A cautionary tale for folks convinced of their infallibility
(Please note: names, facts and places have been slightly altered to protect identities; you cannot research any of this. That’s intentional.)
“Well you know that there was a leak at the plant, and that all the birds and animals out there are now affected. They’re all born with deformities. So are all the children in the area.”
I winced. Again. Honestly. I had worked in that field some years back. What Jan was claiming was patently untrue.
She wasn’t done.
“Every vaccine today causes autism. It’s a government plot. It’s working, too. They’re trying to kill us all off.”
I mumbled something shy of an acknowledgement, glad that she couldn’t see the smallpox vaccine scar on my left arm.
Jan went on about this and that and the other “proven” conspiracy theories. While far from what we would today call a Flat-Earther, she was off the rails entirely. Otherwise, incredibly smart, but just….off the rails. Enough so that I had learned to stay away most of the time. It wasn’t getting any better.
Jan and I had met back in 1997 when I’d moved to the Inland Northwest. She was a PhD, an inventor, and smart as a whip. She’d been of interest for me to invite her to a women’s group I’d formed of top-notch women. However, during the vetting process, over coffee in a small shop downtown, I began to have doubts. As it was I never told her about the group, for good reason.
Jan had created a revolutionary medical device. It was smart, simple and useful, and I’d bought one for myself. It worked, for me at least, and for a number of others whose anecdotal information Jan took for proof and validation.
She was convinced that she was going to save the world. She had a massive ego, and she wouldn’t brook any delays or disagreements.
Off she went to the local hospitals, which rejected her outright. She wasn’t a doctor, she didn’t have years of empirical research on her device. She was in too much of a hurry. She felt that nobody would understand what she had created, and wasn’t the slightest bit interested in anyone else’s input.
People listened politely, then shut the door in her face. It didn’t help that she was openly condescending, if not outright hostile to anyone who didn’t see the miracle that she had created.
She was infuriated and insulted. However, rather than seek out a research facility which could work with her to establish baselines and the kind of validation the medical community needed, she trotted her device elsewhere.
Met with the same hard wall of resistance to her device, she got bitter. Not only that, she took all the rejection personally. Suddenly, anyone who didn’t believe in her device was part of a much larger set of conspiracies.
Her sales team, once populated with dedicated, talented people, turned over again and again. She complained to me regularly that they didn’t “get it.” She was incapable of seeing that her extremism and arrogance were forcing people away, even those of us who were raving fans of her device.
She found herself carrying her entire company on her thin shoulders, the weight of its success solely her responsibility. She thrived in her role as the martyr for the cause. Her cause, as it was. Nobody else other than a few very happy paying customers wanted any part of her.
She steadily unraveled. It was hard to witness.
Soon she had collected a remarkable number of conspiracy theories. They got wilder and wilder. Some were garden variety. Others were more sinister, as though she was having basement meetings with monk-like hooded characters at 4 am. She had decided that there was a plot against her personally. People couldn’t see the miracle of her product because the government or some organization had damaged their brains. Look, you could argue the veracity of that but not in this article.
I used to work hard to find her leads, but could no longer. I was unwilling to give my good name to the kind of abuse she subjected others to, which put me at risk by association. As a result, I ended up skittering on the edges of being accused as “against her.”
Jan completely believes stories like this beaut, because she would see a fellow martyr:
Despite her own scientific background, the researcher part of her has vacated the building. She got to the point where she believed her device didn’t need to be proven.
As a result, her investors also left the building.
So has her staff.
And those of us who once believed deeply not only in her invention but also in her.
Entrepreneurs implode when they cannot let go of the notion they are god. No matter how terrific the invention, product or service, if the entrepreneur cannot receive feedback, can’t handle rejection, and ends up licking their wounds in the quiet, dark corners of their angry minds, they will fail. For their anger festers, rather than drives them to be better. Ask different questions. Humbly ask for help and guidance from people who wish to see them succeed, but also who expect them to be mature enough to grow through failure and rejection.
Rejection is guaranteed, especially if what you’ve created is revolutionary. That almost guarantees that certain folks who are invested in, and benefit from the status quo will be threatened. Ignore this at your peril. Understand it and plan for it, you increase your chances of success.
As with all things, it takes a village to launch a product. While it’s also true that a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee, getting a new product or idea off the ground is the result of a lot of good minds. When a brilliant entrepreneur cannot receive feedback, and deems anyone else an idiot who doesn’t wholly agree, the launch is doomed from the start.
There are inventions (gasless cars, or cars that use very little) which have indeed been killed off because too much is invested in the current economy, a cure for cancer that would end too many jobs and cost too many providers their villas in Provence. Lots of examples.
Part of what Jan didn’t ask was who had a lot to lose if her product worked?
In her invention’s case, lots of folks.
She didn’t do her market research. She assumed that because her invention solved a real problem, or at least certainly appeared to, everyone would be delighted.
This is a cautionary tale of one man who paid a terrible price for being right at the wrong time:
Ignaz Semmelweis suffered a terrible fate in 1865. A Hungarian doctor who understood, before his time, that hand washing saved lives, he was ostracized and later committed to an insane asylum. It didn’t help that he publicly berated other physicians, who at the time assumed that they were above all reproach. That, besides the fact that by delivering babies right after doing autopsies of women who had died of puerpural fever, were delivering the disease to those women because they didn’t wash their hands.
Semmelweis died at 47 of an infection likely caused by the very thing he was trying to prevent. I would posit that what killed him had more to do with his inability to communicate respectfully with the physicians at the time, misguided as they may have been. But their beliefs were stronger than Semmelweis’ spot-on instincts. He was later proven right by Louis Pasteur. Little good it did him.
Jan is no different in the sense that she attacks those who don’t support her. She invests in lugnut conspiracy theories that people are determined to turn the world into the walking dead (look, Verizon is doing a fine job of that already, and so is Botox). She has chased off all those who might have been great supporters.
A key part of launching something new is understand who is likely to be your enemy, and why. That is an essential part of strategy, timing, and relationship- building. Jan’s device is unlikely to ever see any kind of broad use and certainly no funding unless, she is capable of removing herself from center stage.
For someone like Jan, having a larger corporation buy her out could well be a better strategy. She would lose control over her device, but that larger company could fund the research necessary and then the marketing to launch the product. She could continue as a consultant or advisor. Certainly she would benefit financially.
Jan truly believes that she is the only person on earth smart enough to work with her device.
What is more likely is that Jan’s brilliance was in designing it in the first place. The question for her and for anyone else is when it is time to hand that product, device and idea over those whose skills are better than ours in the next phase?
I’ve worked with small business and in particular women entrepreneurs for years. Watching Jan implode was difficult. She had- has still got- a great product. But the more she slides into the outer edges of conspiracy theories, the less likely it is that anyone will want to engage with her. She has been deserted by her business associates and her friends.
No matter how brilliant we may be, that very brilliance may end up being a road block. Our willingness to engage other smart people whose skills are different than ours gives us a far greater chance of success.