Planned, or just an accident?

“I was never particularly ambitious. Things just happened.” So says cricket legend Ian Chappell.

Think about your own successes, those that put you in the top one percent, or even one-in-a-thousand. Were they chosen goals, or did the good outcomes just occur?

Example 1:  Mark Zuckerberg didn’t plan on being a business star with Facebook. It began as a sort of game, an online jest.

Example 2:  Supermodel Kate Moss was discovered at JFK airport in New York at the age of 14 while returning from a holiday with her parents.

Instead of having big audacious goals, perhaps all we need is to place ourselves in the way of opportunity, watch for natural or accidental gains, then develop them as far and fast as possible.

Goals are often applied to activities in which feel “behind” or inferior, eg weight loss or passing exams. These goals help us succeed, although the results are unlikely to be world-beating. They may simply raise us to normal levels.

This type of achievement can be even more satisfying than where we outrun a lot of people and finish up in the leading bunch.

But the really top results may be those that were never actually planned.

Photo by Elisa Ventur

 

No, boredom isn’t always bad

In a previous post, we talked about having more than one project going at once, to provide continuing progress. When one gets stuck, you can switch to another.

This sounds fine, but there’s a caveat. Changing projects can undermine the boredom that got you going in the first place.

Huh?

OUT OF BED

With luck, our work provides not only an income, but also the fun of creating, problem solving and completing. Work can be interesting and stimulating, something that gets us out of bed in the morning, ready to take on the challenges of a new day.

sleep

An antidote to dullness and ennui, in other words.

However there’s more than one way to slice this apple, and the truth is that alternative projects can undermine interest in the first one, killing the urge to complete it. This isn’t just about using up the energy or time that can be spent on something else. It’s about the hunger that impels the task.

Example 1: After jousting with your editor on the phone for an hour, you’d rather slit your wrists open than make those marketing calls.

Example 2:  Designing your new kitchen online was fun. Too bad about the client newsletter that’s now overdue by a week.

Ideally, our ventures should work to satisfy different internal masters, rather than competing to achieve the same ends. Otherwise there’s a chance we’ll lose interest forever.

Don’t let your projects fight each other to keep the boredom at bay.

Photo by Nastya Dobryvecher

 

Over the top, almost

I recently went to a performance of Verdi’s nineteenth century opera, La Traviata. Like modern musicals, it was a multi-media spectacle, combining singing, dancing, narrative, an orchestra, scenery and lighting.

The outdoor harborside setting boosted the opportunity for grandiose effects, including fireworks and cast members arriving by boat. An enormous 3.5-tonne chandelier with 10,000 Swarovski crystals overhung the stage.

SWEET SPOT REACHED

The whole enterprise was over the top – almost.  This is surely the key to success in entertainment, communication or almost anything, which is knowing how far to push and when to ease back.

The sweet spot is the point just before the effort falls over the line into absurdity or ridiculousness.

Changing entertainments, watch any motor race and check the lead car. You’ll see lots of small evidence of the traction limits being approached, such as brief wheel locks during braking, sideways judders on the bends, tail wag under acceleration.

The winner is the person who can drive fastest without spinning out, colliding or failing to take a corner.

JUST THIS SIDE

The skill of motor racing is not to drive safely and under control, but to keep the car just this side of catastrophe. Similarly, an accomplished producer or communicator knows exactly where the traction limits lie.

Of course each medium has its own parameters or variables. Opera is not the same as motorsport or a politician’s speech.

But people who have mastered the sweet spot principle are invariably the most successful. This was just as true in Verdi’s time as it is today.

Photo by Borna Bevanda

 

A Fool Such as I

It’s humiliating to make business mistakes – especially the habitual ones that have gone undiscovered until now. “Why have I been doing this, all these years? How idiotic.”

After that, it’s gratifying. Embarrassing realizations are forerunners of steps forward, precursors to progress. 

RED-FACED

In a sense, continuous improvement is a matter of moving from one mistake or omission to another, seen in retrospect.

  • Color blind people can’t read our logo.
  • Google isn’t indexing a lot of my pages. Why didn’t I submit a sitemap? 
  • We qualified for that subsidized loan 24 months ago, without being aware of it.

Continuous improvement, once you’ve got over the red face, can feel like a dull way to make progress. How much more exciting to create breakthroughs.

But when viewed closely enough, “continuous” actually looks like small steps or innovations. It’s just a matter of scale.

On that basis, make a fool of me anyday.

Clear and hot – or strain and pain?

focus

Focus is good, they say. It’s supposed to be a key to success – concentrating on what works, and not getting distracted. Whole books have been written about it.

Short-term focus means fixing on a task and not wasting your day on side activities. Then there’s sustained focus, over a longer period. Enemies of this are said to include acquisitions, new ventures, and sitting on too many eggs at once.

Unrelenting focus isn’t always for the best, though. It can lead to number watching, impatience and unnecessary fiddling.

Not everything happens just when we want it to. Projects get stuck. Trying to push them forward isn’t always going to work. We need to rest, wait for inspiration, let time to pass. 

NO ITCHES

That’s when alternative ventures are valuable. They allow us to lie fallow on the prime one, without the feeling of going nowhere. We can move from one to another without getting itchy. 

Two side projects are good. Three may be even better.

Contrast between activities is useful, for example gardening as a break from book writing. The secondary projects need not be profit-related. When business progress is stubborn, you can switch to improving your tennis slice.

Everyone wants Unicorn rates of growth, like those of Airbnb or Uber or Clubhouse, but mostly this isn’t how it happens. Growth typically occurs on a compounding basis, which means that the first few years show modest returns.

Maybe it’s like planting an orchard. No matter how ambitious we are, or how much effort or intelligence are applied, a few seasons have to pass before the first crop. There’s a natural maturation process that can’t be rushed.

Focus sounds clear, hot, laser-like. Just what we all want to be. But it can also lead to forced thinking, strain and pain.

Focus isn’t always sharp.

Photos by Michael McAuliffe and Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum

For now, hang loose

It’s great to be in control, but sometimes this can throttle your efforts.

Early-stage enterprises are ambiguous, uncertain animals that are never a perfect fit with the market. They need a lot of tweaking and changing.

Being imprecise over goals and methods can be an advantage.

During the Vietnam War, the insurgents and North Vietnamese used the Russian AK-47 semi-automatic rifle, which was very effective in battle because it was engineered slack. U.S. forces, by contrast, were saddled with the fine-tolerance M16 weapon that in its early form needed frequent cleaning and often jammed, resulting in unnecessary loss of life.

LOOSE AND EASY

Anyone who plays tennis knows the virtue of a floppy serve and a relaxed grip. This allows a whippy racquet motion, using the pivot points of the fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder and back. The grip is tightened up before the racquet contacts the ball.

Ever listened to Bob Dylan’s early songs or read the prose poems on his album covers? Their meanings are often vague and impressionistic. They say almost whatever you want them to, which gives them wide applicability.

So too with business. Hang loose until the moment when you have to tighten up. Let market forces and other uncontrollable variables tell you what you need to know.

Be free, people.

After the perm, it’s still a dog

The corner restaurant near this office has been through five tenants in recent years. Each spends money on a new name and new fitout, but these don’t stop the venture from failing.

We’ve had a Mexican, Turkish, contemporary, Asian, and one I can’t remember.

In each of the formats, there’s been nothing wrong with the food or service. But the floor size of the premises is enormous and would need a lot of diners in order to be profitable. Many of the tables are empty during the week. The two-highway exposure must also push up the rent.

BLIND FAITH

And this is on a high street that’s already overserviced with casual restaurants.

What startles me is the faith that each new operator has in a fresh concept, as if this will be the one to break through into profitability. A revamp is seen as the answer.

You can dress up these premises any way you like and the business fundamentals aren’t going to change much. A dog remains a dog, regardless of the color of its coat.

The 21st century Howard Hughes

I looked at a couple of movies recently about the mid-20th-century entrepreneur Howard Hughes. These were The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and The Amazing Howard Hughes, with Tommy Lee Jones.

Both movies told interesting stories, the first focusing on Hughes’s early years, the latter protraying his decline into eccentric old age.

What startled me was the similarity between him and our current rich visionary, Elon Musk.

Hughes made his pile selling drill parts during the Texas oil boom, then parlayed the cash into blockbuster movies, operating an airline (TWA) and making extravagant forays into aircraft design.

His six-engined Spruce Goose was at the time the largest aircraft ever built. It barely got off the ground and has been hangared ever since as an awkward reminder of Hughes’s overreach.

FATED TRAJECTORY? 

In a similar vein, Elon Musk got rich from the internet revolution, bought into the car company Tesla and has ambitions to be a space transport pioneer.

Both men had or are having trouble reining in their cashed-up dreams to keep pace with the reality of what they’re trying to achieve.

The Musk story is still unfolding, but how fascinating to see if the second half of the man’s life will mirror the fated trajectory of his forerunner.