberate. Be consistent. Adopt an attitude to thrive, take the steps along your path, and talk to yourself (and others) in a proactive, optimistic tone – the rest will follow.

What happens when you exit survival mode? You find time to think bigger thoughts. You look several moves ahead rather than focusing on getting through the day. You see more in others and begin to envision their possibilities. You begin to clear the path to becoming the best version of yourself.  Your expansive disposition becomes a magnet to life’s possibilities.

Let’s return to Peter Thiel for a moment. Another tenet of Zero to One is the notion of Definite Optimism: the belief that we can envision and create a better future. Creating an attitude to thrive is parallel thinking to definite optimism. With it, you see the future as something you can influence with definite plans and specific actions. Ultimately, moving beyond survival mode isn’t about maximizing profits. It is choosing to control what you can and doing the best with what you have. Everyday.