Another week. It’s déjà vu. As a startup founder you’ve got used to it. Gone are the days of noisy, vibrant Monday morning team meetings, filled with energy, banter and crashing new ideas, before dashing across town to pitch energetically to a prospect, and then firing yourself up for a coffee with an angel investor. You’re trying hard, but the colour and spark are waning, your folks are looking weary, all-remote, and another day on Hangouts and Slack beckons. It’s wash-rinse-repeat, Ground Day existence for your startup venture ambitions.
It was Groundhog Day at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania last week. On February 2 every year since 1887, Groundhog Day, featuring a rodent meteorologist, is celebrated. According to folklore, if a groundhog comes out of its hole on this day and its sunny and sees its shadow, it gets scared and runs back into its burrow, predicting six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring. ‘Punxsutawney Phil’ is North America’s most famous weather predictor.
Each year, tens of thousands of people converge in Punxsutawney on February 2 to witness Phil’s prediction. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club hosts a three-day celebration featuring entertainment and activities. In this pandemic year there were none of the usual celebratory in-person events on the day, it was a live YouTube broadcast as Phil made his appearance. The groundhog was awakened from his burrow at 7.35am and promptly predicted six more weeks of winter, followed by the brightest spring you’ve ever seen. Of course, this is now just a tradition, with no real meteorological validity.
It all started back in 1887, when a newspaper editor belonging to a group of groundhog hunters called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club declared that ‘Phil’, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. I found this after watching the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray which popularised the phrase as a reference to the feeling that each day repeats itself in a boring, humdrum way, day after day.
It’s an entertaining film which makes a comedic play on the repetition of the day. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the event, experiences repeats of the same day over and over again. After the celebration concludes, a blizzard closes the town, forcing Phil to spend an extra day in Punxsutawney. He wakes the next morning to find it is February 2 again, and the day unfolds in exactly the same way, over and over again.
And so it goes, for 33 days. Connors’ Groundhog Day begins each morning with his waking up to the same song, Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe, on his alarm clock radio, but with his (and only his) memories of the previous day intact, trapped in a seemingly endless time loop to repeat the same day in the same small town.
Stuck in this time warp, Phil creates an extravagant life for himself and indulging his pleasures, taking advantage of the situation. He learns people’s secrets, steals money, and seduces women, except for one in particular, Rita. He memorises her favourite drinks and foods, learns a couple of lines of French, figures out all the right things to say, but no matter what he tries, he can’t seduce her.
After attempting all these shortcuts, Phil becomes depressed, dreading his existence. He hits rock bottom and then attempts many forms of suicide. He jumps off a building, he drops a toaster into the bathtub, he drives off a cliff with the groundhog. Nothing works. Every morning, Phil wakes up at 6am, in the same bed, faced with the same day, with Sonny and Cher playing on the radio. Finally, Phil accepts his fate. He accepts that he’s stuck in Punxsutawney forever, and subsequent to his hedonistic pursuits, re-examines his life and priorities. He cannot escape, but he can achieve self-improvement on a daily basis.
And then things get really interesting. He gets to know everybody in the town, he sees what problems there are to solve, and how he can use his powers to help: he catches a kid falling out of a tree; he replaces a flat tyre for some old ladies; he learns French, how to play the piano, how to sculpture ice. And it’s when he finally masters these things, he’s turned himself into a person worth knowing. It’s then that Rita notices him, and they fall in love.
In my favourite line from the film, he asks a buddy What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered? And his buddy looks at him and says, That about sums it up for me. Now, I’m not suggesting that Groundhog Day is the great parable of our time, but I think it has a particular relevance for the current lockdown. Your startup life may have a monotonous repetition, but it’s down to you to decide to do something different.
We all have a wash-rinse-repeat cycle of the same work routine, but taking the lessons from the film, how can we lift our heads up and take a different view, not being so self-centric? What happens when nothing happens? I must have watched this film a dozen times or more to wallow in the charms of Bill Murray. Suddenly I saw it with a different lens, relating it to our work experiences over the last few months, as played out in the film.
Thankfully, we are not in a mystical time loop, but the lockdowns have had the effect of making it feel as though time is standing still. The lack of stimuli in our day-to-day life makes the days seem longer. However, at the same time, these same days seem to have flown by, and what have we achieved? Now that we understand what we’re up against, there are thinking and actions we can take to get through the inertia of Groundhog Day for your startup?
Use the time for structured reflection On holiday, I once spoke to a Greek Orthodox Monk who had spent thirty years in elective lockdown in Paleokastritsa monastery in Corfu. He spent his days reading, making olive oil, tending beehives and singing the liturgical celebrations. When I asked him about his self-imposed restrictions, he said that it was myself who had narrow borders placed around my life, and that when you can’t change your environment, you have to change yourself.
That was in 1984, and it stuck with me, that self-restriction can promote change. The loss of current freedoms means we can use the current friction to produce something new of ourselves for our startups. When we can’t escape. we have an unforeseen opportunity for change, but we have to make it for ourselves, and use our time productively.
Avoid unnecessary self-imposed deadlines I recently learned that the word ‘deadline’ originates by reference to a prison boundary, beyond which escaping prisoners would be shot dead by guards. For Phil in Groundhog Day, a ‘deadline’ is what is missing from his life. He cannot end a day. With that boundary removed, he struggles to find meaning.
Our lockdown also lacks a clear end point when it will be over. We are faced with the distorted combination of restricted space and endless time. It’s an odd place for any startup founder to be, we are usually shaped by tight deadlines.
In the middle of the story, Phil turns a corner, he realises he can change himself for the better. He chooses to flourish. Flourishing is compatible with a notion of freedom. Time is on your side in lockdown, just start the journey, and don’t set self-imposed deadlines, and don’t’ worry: worry is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.
Others are facing greater hardship I used to think I liked routine. The same 6am weekday morning starts, walking into town to buy bread on a Saturday, knowing the bins would be emptied ever Wednesday gave me a sad sense of satisfaction. But when you are stuck inside and moving from room to room, routine, it turns out, can become a prison.
Being stuck in the current iteration of lockdown, has subsequently lead us to move from frustration to feelings of hardship, but If you want a benchmark, Anne Frank lived in hiding in Amsterdam during World War II for more than two years. Even as we pass 300 days of lockdown and anticipate 365, now is not the time to feel sorry for ourselves.
Some people live this life of restrictions – what if you were in the Submarine Service, where mariners endure many months cooped up in a steel tube under the waves? Our everyday seems a repetition of the previous one with endless hours of digital meetings. But there are plenty of others facing greater hardship, so think about them rather than yourself.
We have all retreated from restaurants, museums and offices; social distancing from each other, staying inside to stare at the same four walls day in and day out and no weekend freedom to mark the end of the working week. But keep the vision for your startup, look to the horizon. See this as an experience that is helpful for the evolution of your startup, time to work inwardly, and not feel sorry for yourself.
Break out of autopilot Just like Phil embraced repeating days on a loop, live every day as though it’s tomorrow, even if it means drinking milk from a jug, instead of a cup. What if there was no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today? If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it’s that we can’t predict the future. Like Phil, maybe it’s time to start living as though there is no tomorrow. Every day is an opportunity to fix yesterday’s mistakes, so get acclimatised to repetition and internalise the arduous road ahead.
If we’re lucky (and I know many are not), we may have more opportunities now to press pause and reboot our startup from autopilot. So why not take a half-day, to put some variety into your over-scheduled and overextended life? ‘Groundhog Day’ has entered the common vernacular, which alone speaks to its resonance beyond the film itself, as shorthand for repeating the same experience over and over.
‘Groundhog Day’ is all about hope for yourself In the third and final act of the film, Phil transforms his behaviour and fills his days with creative self-improvement and compassionately helping others. Once he becomes the best possible version of Phil, he is released from his temporal prison.
Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. In that sense, Phil doesn’t repeat the same day over and over because one significant thing is different each Groundhog Day: him. He is the one thing that is changing. As John Lennon said, Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
I originally saw this film as a simple comedy, but now my spiritual takeaway is that it is a call for hope. Phil survives his frustration, many attempts at suicide, and is reborn a hopeful, positive, charitable man. On day thirty-three, he tells his television audience, When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. Winter is a great metaphor for bleakness that precedes rebirth. As Samuel Coleridge wrote, Winter, slumbering in the open air, wears on its smiling face a dream of Spring.
So, take lessons for your startup in lockdown from Phil Connors. Exiled into an unexpected adventure of despair, he eventually learns how to overcome the obstacles of hopelessness. But don’t wait another thirty-three days! As the physicist Marie Curie said: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.