168: 🔮 Don't Be a Glass Cannon

168: 🔮 Don't Be a Glass Cannon


On the importance of being able to take a hit and keep going, whether a bad grade, a blown engine or mud-soaked Burning Man.

Cultivating Resilience is a weekly newsletter about rebounding from setbacks and reinventing the future—by 3x founder and executive coach Jason Shen.

Happy Labor Day for my American readers. I began this letter from the laundromat on Bedford Ave because my washing machine has been unreliable. It was a quiet Friday morning, so after trekking the block and a half to my local laundromat, I was able to find two empty machines side-by-side.

In a pinch, a laundromat can actually make for a decent writing spot. I propped my notebook up on one of the blue plastic countertops, speckled with shiny flakes mimicking marble. As TV mounted in the corner plays Live with Kelly and Mark —an episode of back-to-school essentials for your college-bound kid, I began to explore the ideas of hardiness and fragility.

I was always a good student but never the best. So when I got a bad grade on a test or an assignment, I wasn't pleased, but I wasn't devastated either. The starkest contrast for me when a young woman named Hoa in my dorm burst into tears at dinner freshman year because she had received a B+ on something, and had never earned below an A- throughout all of high school. She couldn't take it.

This was back in 2004. Nearly two decades later, I suppose a B+ would be even more shocking, considering the grade inflation data coming from Harvard (a broader trend affecting public and private schools)

In gaming and anime, the term "glass cannon" refers to a character who has tremendous damage output (aka a cannon...) but is easily eliminated due its own defensive capabilities (...made of glass). Pikachu from Pokemon, Scarlett Witch from The Avengers, Cyclops from the X-Men, and Akuma from Street Fighter V all meet this criteria.

Hoa has gone on to be a section chief physician at the VA so she obviously done just fine. But in that moment at dinner, she was a glass cannon. Very smart but struggling to cope with a setback. Being a glass cannon only works if you are part of a team that can protect you, or you are exceptionally good at avoiding any damage. Possible in a video game or show, far less likely in real life.

Resilience is a topic I come back to again and again because it is a skill we must learn and relearn. Two of the key principles of Burning Man are radical self-reliance and communal effort, both are being tested as tens of thousands of participants are stranded by anomalous heavy rains turning the one lane road out of the desert into undrivable mud.

It is not enough to be powerful and capable of achieving our goals, we must also be skilled at dealing with set backs. We cannot avoid taking damage and experiencing unexpected trouble. But we can learn to take it, to avoid the worst of it, and to recover and keep going.

All the startup founders and leaders I coach are faced with difficult situations and choices. But some are more grounded in the face of those challenges. The most intrepid leaders know they could survive the worst-case scenario. They have endured repeated failure, the experience of poverty, a potentially fatal diagnosis in  and lived through it—perhaps bruised and battered, but still breathing.

The Boeing 747 has four engines, but is more than capable of continuing to fly with one blown. A British Airways 747 once made the journey from Los Angeles to the United Kingdom, an 11 hour journey, with only three intact engines (link). According to one captain, the plane is capable of maintaining altitude and velocity even at two engines and pilots of four engine planes are trained to fly the craft with only two operational (link).

We can and should be aspire to be more like the 747 than the glass cannon. We are entirely capable of enduring, adapting, and overcoming many scenarios and situations, especially in the modern day. Most of the threats and fears that consume us are social or self-esteem related rather than truly life threatening. But the ancient fear centers of our brain can't always make the distinction.

But when you know you are resilient, fear loses its vice-like grip. You are no longer trapped in its prison. When you know you can handle most any circumstance, whether withering criticism, a bad breakup, an unfortunate firing—you are more willing to aim high and swing big.

You are not a glass cannon. You can take the hit and keep going. So go for it.


PS - Still looking for readers for my upcoming book on how startup founders can successfully pivot their companies → sign up here.

PPS - I made a video based on #162 about how we shouldn't copy Shopify and delete all our meetings (link)

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