One of the most important skills an entrepreneur can have is the ability to sound reasonable. That seems like a fairly basic requirement, at first, and it is; what that really boils down to is that your role as an entrepreneur is to be excited about what you do, while avoiding coming off as ignorant, manipulative, or arrogant. It also includes not being too self-assured, too resistant to criticism, too outlandish in your expectations, or too insane. It would be ideal to not sound insane at all, but let's face it – insanity is what gets people into being entrepreneurs in the first place, so that's hopeless.
I read a study once that changed how I look at the advice I collect from people, and also the advice I give to people, and it directly relates to how you define “reasonable”. More specifically, it changed how I look at strong criticism and strong opinion, which is something you'll encounter a great deal of if you're working on anything remotely interesting or groundbreaking. The study was very simple. The researchers asked people to rate their own skill level at a task on a scale of 1 to 10. A ten meant the person thought they were very good at the skill, and comparatively much better than others in their field. A one meant the opposite, that they felt that they were very poor at the skill when compared to others.
Afterwards, the participants were given tests to determine how accurate they were in predicting their actual performance at that skill.
What the researchers found was that the better and more informed someone is about a subject, the less likely they are to list themselves on either extreme of the scale. In other words, someone who walks in and says, “I'm the best programmer in the world. I'm way better than everyone else,”... (i.e. rated themselves as extremely good)...well, there's a good chance they are wrong. On the other hand, someone who says, “Well, I'm not terrible. I know people that are worse than me, but I know people that are better than me, too. I'm a six.” That person is probably giving you a more accurate picture of their abilities than the first.
This makes sense when you think about it.
If you don't know much about a topic, you don't have a very good scale to compare yourself against. You've never met a real artistic genius or a truly terrible painter, so it's hard to decide where your own skills fall between the two of them. Without knowledge of the subject matter, or of who is above and below you in skill, you're more likely to assume that you fall on one of the far extremes. When asked, you can honestly say, “I know of no one better at this skill than I.”
However, if you're extremely informed about your subject matter, it's very easy to come up with exceptions to the “I'm the best,” or, “I'm the worst,” mentality. You'll always be able to find someone that's slightly better in some area than you are, if nothing else because they're more specialized in that area than you, or have more experience.
In all, that translates to into a very profound realization for me.
Simply put, the people with the most extreme, absolute opinions are the ones you should listen to with a grain of salt. In other words, the Know It All that's likely to be willing to tell you exactly why you'll absolutely succeed or absolutely fail is probably the last person in the world you want to take seriously. In fact, the more insistent they are that their perspective is the only right one, or the only reasonable side of the story, or the more absolute they are in their opinion, the more likely they are to be wrong.
It likely means that loudest opinion is often rooted in a very limited experience set, and are therefore the least qualified.
The point is, if a person tells you that they'd snort milk from their nose if they were in a position of power in a large company and you put your idea in front of them – and you will encounter these people – then it's a pretty safe bet that they are not actually a person of power in a large company. Nor are they likely to be any time soon. Someday they may make it that high, with time and experience, but most likely by that point they'll have learned a little about what they do and don't know, and won't laugh at an idea just because it sounds crazy. They may not agree with it, for sure, but they probably won't laugh at it.
There's two final points I want to leave you with on this concept. First, anonymous forums on the Internet are great places to see the extremes of every argument. Nintendo vs. Sony, Microsoft vs. Apple, Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Republican vs. Democrat. Harry Potter vs. Twilight *shudder*. The most impassioned posters with the most extreme opinions will dominate virtually every discussion. And by reading both sides you probably won't get nearly as informed an opinion as if you sat down with the more moderate posters and had a real conversation for 30 minutes.
Second, and probably most importantly, if you're starting out working on your idea and find yourself saying things like, “This won't possibly fail,” or, “This is the best idea to ever be invented,” then you should take a good, long, careful look at yourself. You're exhibiting all the symptoms of the uninformed. If someone comes to me and says, “I have a good idea,” I tend to take them more seriously than if they come to me and say, “I have a fantastic, wonderful idea worth billions of dollars.” An informed dreamer and entrepreneur will be able to tell you not only where every potential failure point of their idea is, but then also how to avoid those failure points. Good ideas are great ideas that have “if” attached to them. This is a great idea if this happens, or if that happens. Being informed means you've taken your great idea and identified all the “ifs”; you've made your great idea a good idea, too.
And when you reach the point that you need to be taken seriously by those that are informed – the VPs that won't snort milk through their nose at crazy ideas – the last thing you want is to come across like one side or the other of a online anonymous forum argument.
The informed can sense the uninformed from a mile away.