One of my main skills at work was turning opportunities into liabilities. Like some kind of confused magician, for too long, I was able to take seemingly great opportunities and transform them into something that limited growth and negatively affected my career.
My secret? Taking on far too many things. Spreading resources so thin that I was unable to give any one job it’s proper attention. Presenting myself with the unenviable choice of delivering late, lowering standards, or just plain ignoring a number of responsibilities.
I knew this was a poor practice. I knew it’s better to do a few things incredibly well than many things to an acceptable standard. Yet for years I couldn’t shake this habit.
I kept operating in such a short-sighted manner because I didn’t understand the reasons behind this behavior. And consequently, didn’t recognize the triggers enough to influence change.
Fortunately, Paul Graham had the answer for me.
Beware the Siren Song of Prestige
“It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.” – Paul Graham
In 2006, Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham wrote the tremendous article, How to Do What You Love, giving some brilliant insights into the importance of developing your interests and choosing work that brings long-term fulfillment over short-term gratification.
But it’s the section on the dangers of allowing social validation to drive our efforts that was my aha moment. The idea of chasing prestige hit too close to home. In his words,
“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know?
This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”
It’s this endless pursuit of prestige that drove me to keep accepting more, even with the knowledge that I was sacrificing my existing quality. I continued in a cycle of rationalizing away increased workload across a mix of naïveté and success-based schedules. Graham would go on to write,
“Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”
While a number of these tasks may have been rewarding in the short-term, few brought any real sense of accomplishment. Prestige is fleeting. It doesn’t bring a sense of fulfillment. And worse, it distracts us from pursuing those areas that bring real meaning.
If we can recognize this, we’re better able to see the warning signs and distinguish between meaningful work and ego-induced distractions. Then we just need to recognize what work will deliver the greatest rewards.
A Blind No Isn’t the Answer
“So, my advice to my 30-year-old self is, don’t be a donkey. You can do everything you want to do. You just need foresight and patience,” Derek Sivers told Tim Ferriss in describing the importance of thinking long-term and realizing that not all of our pursuits need to happen immediately, instead acting like a donkey who struggles with future considerations.
I’ve heard a number of people christen their 2018 as the “Year of No.” Apparently the premise is to turn down every opportunity that comes their way.
And while that might help them avoid falling into similar prestige traps, blindly jumping to the other end of the spectrum isn’t the answer.
“When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say, ‘Hell yeah!’”
But Derek also recognizes that this message is tempered by potential risk and trade-offs, depending on the current state of your career. Before he’d made it big with CD Baby, Derek took gigs playing guitar at county pig fairs for $75 a day. As he told Tim Ferriss,
“So many opportunities, and 10 years of stage experience, came from that one piddly little pig show…. When you’re earlier in your career, I think the best strategy is to just say ‘yes’ to everything. Every little gig. You just never know what are the lottery tickets.”
Great opportunities rarely present themselves as great opportunities. Or, as Thomas Edison put it,
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Most opportunities need time to develop. Their potential only becomes clear after they’ve had some runtime. So while we often can’t say yes to everything and maintain our standards, offering up default no’s isn’t in our best interest either.
We just need a threshold for these decisions. And a way to avoid being a donkey.
What’s Your Vision?
“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” – Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence
Anytime I’m working with a company that’s trying to lead a change effort, the first thing I ask for is their vision statement. Most people consider the vision as a means of inspiration for the workforce. And it can be. But the most powerful aspect of a vision statement is in its ability to simplify decision-making.
A good vision statement simplifies all decisions to one simple question – Is this in line with the vision?
What do we want to accomplish in life? What is the big question that we’re trying to answer?
Understanding where we want to go helps recognize which tasks are aligned with that plan and which ones are taking us on unhelpful tangents.
After that, we just need to recognize the tasks that best position us to make a real difference.
Think Exponential Growth
“Companies must strive for 10x better because merely incremental improvements often end up meaning no improvement at all for the end user.” – Peter Thiel, Zero to One
In The Mission’s new podcast, The Mission Daily, they recently covered four cultural trends that we need to fight. Chad Grills and Ian Faison build on the original ideas in Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, a trove of wisdom from an author who lives it all.
They cover four traps that threaten to limit our potential and the practices necessary to keep them at bay. And while all four are applicable to each of us, in my experience the easiest trap to fall into – and the one with the steepest slope to climb out of – is incrementalism.
We’re often taught that the path to success comes from following the rules and being a little better than the competition. A race to the lowest margins and incremental step changes. It’s this thinking which limits our focus to growing in small increments. And limits our goals to making small, incremental improvements.
Yet, as Chad and Ian explain, the real differences come through exponential thinking. Real gains are made by taking advantage of power law growth and, as Thiel suggests, looking for 10x better as opposed to 10% better.
You already know the difference you want to make. So which actions are going to help you make that 10x impact, as opposed to settling for 10% better?
Know Your Destination
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
As a strong proponent of presence over productivity, I think one of the critical challenges we face is to continually make conscious decisions on how we spend our time, avoiding the busyness traps that try to fill our days with meaningless distractions and keep us from facing our real life’s work.
We’re all here to make a real difference. The world needs nothing less from all of us.
But this won’t come from chasing prestige. And it won’t be found through limiting ourselves to incremental growth.
What do you want to accomplish in this life? Where do you want to go? And which actions are going to help you make a 10x difference?
“What is my ultimate destination? You have to look at that every time you feel overwhelmed. Remembering that destination will help you make the single most important distinction in life, which is to distinguish between an opportunity to be seized and a temptation to be resisted.”