Stop Boiling Like A Frog

You probably know the fable of the boiling frog. A frog dropped in boiling water will immediately leap out but if you put that same frog in cool water and sloooowly bring it to a boil it will stay in the water until it dies.

I had two initial conversations with 2 established business owners last week. Business owners who have built meaningful businesses (One 8 years old and the other 10). After they each told me the standard intro about their companies, I asked a question that does not usually get asked in a business context. “You have been running this business now for many years, how do you feel?” After some surprise and then a long pause, I heard about how the early years were filled with growth and the past 3–5 years have been, for lack of a better word, flat. Revenue has stayed the same or dropped a bit. Profit was not moving. It had been this way for enough years that their view of the future was now only some variant of this known past. They did not feel good about it but had both chalked it up to being just the way that it is.

Business should be a struggle. Right?

I have had this conversation, in different ways, with dozens of business owners in the past year. Some have businesses that are doing marginally well but not at the level that is close to their potential. When pressed, they are not happy about it but have become used to this level of frustration.

They are all slowly being brought to a boil and do not see it. Yet.

You see, frogs do not have the market cornered on staying put despite growing discomfort. We, humans, despite (or maybe because of) our bigger brains, habitually choose known pain over unknown change.

I have endured years of known pain at different times in my life and career. In retrospect, you can barely perceive the protracted and subtle descent. After years of slogging through the recession of the 90’s, I needed someone else to tell me that I had lost my smile to even recognize how resigned I had become to the struggle. It had simply become my normal. It never should have been.

There is a well-studied phenomenon that when pain becomes familiar, letting go of that pain can actually cause more of it. After all, we have grown accustomed to what we know. Leaving it behind for something new can feel like leaping off a bridge even if we realize that the leap would likely take us to a better place. American scientist Jared Diamond calls it “Creeping normality.” It is how major change can be accepted as normal if it happens slowly enough. We understand it when we think about making small steps towards positive change but seemingly accept it as normal when it moves us to stasis or slow decline.

Since I am in the business of igniting massive change for business owners and their businesses, I have been thinking about this dilemma and why a better future is not a big enough catalyst especially when compared to a stagnant business. It reminded me of the end scene from Willy Wonka. You know the one… Charlie Bucket is flying over the village and Mr. Wonka turns to him and says “Don’t forget what happens to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted? He lived happily ever after.” But in the question and Charlie’s worried “What happened?” response is part of the problem. The idea that getting everything you ever hoped for could be a bad thing is what holds so many of us back. Do I really want to have it all? Wouldn’t the pain of losing it all be horrific? Why in the world would I want to ride that roller coaster? Why can’t we leap for everything that we always wanted? Why not you?

So we sit in the pots of our own making and simmer. In many cases, things will get to a point where the pain is so great that the risks are no longer worse than the current pain and we make a move (Way too late). More often, the pain never gets too great and we waste a decade… or five.

Given this, how can we change our thinking about where we are and where we truly want to be so that we are compelled to make the leap to the business we want that fuels the life we want?

If you want a different outcome, try a different approach…

1. “How do you feel?” That question demands an answer even if you are asking it of yourself. Is your business what you wanted it to be? How long have you been accepting the status quo? How long will you give the status quo such exclusive status?

Bring these thoughts out from the back of your mind and into a place that forces you to deal with them. Write about your particular case of status quo and how long you have been locked in it.

2. Think bigger! What would it take to double your business in the next 3 years? Double the profit and, with it, your income? What would your life be like when that became real? What could you do that you cannot do today?

Write it in vivid and measurable detail. The specific profit number, the number of new clients you will have and the average fee/annual revenue you will earn from each. When every year is just a little bit better than the year before, we lose sight of any outcome that can be more audacious.

Now reverse engineer that result into the smallest possible steps you can take in the next month. Big goals are great to talk about but they can become overwhelming. Too many things to do and too much to juggle in our minds. Set that big goal and then take 1,000 small steps. With determination.

3. What are the risks? Make a list of everything that scares you about this larger future. What could go wrong? What could you lose? Now, next to each risk, write one or two strategies that could mitigate it.

Tony Robbins points out that most suffering is due to a fear of loss, less or never. If you think about the downsides that we most worry about you will see they are often connected to losing something/everything, having less than before or the fear of trying and never getting what we want.

Get clear on what risks are holding you back and take away their power by rationally thinking through solutions for each.

4. Do it anyway. Your subconscious is making sure you are aware of the risks involved in leaving your comfortable pain behind. It does not need any more help from you. What is needed is the space and time to let your cognitive brain think rationally before your fears and worries stop your progress.

It is possible you will endure some more pain in the process of getting what you really want. Do it anyway. You may lose some revenue as you ditch lousy clients so you have time to work with ideal clients. Do it anyway.

The reasons you will come up with to not get out of your known pain will be limitless. Do it anyway.

5. Fuck your pride and ask for help. Before you will get out of a rut, you need clarity of what is keeping you in it. And, as I like to say, it is hard to read the label when you are stuck inside the bottle. Find someone who can see more clearly than you and actively listen to hear what they say to you. If you could have done it all alone you would have done it by now. Remember the person who told me that I had lost my smile? That nudge (More like a slap) flipped my normal to unacceptable. Everything changed for me and the business after that.

We all need a leg up if we want to do something truly great. But you have to be willing to ask for and be receptive to help.

You know the phrase, “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t?” It assumes that the unknown is evil. Consider that you get to decide what the unknown means to you. So what will you choose?

Familiar pain is the devil. It is painful but tolerable hot water. Jump out of it!

Business Builder & CEO Coach — I Help Entrepreneurs Build Stronger and More Thoughtful Businesses. Author & Speaker. Learn more at