Business is the domain where the lies of “thinking big” and “setting goals” reign most supreme.
In my previous posts I discussed the problems with goal setting, and a process called goalless practice that I believe more accurately reflects how successful people really achieve success. Today I’m going to discuss goalless practice specifically in the context of business.
The myth of the career path
When I first graduated from Stanford and was trying to find a job, I spent a lot of time reaching out to alumni and asking them what the career path looked like in different fields. It seemed to me the appropriate thing to do was pick the right career track, get on it, then some years down the road as my skills progressed I would arrive at a predetermined high position within that industry and life would be good (and my bank account full).
I have never gotten a straightforward answer to that question.
In many ways school corrupts our thinking by training us that life is a sequence of 4 year periods where all you have to do is complete the requirements and then graduate to the next predetermined step. The reality of careers and businesses is that the path more closely resembles a rats nest of criss-crosses and backtracks than a straightforward, linear path.
Companies change, industries change, and often even your interests will change and you’ll feel the need to explore in a different direction. In my own life, I think only chaos theory has a chance of explaining how I got from where I was after college to where I am now in my early 30s.
When I first started working I was in a data analysis focused position and I couldn’t imagine putting myself in front of clients and doing sales. After a couple years of doing that I realized I hated spending all day combing through Excel sheets and actually wanted to try sales–and did take a sales job and enjoyed it.
Around 2008, reading Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek was like getting struck by a bolt of lightning and I became fascinated with individually operated, internet based small businesses. I had always been interested in starting a business, but was really only aware of the venture-funded Silicon Valley startup model.
Not knowing what I didn’t know about the world or how my interests would develop over time, I simply could not have sat down after graduation and drawn a straight line through a number of jobs to some ultimate position. Looking forward to my 40s, I honestly couldn’t tell you what I’ll be doing then either. I could make some educated guesses, but they would probably be wrong.
The problems with dreams and “thinking big”
For many years I was inspired by the idea that “It takes the same energy to think small as it does to think big. So dream big and think bigger.”
I want to tell you that having dreams is okay and motivating, I really do. But in all good conscience I can’t.
I’m going to step out of line with common wisdom and tell you that having big dreams probably does you more harm than good. The big dream coming true makes for a great Hollywood story, but it’s a shitty way to build a business or a career because it focuses you far into the future and away from what matters most–what’s happening around you right now.
When you dream of being a Hollywood star, it’s hard to take a bit role at the local playhouse. When you dream of building a billion dollar business empire, it’s hard to focus on even just getting your first customer. When you dream of losing 100 pounds, it’s hard to focus on just losing the first few. When you dream of finding a soulmate and raising amazing children, it’s hard to focus on just getting to a first date and finding out if the person across the table is even compatible with you.
Constantly dreaming big and thinking big sets the bar so high that it’s almost impossible to make any degree of progress that feels satisfying. The result is demoralization, giving up, and thinking “I’m not enough.”
Getting back on track with Goalless Practice
A better mantra for business than thinking big is, “90% of success is just showing up.” This is where goalless practice comes in.
If you’re starting or running a business, forget about the $1 billion dream and just keep returning to the task at hand.
Think about improving the ways you get customers, streamlining the efficiency of your operations, tweaking your marketing message, tinkering with your product or service to see if you can increase quality, adding new products to your line through the most apparent lines of organic growth.
If you have a regular job, focus on mastering every aspect of it. For example, if you are a salesperson then master your pitch. Constantly work on refining your understanding of what problems your customers are trying to solve and how your product fits in. Test and refine better answers to customers’ frequently asked questions. Learn what personality or presentation quirks you have that may be costing you sales and fix them. Undoubtedly there are many other areas you could improve with practice as well, but you get the drift.
I used to analogize making sales calls to playing a video game. You play the game as far as you can go and if you die, you just hit the reset button and try again (or hang up, and call a different prospective customer). Especially if you think of it like Super Mario Bros., the power ups are always in the same spots. The pitfalls are also always in the same spots. You just have to do your best on each game as you play it, and with practice you become skilled at navigating even the most difficult terrain.
The key is to really think of your business or your job in terms of practice and not just mindlessly executing a daily routine. As you master skills, eventually it becomes time to ask yourself the question, “how can I take what I’m doing to the next level?” This is like moving up to the next belt in Karate. You’re still training in the same discipline, but now you are working on more advanced skills.
In business, for example, you might get to a point where you have so many clients that you really can’t take it to the next level by continuing to do everything yourself. You might have to hire an assistant to help take you to the next level. This brings with it a new set of challenges and new way of doing business as you master how to work an assistant into your workflow.
However, organically growing in this way is very different from playing paint-by-numbers business where the next step is to get an assistant, so you go out and get one even though you really aren’t ready to have one yet.
On the other hand, if you get struck by a new passion and decide you’d be happier doing altogether different work that is okay too. You can bring the power of goalless practice to anything you do.
Businesses and career paths are more like scientific discovery or evolution. You can’t plot out the future on a time table. You try different things along the way. Sometimes they work for you and sometimes they don’t. Occasionally you hit upon a huge break and take massive leaps forward.
Enjoyment of an activity for the sake of the activity itself and not for some end goal is one of the key components of making goalless practice work. As George Leonard points out in his book Mastery, you have to face the possibility that activities that you enjoy enough to show up for and practice over and over again may not coincide with activities that make money.
For example, if you really enjoy surfing, you may have to face the reality that you simply don’t have the talent to make money as a professional surfer no matter how much you practice. Or if you have a passion for ancient Sumerian, you may have to face the possibility that not enough people care about ancient Sumerian for you to make a living using it or teaching it.
Advice like, “if you enjoy surfing, you could still open a surf shop even if you can’t be a pro-surfer” or “if you like music but aren’t talented enough to be professional musician, you could still work in the music industry,” has always fallen flat for me.
It sounds an awful lot like, “if you don’t have the talent to make it, you can still spend your time hanging around others who do.” It’s just not quite the same thing.
However, I would like to end this post on a positive note, so I will point out that you are probably not a one-dimensional human being who is only interested in doing one activity for the rest of your life. Even the surfer or wishful musician likely enjoy other aspects of their art. Perhaps the aspiring surfer has a passion and talent for finding locations with the best waves and could make a living as a travel writer of sorts on their quest for the perfect surf.
Goalless practice and experimentation can take you in directions you might not expect.
The old advice to “do what you love until you find a way to make money from it” may have a ring of truth to it after all.