Avoiding The 'Squirrel Trap' And Other Hidden Entrepreneurial Lessons From Hollywood

This post by Mark Newberg first appeared in Forbes.

What can a talking dog, a human computer, an aging fighter, and a farmer’s field teach us about entrepreneurship? More, it turns out, than we might imagine. Especially if we’re willing to think a little differently about the messages from some of our favorite films. In that spirit, here are a handful of Hollywood’s hidden lessons:

  1. The Squirrel Trap, and how to avoid it

Being an entrepreneur means being an idea person. There’s really no way around it. From figuring out what you want to do, to launching a business, to getting a product out the door, there are new ideas lurking around every corner, just waiting for you to run them down. Here’s a great bit of advice hidden in an even better Pixar movie: Don’t. Don’t try to chase everything. You’ll end up catching nothing.

Remember “Up!,”? There’s plenty to remember about it, from a floating house, to a cantankerous and curmudgeonly protagonist, to one of the best silent scenes in the history of talking movies. But there’s one bit that’s always stuck with me, even if I didn’t know why. It involves a talking dog. And a squirrel.

It wasn’t until I started mentoring startups, and paying attention to the patterns I saw, that I realized why the “Squirrel Trap” was so clever. It’s because, so often, entrepreneurs (and the entrepreneurially inclined) want to chase after every idea. We get distracted. Or we get enamored. Or we think we can do it all. But we’re not Gal Godot, or Robert Downey Jr. We can’t do everything (and even Tony Stark needed a robo-butler and metal suit in order to save the world).

2. Treat Words Like Math

How many times have you heard someone struggle to explain something? When this happens, the natural tendency is to add words to the explanation, layering them on top of each other in an attempt to talk our way to a sensible conclusion. It doesn’t usually work. Instead, if you find yourself punctuating sentences with, “right?” or “know what I mean?” the chances are that your intended audience is thinking, “No. Not at all.”

While watching Hidden Figures, I was struck by the precision of the math. There were no random insertions of stray equations into the formulas for launch or re-entry. If there had been, John Glenn wouldn’t have come home. And that’s another lesson: Be precise with your words. Explaining what we do, regardless of what it is, is hard work. It takes effort, and practice, and refinement. But the reward for getting it right is an audience (or investors), who understand your point.

3. Put in the Work

Real entrepreneurship isn’t particularly glamorous. There are many more tough days than easy ones. There’s plenty more failure than success. Despite the much-hyped glamour of hockey-stick growth and fast exits, there’s little that’s easy in entrepreneurship.

We tend to forget how much unseen work goes into overnight success. Which means we ought to learn a lesson from Rocky Balboa. Take your pick of the Rocky movies. Each of them can be remembered (except Rocky V) for the glitz and glamor, pomp and pageantry of the main event. Or we can remember the training montages that celebrate the hard work that led to the main event. I prefer the latter. I’m also partial to 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Because it’s a reminder that, no matter how experienced or well-known you might be, if you’re going to take on a big challenge, you’d better be willing to put in the work. And above all, if you go into it looking for the quick exit, you’re better off not getting into the ring at all.

4. If you Build it, They Might Come

In 1989, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella wandered into his fields of corn, chasing an elusive voice exhorting him to do something crazy. It was, in many ways, a perfect metaphor for entrepreneurship. What it turned into was a cultural phenomenon.

These days, a modified version of Field of Dreams’ most famous phrase ((“If you build it, he will come.”) is ingrained in American culture, right alongside baseball and apple pie. It exists as a sort of shorthand for the power of product. If you just build it (whatever “it” is) and get it to market, people will buy it. And you will succeed.

But that mistakes the imagined meaning of the film for its actual message. Nothing about the movie was easy. Ray spent far more time teetering on the brink than reaping the rewards. In fact, of the movie’s 107 minutes, just fewer than 60 seconds involved “they” showing up. In other words, less than one percent of the story focused on success, while nearly all of it focused on the effort to get there. Which made it a great movie, and an even better lesson.

Stay Focused. Be precise. Work hard. Persevere. Nothing about these ideas, applied to entrepreneurship, are at all new. They’re almost a tale as old as time. But sometimes it takes a different lens to remember what we already know. So, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, keep looking for inspiration in all the usual places. Just do it in all the unusual ways.