Jedi-preneurship: What I Learned About Business From Yoda

by Nathan Johnson

Yoda's wisdom to business applies. Hmm.

Every week, I try to draw on the inspiration of great thinkers and leaders. This week my inspiration came in the form of tiny green puppet who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far far away on the planet Dagobah. I’m talking of course about Yoda. Granted, Yoda never got his MBA. And critics may argue he had a rare form of speech-syntax impairment. But if Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker was enough to help him overthrow the evil galactic empire, maybe there is some wisdom in there we can glean for business…

“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”

Yoda wisely recognized that fear thrives off uncertainty. When fear is anonymous and vague, our minds just aren’t capable of dealing with it. In a strange way, being specific about fear takes away all of its power.

When I was wrestling with leaving my corporate job, I felt a pervasive sense of fear. So I took out a piece of paper and documented, in graphic detail, the worst case scenario. It went something like this: “My biggest fear is that everything I try will fail. I’ll lose money. People will think I’m crazy. I’ll have to find another job, Kim and I will have to sell the house, we will be living on the streets. . .” and on and on.

Once it is all out on the table, it doesn’t seem so scary after all. Try it for yourself. You’ll probably realize that the things you are most afraid of aren’t really all that bad.

LUKE: “I’m not afraid.” YODA: “You will be. You will be.”

Yoda knew that fear is an adaptable enemy. As thrilling as it is to conquer one fear, it’s foolish to think new fears won’t come up.

My wife asked me the other night, “are you ever afraid that things won’t work out?” I honestly hadn’t thought about that question in a while, but I knew the answer was “no.” But as I thought about it, I realized that fear hadn’t just gone away. It had taken a different form. I wasn’t afraid of a grand, long-term failure. But I was afraid of making mistakes on a day-to-day basis. How could I be sure I was making the right decision? What if this turned out to be the mistake that would doom the project? What if this blog post idea sucked? I needed to deal with this kind of fear perhaps even more so than any grand sense of fear of things not working out.

So, the point is, no matter where you go and what you do, expect new fears to arise. This isn’t a sign of weakness. If anything, it is a positive sign that you are stretching yourself.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

This may be one of the most difficult yet most profound of Yoda’s insights. Oftentimes, it’s the things we think we already know that hold us back from seeing things as they really are or making new discoveries.

So think about what habits or philosophies have been ingrained in you and are keeping you from making the next big step. Consciously choose what to retain from your experiences and what to unlearn. What am I having to unlearn right now?

  • Layered Decision Making – At my corporate job, there were 8 layers between me and the CEO. I had to go 3 layers up the chain of command just to get a small contract signed. So for 6 years, I was trained to make recommendations. Now, though, I have to unlearn my tendency to just make recommendations and learn how to act decisively.
  • One Shot Launch – Working in CPG, you had one shot to get a new launch right. So you would plan the launch for a year in advance, then follow a very precise execution. The stakes were high. If things didn’t go well, there would be no second chance. I have to unlearn this expectation of launching something large and perfectly.

It’s not easy. Old habits die hard, and new habits are tough to form. But until you unlearn what you have learned, you won’t be able to be like Yoda and, for instance, lift a space ship out of the mud.

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?”

All great things start small. A lot of them stay small. Like Yoda. Don’t be intimated by being small. Use that to your advantage. I love the free ebook, Getting Real, by the guys at 37 signals. Their approach to software development seems a little unusual at first. When they look at a competitive software, they don’t ask, “how could we do more than this?” They ask “how can we do less than this?” They strip away all the bloated features and endless options and come up with a simpler, smaller solution.

As they say, you can’t out-google google. Or out-facebook Facebook. But maybe you could under-facebook Facebook. Use your size, whatever it is, to your advantage.

“Do or do not… there is no try.”

I think somewhere in middle school, we all learned a brilliant trick to avoid commitment. Here’s how it works: when someone asks us to do something, we respond, “I’ll try my best.” This gives us an out. No matter what happens, we can always say, “Well, I tried.”

I do this all this time. When someone asks me what I’m working on, I will say something like, “Well, I’m trying to reinvent coupon distribution on the web” or “I’m trying to create a laptop case using methods traditionally used only in vintage guitar cases.” In these sentences, I’ve only committed myself to the act of trying, an act with no risk of failure. No one will ever dispute that I have tried.

Do a little test with me. Watch how you use the word “ try.” When you use it, correct yourself. Make it a habit to stop “trying” to do something and simple commit to doing or not doing. I’m betting that the certainty and boldness of words we use will be be reflected in our actions.

Well, that wraps it up for business lessons from the jedi master Yoda. Here’s one last clip for your viewing pleasure. Be sure to leave a comment, or click on the Facebook Like button if you enjoyed this!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Carter Hunt October 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Yoda is sweet (to be honest – I actually have nothing to say, just looking to stay on the wall of glory so I can continue to use that as a selling point on my résumé). Good post, changing the words we use can definitely have a positive affect.


Nathan Johnson October 28, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Nice, I love the strategy. Have you checked back on the homepage? You now have won a shiny medal next to your name :) All those comments are paying off big time…


Carter Hunt October 28, 2011 at 9:55 pm

That is fantastic Nathan, I have indeed EARNED that ‘top commentator award’ and this acknowledgement is further bolstering my standing in being the best at everything I do.


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