Valley of Death – where your dreams go to die

17 minutes reading time

Every single startup has to go through the Valley of Death very early after being born. The same goes for personal goals and dreams. Unfortunately, around 80 % or even more businesses die in the Valley of Death; and the same goes for people’s goals and dreams. Getting trapped or lost in the Valley of Death means that startups and people die (inside) or at least turn into zombies, what is nothing but a living hell.

Before entering the Valley of Death, your imagination, visions, optimism, and even a little bit of naivety play a very important role – you need all of them to undertake any kind of adventure and start following your big goals and dreams. Without a dream of a greater life for yourself, you never take the first step.

You need to be a little bit naïve in the beginning, blinded by all the strong motivation and enthusiasm. That’s what leads you into action. But soon after taking a few serious steps, you enter the Valley of Death. There is where visions, imagination and optimism face a harsh and cold reality and often die.

In business and personal lives, people go after their dreams, but soon after figuring out how hard it is, they give up and turn into zombies. Most often only because they give up too soon.

The Valley of Death is a place where it gets tested who has the character to succeed and who doesn’t, it gets tested who really deserves it and who doesn’t. The Valley of Death is a place where you must show that you want it badly enough, that you will never give up, that you will learn, improve, adjust, play smarter and smarter, and somehow find a way through the Valley reaching the safe side.

Valley of Death

It’s true that crossing the Valley of Death is dangerous and tough, but it can also be a daring and exciting adventure, especially if you love challenges. And as you probably know the saying, life can only be either a daring adventure or nothing.

I often found myself in the Valley of Death. When I started my own businesses. When I started to take care of my health and wealth and several other times in the past when I was naïve about how easy it is to succeed at something.

I still am in the Valley of Death with this blog, and I am drawing the map (validated learning, in other words) for getting out of it as quickly as possible. I am even deeper in the Valley of Death in trying to learn how to code. I’m just somewhere in between my imagination of how I could also be a hacker and the reality that learning to code is not that easy at all.

The point is that many times in my past, I walked through the Valley of Death proudly as a winner; and several times, I brutally died and learned hard lessons of how your dreams can be stumped by life with no mercy if you don’t play your cards right. So I want to share a few key lessons for how to successfully walk in and through the Valley of Death and what to do when you realize that you may not make it.

Nobody is born to die in the Valley of Death

Nobody is born to become a zombie. Nobody is born to die in the Valley of Death. Nobody is born to live a miserable life. In the beginning, we all have big dreams for what we want to do with our lives – who to become and what to achieve.

But it’s easy to dream when you are just a kid and don’t yet have any experience with the harsh reality. Then after becoming an adult, two things can happen:

Your life is either a daring adventure …

You learn how to walk through the Valley of Death and you persevere at following your dreams no matter what. You face your fears, you fight, you make smart decisions and put in the effort to get what you want. Sometime you make it, sometimes you get knocked down, but you never give up.

You follow your life vision, without any option to retreat or surrender. When you get knocked down, you know that there must be another way to get to your dream. You know that you can always innovate your way out and you can always make a step towards a better life. You know that beginnings are hard, but with time, the hard road becomes easy.

No matter how hard life is, you decide to live it as a real adventurer. As you have probably guessed, that is a small minority of folks.

… or nothing

Unfortunately, the majority of people are on the other side of the spectrum. The other side of spectrum is not somewhere between a good life and a life that sucks, but on a scale where the only axis is measuring how much life sucks. It can be from being completely miserable and depressed to only somehow unsatisfied (with your job, spouse or life in general) but anyway, no matter where you are on the axis, life still sucks.

Life can only be a daring adventure or nothing, there is no middle path.

You probably know the scenario of how quickly life can become nothing. You give up after the first few failed attempts of going after your dreams and turn into a zombie. A zombie going everywhere life kicks you, hoping for the best. Life rarely kicks you where you really want to be. Such behavior is also known as reactive behavior.

The majority of people give up when they set their foot in the Valley of Death for the first time. Because it seems so hard and scary. Nevertheless, it’s a valley full of CRAP – criticism, rejections, assholes, pressure and other traps.

So people rather turn back and go into the safe zone, often not aware that the comfort zone is turning them into a zombie. That’s sadly where most people are, usually right after graduating and getting their first job.

Comfort zone Valley of Death Success
Zombie mode C.R.A.P. God mode

Even though people turn into zombies, they usually keep dreaming. They keep dreaming of a good life, only without doing anything. They play the lottery, watch TV, subscribe to multi-level marketing from time to time, argue in bars, and so on.

They dream a lot, they talk a lot, but they stay at zero. Because only zero can invite vivid imagination, only zero can keep you in the world of naivety, where you can dream and talk a lot but do nothing, where you can flirt but never go after the first kiss.

Zero is where you can dream, but a single step into the Valley of Death is where your dreaming stops, it’s where your imaginary world meets reality. So you have to decide between staying at zero and keeping your dreams or facing harsh reality.

Zero invites imagination

Zero invites imagination

The easiest thing to do in life is to stay at zero and only dream and talk. Everyone can do dreaming and talking, and most people stay at this stage. You build a kind of psychological defensive system to protect your self-image. You dream like when you were a kid, a kid with zero experience and a vivid imagination.

Practical examples
  • If I decided to take good care of my health, I could be on a magazine cover.
  • If I decided to take good care of my wealth, I could be a successful investor.
  • Someday I will make enough money to buy myself a small house in nature.
  • One day I will meet the love of my life.
  • I am smart, I can easily learn how to program.
  • This is such a good business idea; I could build a successful company around it.

It’s so easy to dream about how fit you could be if you haven’t stepped in the gym a single time. It’s easy to dream about how successful an investor you could be, if you haven’t made a single investment in your life and lost some money. It’s easy to dream about a house you want if you haven’t checked prices in real-estate listings at all or gone to the bank asking even for general loan terms.

It’s easy to dream about the love of your life if you haven’t gone on a single date in years. It’s easy to dream about being a hacker if you haven’t written a single line of code. It’s easy to dream about being a successful entrepreneur if you haven’t tried to sell a single thing ever in your life. Zero always brings vivid imagination.

When you are at zero, you are frankly at the same level as that 7-year-old kid with no real life experiences.

If you don’t have experience with something, you simply can’t know it and understand it. You can talk, you can dream, you can imagine, you can defend your point of view and your assumptions, you can protect your self-image by creating an imaginary world where you are successful as shit, but in reality you know nothing. You are like Jon Snow.

After zero comes beginner’s optimism

You are at zero, dreaming about doing something with your life, and then finally at some point you decide to go after the goals you always dreamt about. Usually there is a trigger – inspiration or desperation.

Mid-life crisis, relationship breakups, losing a job, neighbor buying a new fancy car, best friend starting a successful business, getting a business idea, falling in love and similar events are frequent triggers that kick you straight out of the comfort zone and into the Valley.

And that’s good. Deciding to really make something out of your life and not only dream about it is awesome. But there is usually a big problem. Initial vivid imagination starts turning into beginner’s optimism. You add to your dreams sentences like: It can’t be that hard. If s/he could do it, I can do it too.

Don’t get me wrong, you have to be motivated, enthusiastic and optimistic for every goal you go after. The problem is when beginner’s optimism helps you lie to yourself and continue living in a bubble of imagination now called a fake feeling of progress.

Practical examples
  • You go on a diet without really changing your lifestyle and you can’t wait for it to end. You measure your progress only by your weight and no other metrics.
  • You invite a salesman of financial products to your home, to present all investment opportunities and advise you on the best ones that will make you the best ROI.
  • You create accounts on online dating sites, you chat with folks on Tinder, Snapchat or wherever, but you never really go on a date, you never escalate or make a move.
  • You learn the basic syntax of a programming language and then switch to a new one and a new one, never really diving deep into a language and mastering it.
  • You write a business plan with a financial plan for how you’re going to earn millions in a few years. You never really try to find customers for your products.

In other words, you do the easy stuff that leads you nowhere. On top of that, you live in a lie of how successful and awesome you are becoming.

Obviously living in a lie is not a superior strategy for walking through the Valley of Death as a winner. That approach is closer to entering the Valley with your eyes blindfolded hoping that somehow you will manage to avoid all the traps. Few are that lucky.

Regret Minimization Framework

It’s time to face the harsh reality and stare into Death’s eyes

The more you lie to yourself, the harder it is when you have to face the harsh reality. Sooner or later, a trap or a barbed wire bursts your bubble of naivety and you have to deal with real facts.

You have to face the reality that to achieve anything great in life, you have to invest really a lot. You can’t be only interested; you have to be committed, dedicated, persistent, resilient, focused and much more. This is where most people give up, run back into the comfort zone and forever turn into zombies.

Practical examples
  • Losing weight stops after squeezing some water out of your system and then the yo-yo effect happens when you finish with the diet after several weeks. You go to a personal trainer that writes you a dieting and exercising program and when you see that you have to completely overturn your lifestyle if you want to permanently lose weight, you rather go back to your old habits.
  • The “once in a lifetime opportunity” investment you were sold by a financial advisor starts losing money. You open a book about investing to get more knowledge why that is and get completely confused by all types of investments, markets and financial products complexity, and simply give up.
  • You go on a few dates, get rejected, and when you finally don’t get rejected you figure out that the person is far from your ideal partner, but anyway you somehow settle, because you are too afraid of one more rejection.
  • You figure out that a basic (really basic) programming challenge takes a lot of mental effort, hours of intellectual work, googling and fighting with the problem. So you again give up instead.
  • Now that you built your shiny product based on the business plan, you finally try to sell it and nobody wants to buy it. You realize on your own skin that “build and they will come” doesn’t work.

All that hurts, but here is the most important secret of life. Every single master was once a beginner. And every beginner in whichever field was in such a naïve and painful situation. That’s normal and that’s natural. It’s part of the process of becoming great.

All great people, all high achievers and all billionaires find themselves in such situations in life – realizing they had no clue what it really takes to be successful. In the startup world, there is a saying that every successful startup goes through a big crisis or two and has to look death straight in the eyes before finding the path to real success.

This tough situation is very nicely described in the saying that in the dark, stars shine the brightest. So the only question is, what do you do next, when you find yourself in a situation full of dark and horror?

In the dark, stars shine the brightest.

You have only two choices, either you face the harsh reality and really learn how to walk through the Valley of Death or you go back to the zero, back into your imaginary world, where you can dream as big as you want, but in reality you aren’t really living life.

At this point, you have to decide to either become a real adventurer or a zombie. Will you take the blue pill or the red pill? That isn’t really a choice, you absolutely have to go for the adventurer option. You only have one life and it’s too precious to live it as a zombie.


Decide to learn how to walk through the Valley of Death

After seeing the gap between your imaginary world and reality, and after realizing that hope and beginner’s optimism are a good beginning but not a superior strategy, it’s time to really learn how to walk through the Valley of Death.

Now, everyone has their own Valley of Death, depending on their goals, environment, life situation and many other factors, but general rules for walking through the scary valley are the same.

It’s not easy, but you have to think long-term

The first fact is that if it were easy, everybody would do it. If it were easy to get fit, rich, fluent in a (programming) language, build healthy relationships etc. everybody would do it. Because it’s not easy, only a minority is willing to put in the effort and commitment. If you read this article all the way to this point, I’m sure that you are part of this minority!

If it were easy everybody would do it.

So for every big goal you want to achieve, know that it will not be easy, but hard. Probably extremely hard. Usually we are talking about years of hard work and dedication.

In the frame of 5 to 10 years, you can usually see big results – in your body structure, bank account figures, business size and profitability or your competences at a mastery level. But although it’s hard, it can be done. Many people have done it and so can you. Just keep the long-term view.

Always carefully manage your expectations

Next to admitting to yourself that it won’t be easy, you have to know that the starting point you have matters a lot. That’s where life isn’t fair, but you have to accept the rules of life and play by them.

Your genes, your IQ, how rich your family is, how well you were raised, where you live, how early you started to work on your goals and so on, it all greatly influences the potential you have and how fast you can achieve it.

The shittier your starting point is and the more ambitious your goals are, the more you will have to work hard and smart and the longer it will take you to get to your goals. That means you have to pick challenges suitable for you and then intensify them gradually.

Compete with yourself, not with people who were given a much better starting point. In the long term, you can catch up to them in most things, but you have to start with the first step that isn’t too big for you. The good news is that along the way, you will learn so much more and you will be richer for the experience of knowing how to get yourself out of a shitty starting point to achieve a certain goal. That kind of knowledge is gold.

Having unrealistic expectations is pretty much the same as going back to zero and starting to daydream.

So manage your expectations wisely. Having unrealistic expectations is pretty much the same as going back to zero and starting to daydream. So instead manage your expectations properly and first build strong foundations, then build your skyscraper of success floor by floor knowing that you have a very strong basis. Even if it takes 10, 20 or 30 years longer than it took somebody who had a much better starting point than you.

Be utterly obsessed with your vision and mission and get educated

Since you have to be 110 % committed to achieve anything big in life, you should carefully choose which dreams to follow. Every action you take has to be based on a really strong emotional vision and mission that will drive you through every single challenge and obstacle on the way.

The best way to measure your true obsession is by how much you read about a specific topic and with how many people you talked about it. You see, only reading is never enough, but getting educated is mandatory to walk successfully through the Valley of Death. And people who are obsessed with something usually read everything that exists on the topic they want to achieve.

The smartest thing to do is to have a vision list and go after a specific dream when the time is ripe. Especially when you have the support from the market trends and key relationships and are competent enough. You have to enter the Valley of Death ready somehow, you have to play your game smart.

Follow the process

When you decide to go after your vision, when you get educated and the time is ripe, there is only one thing you can trust – the process. Every success is nothing but following a carefully orchestrated process. A process means repeating boring things day by day. Following the process means doing something every day that gets you closer to your goals.

If you want to achieve the final event, which is always to get yourself out of the Valley of Death and really succeed, you have to follow and trust the process. You have to put in the daily effort, constantly learn and adjust, you have to continuously improve yourself, find new ways when you fail and never give up.

How to define success and life metrics

Always measure your progress, metrics are your map

To know if you are really progressing or not, you need a set of metrics. Actionable metrics are the ones that help you draw a map of the Valley of Death so you can walk through it more easily. Actionable metrics are the ones that help you adjust your process so that you are really going in the right direction.

It’s never easy to measure your progress. Not only does it take additional effort and time, even more so because metrics are the ones that force you out of your imaginary world and show you the harsh reality. But they are also the cure. Actionable metrics are also the bright stars that shine when reality is dark and full of horror.

Metrics are the ones that lead you to success at the end.

So always have metrics you measure and follow, no matter how harsh the reality they show you, especially in the beginning (calculating your net worth, your body fat percentage or whatever). When you see your numbers going in the right direction after you put some effort and commitment into your goals, you will get much more motivated.

Find your fit and stay flexible

When you enter the Valley of Death, assuming you follow the right set of metrics, you soon realize that there is a big gap between your assumptions (imaginary world) and the real world. You’re always wrong before you’re right. When you find yourself in such a gap, you have to accept the harsh reality and start living in the real world.

You have to leave your naïve dream world behind and build new, more accurate dreams based on real facts, not your false ego assumptions.

It’s nice to protect your self-image with illusions, but it doesn’t bring results.

That means you always have to put all of your assumptions to the test. That was one of the strongest characteristic traits of Steve Jobs. Even as a successful leader, he had no problem admitting that he was wrong. Based on new data and facts, he could easily change his opinion.

Many assumptions can be simply validated only by getting educated enough, acquiring new knowledge and talking to people who did what you want to do, but some of the assumptions you have to put to the real life test and learn what works for you and what doesn’t.

Your final goal is to find the fit through the search mode, and then build your success on it. It’s your unique way out of the Valley of Death.

There are many ways out of the Valley of Death, find yours

There are two important lessons in validating assumptions. The first one is that you absolutely have to get educated before you enter the Valley of Death, but you will learn the most out in the real world by experimenting, trying and failing. That is a very painful part of the process, but failure is the best teacher ever. So you must learn how to fail properly and get the most out of every failure.

When you feel it in your bones that you have to do things differently, that’s when you’ve really learned something new.

And the second important lesson is that you always have to stay flexible about how you will get to the final destination. There is no one right path through the Valley of Death. You have to stay flexible, always innovate and keep your mind open for which way to take that will get you closer to your goals. You will have to do many pivots in the Valley of Death to avoid fatal traps.

Practical examples

Let’s go to our first example. You decided to lose weight and a personal trainer wrote you a program and a diet. Instead of giving up, you decide to follow through with the program. You start reading fitness blogs and books. You get madly educated. Besides following the program, you start experimenting on your own with different sports and diets.

You build a set of metrics you follow every week (calorie counter, body fat percentage, etc.), you get yourself a training partner and join a few sports groups. Every month, you improve your diet a little bit. You face setbacks but you trust the process and do something for your body every day, even if things don’t go as planned. You are 110 % committed to achieve the goal you want. You can find more examples in the AgileLeanLife Manifesto.

Valley of Death Sketch

Please don’t become a zombie, you matter to me

One of the hardest things in life is to decide when to persist and when to give up. Sometimes after entering the Valley of Death, you may figure out that something is not as important to you as you might have thought. Sometimes you figure out that it’s not worth the effort and that it makes more sense to follow some other dreams. And that’s completely okay.

There is always a gap between what you think will make you happy and what really makes you happy. You can’t know the difference until you try things.

It’s completely okay to let go of some goals. It’s completely okay to give up from time to time. It’s completely okay to fail and move on. For example, I definitely know I’m not giving up with this blog, no matter what, but learning to code is still completely open.

What’s not okay is turning into a zombie. It’s not okay to completely give up on all of your dreams. It’s not okay to stop being proactive, action-oriented and stop growing and continuously improving yourself. It’s not okay to stop fighting for the dream life you want and deserve.

It’s not hard to see the difference between a zombie and a person who decided to do a pivot or goes through a collapse but is still determined to fight for their dream life. You can see it in a person’s spirit, you can see it in their eyes, but most of all you can see it in their actions. You can always see if somebody is a fighter or a zombie with a broken spirit from miles away. Because no matter how hard the knockout was, they stand up again and fight.

Never ever let your spirit get broken.

The Valley of Death absolutely exists. It’s a very harsh and cold place, where more than 80 % of people’s dreams die and where passionate individuals get turned into zombies. Don’t be one of them, please. You only have one life. It’s better to live one day as a lion than decades as a sheep or a zombie.

But to live as a lion, you have to do lion shit from time to time. Fortunately for humans nowadays that only means facing your fears, being assertive and goal-oriented, building a superior life strategy, going into action and following the process. You don’t have to kill and eat a zebra.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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