The problem is the problem. Work it.

by • December 7, 2011 • Best of, FoundersComments (11)947

The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem.

A friendly reminder:

The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem. –Steven Pressfield

Some stuff is just hard.

We start thinking we messed up. That it’s an issue with us. But it’s not. The work is hard and the problem is hard. You need to solve the problem, not fix yourself.

The quote above is from Steven Pressfield’s incredible Do the Work. The audiobook (that’s a store link) is about 90 minutes long, so it fits in a single dreary London commute and costs less than lunch.

My problem as of late

My previous businesses have been “proper” tech startups. I’m know one or two specific verticals and business models well enough for them to act as anchors for my mental model of the startup world.

Without making an explicit decision to do so, I found myself spending all my time doing stuff like writing this blog (which I love) and working on lots of projects rather than a single company.

I had no idea how to describe what I was doing, where it was leading, or how to go about getting there.

And I thought the problem was me. That I didn’t have the vision and wherewithal to see the goal. And worse still, I wasn’t able to decide what to do first because I had no way of knowing whether it was useful long-term.

I was a touch stressed.

Moving the problem outside

But then, remember:

The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem.

My problem was that I had no idea how a gig-based business works (as opposed to a tech startup). So over the past 2 weeks I’ve dug into the literature, taking notes on a dozen books, countless posts, and plenty of videos. I dissected the business models of the companies I admire in the space, and took a deep look at a few I want to actively avoid imitating (aka. antilogs).

Figuring out how to move forward in unknown terrain is an impossible sludge. You can’t do a thing without second guessing yourself because you don’t know which way is up. Of course I was feeling stuck.

On the other hand, doing a bit of good old fashioned book learning is super easy. It gave me a sense of the constraints and wiggle room for a new type of business.

Keep on keeping on

Now, I’m not saying you should drop everything and start reading. In fact, please don’t ;). Your momentum is precious!

Literature happened to be the solution to my most recent problem, but it may not be the solution to yours (or my next one).


If you’re feeling stuck because of something you can’t do, aren’t good enough to do, or don’t know how to do, then take a step back. The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem.

Separate it from yourself, see what it looks like, and then do the entirely mundane work required to unknot it.

PS. So what’s the problem? Group therapy continues on hacker news. And if you’re in London, come talk it through £5 startup burger night or elsewhere.


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11 Responses to The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem.

  1. devGabriel says:

    Well, that has already happened to me sometimes.
    Everytime that happens, I get a little down. Makes no good.

    The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem.
    My new mantra (:

  2. Luke says:

    Thanks for sharing the thoughts – arrived via Y Combinator’s HN – and I appreciate any level-headed take on starting/running a business.

    The pressure is still on to solve any particular issue, but at least with your approach you provide a clear path to solving it, rather than getting lost in mounting levels of panic.

    • robfitz says:

      Hey Luke, agreed that the pressure remains. Like you say, there’s no easy way out, but at least separating the problem from yourself makes it a little easier to figure out which direction to work toward.

  3. bob says:

    Sometimes the problem is the problem. Yet sometimes when I see people stumbling over semantics and grasping at esoteric straws I begin to strongly feel that the problem is you.

    • robfitz says:

      From the perspective of an organisation, manager, or investor, I agree with your point. When you find faulty cogs in your business, you may as well remove or replace them.

      And for an individual, it’s important to acknowledge your own responsibility in the mess. The universe and other people within it are not obligated to help you, and neither are they conspiring to get you.

      However, someone beginning a new business is in neither of those situations. Out of the gate, we can’t exactly replace ourselves with a better employee. And when we inevitably hit an obstacle, it’s counterproductive to apply the manager’s view of “this is a bad person” to ourselves.

      In that case, instead of slinging blame around as you suggest, we need to turn the problem into something attackable, and then kill it. Startups are made out of people — you work with your founding team’s constraints, and you find a way to succeed.

      • bob says:

        I don’t choose at this point to take any responsibility for your problem, especially since I don’t have a proper definition of it. Also, I haven’t really suggested anything, but merely stated a fact.

        It is entirely productive to recognize the utility of replacing oneself if such an opportunity arises. If you are confident in your own abilities and are still unable to transform the problem into something attackable, then perhaps there is no problem.

        What is your business anyway? Hopefully something more tangible than “startups”. Concentrate and try to focus on your widgets man!

        And to the poor fellow who posted below, my warning to you is this: “Do not ignore the 700 lb gorrilla in the room, it will squash you. If you feel you have a good reason to despair, you better find a way to deal with it besides simply chanting: The problem’s not me, the problem’s the problem”

    • Luke says:

      Missed the point. And trolling. But then, that’s so typical of Bob.

  4. Joe H says:

    Great post Rob. Even now when I am “in it” post launch it is easy to get down on yourself real quick. I am so guilty of that. Going from elation to despair in about 5 seconds. Thanks for posting this, its a great encouragement.

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