Are you the dog chasing the car?
How to stop jumping from project to project and finish
In my neighborhood growing up there was a dog that sat in the front yard across the street. The dog was leashed to a tree with a long rope of about 20 feet.
It was a quiet neighborhood in a small town, so there wasn’t much going on.
Except, a few times a day, a car would drive by the house and the dog’s ears would perk up. He would jump from his stoop and chase after the car as it passed by.
He would run as fast as he could, but eventually the rope would snatch him by the collar and he would reluctantly have to give up the chase. He would return to his stoop, until a few minutes later another car would come by and the process would begin afresh.
I can’t be certain of this, but I’m guessing that the dog’s greatest dream in life was probably to one day catch that car.
And sure enough, one day that day came…
I was recently listening to a great podcast called Akimbo by Seth Godin. For those who aren’t familiar, Seth is a bit of a wizard when it comes to explaining why certain things work and why other things don’t.
One theme that Seth comes back to again and again is the idea of roots. As in, what is the root cause of why this happened? What is the root cause of your motivation? What is the root cause of your failure?
When most people try to answer this question they land on something superficial. For example, why did your business fail?
“Because the market isn’t ready for my product.”
“Because we didn’t get enough sales.”
“Because we got our branding wrong.”
While all these causes might be true, they aren’t the root, they are the dead tree that followed.
How to juggle by Seth Godin
In Seth’s recent episode of Akimbo, he tries to teach us how to juggle via his podcast.
Most people, as Seth explains, try to juggle by catching the ball.
This is wrong.
But it’s not our fault.
As Seth explains, our whole lives we’re taught not to drop the ball. We’re taught that we‘ll know when we’ve succeeded because we it will be the moment we didn’t drop any balls. We are successful because we didn’t get any questions wrong on the test, we are successful because we accomplished everything in our quarterly goals.
So, naturally, when we try to teach ourselves to juggle we try to learn how to not drop any balls.
What inevitably happens though is that we do drop the balls. To make sure we don’t drop the balls we start stretching out our hands trying to catch them at any cost.
This of course makes us throw the balls worse and worse as we get more and more out of balance.
Eventually we fail, and when someone asks us why we failed we will say, “I just couldn’t catch the balls.”
Learning is about throwing, not catching
Seth attributes this to the root of all failures.
The reason we fail to juggle is because we’re obsessed with not dropping the balls when, instead, we should be obsessed with throwing the balls.
If we begin throwing the balls correctly, we will easily begin catching them. Learning to throw the balls correctly is less about whether we catch them or not, and more about whether we’re consistently throwing them in the correct spot.
Rather than concentrating on the result, we should be concentrating on the input.
This can be applied across many different disciplines:
A lot of people want to have a business (result). So they write a business plan and they build a website. They then obsess over pricing models, generating demand, getting clients, growing revenue, etc.
Instead what they should be concentrating on is helping people (input). They should not only concentrate on how to help people, but they should begin helping people right away.
Because, if we are able to help people (input), those same people will tell their friends. And their friends will tell their friends. And eventually when we’ve helped enough people, we will have a business (result) without trying to have a business.
Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby, explains this point incredibly well in his book Anything You Want:
Watch out when anyone (including you) says they want to do something big, but can’t until they raise money.
It usually means they’re more in love with the idea of being big big big than with actually doing something useful. For an idea to get big big big, it has to be useful. And being useful doesn’t need funding.
If you want to be useful, you can always start now, with only 1% of what you have in your grand vision. It’ll be a humble prototype version of your grand vision, but you’ll be in the game. You’ll be ahead of the rest, because you actually started, while others are waiting for the finish line to magically appear at the starting line.
For example, let’s say you have a vision of making an international chain of enlightened modern schools. You picture it as a huge, world-changing organization, with hundreds of employees, dozens of offices, and expensive technology. But instead of waiting for that, you start by teaching somebody something this week. Find someone who will pay to learn something, meet him anywhere, and begin. It will be nothing but you, a student, and a notebook, but you’ll be in business, and you can grow it from there.
If you want to make a movie recommendation service, start by telling friends to call you for movie recommendations. When you find a movie your friends like, they buy you a drink. Keep track of what you recommended and how your friends liked it, and improve from there.
Want to start a new airline? Next time you’re at the airport when a flight is cancelled, offer to everyone at the gate that you’ll lease a small plane to fly to their destination if they will split the costs. This is how Richard Branson started Virgin Airlines.
This idea is true whether you’re talking about starting a business or achieving a life goal, like becoming an author. People who want to become an author (result) concentrate most of their time on writing a book (result). They write it slowly, deliberately, and usually painfully.
Eventually they end up finishing it, and it sucks. They then spend their time pitching it to agents who spend their time pitching it to publishers. But the book doesn’t go anywhere, because the book sucks.
Yes, they have a book, but they are not an author.
They fail not because they aren’t talented, but because they’ve spent their whole time trying to catch the balls rather than throw the balls.
In order to learn how to throw the balls (aka write), the writer needs to spend her time writing. Writing poorly and writing well. Writing a little and writing a lot.
The writer needs to be willing to write things that aren’t good, she needs to be willing to drop the balls. If the writer drops the balls enough times, she’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.
So, eventually, after she has written hundreds of thousands of words, she’ll be ready to write a book that doesn’t suck.
Are you the dog chasing the car?
The same applies not only to businesses and projects, but to our careers as well.
Very often when we’re trying to decide on our next career move we look at the results of others rather than their inputs. We see the fame of a J.K. Rowling or a Steven Spielberg and we say, “That’s what I want to do.”
When we say this we don’t necessarily mean what we say. The person who wants to be like J.K. Rowling isn’t saying:
“I want to sit in a room by myself staring at a computer screen day after day. I want to isolate myself from people because they’re distracting and I want to read the same paragraph hundreds of times. I would also like to send my drafts to editors, friends, and publishers so they can mark them up with red ink and tell me to do it all over again.”
In the same way the person who says they want to be like Steven Spielberg isn’t saying:
“I want to carry heavy cases of film gear on and off trucks at 6am. I want my efforts to be invisible for 5, maybe 10 years while others get ahead from my hard work. Eventually I’d like to work 12–14 hour days and handle budgeting problems, missed timelines, and fight to not get my vision shut down.”
These are the inputs that these people who we admire do every single day, day in and day out, among dozens of others.
But we don’t see the inputs. We see the results.
We are captivated reading Harry Potter and nostalgic while watching E.T.
I know I was definitely guilty of this and still am. I love watching the interviews of my heroes as they talk about their process and their work. I watch their TED talks, read their blog posts, and listen to their podcasts.
While it’s true that I’ve learned a lot from studying these results and how they got to them, I haven’t really done the hardest thing that each of these results has come from: the hard work.
A lot of times this fixation on results causes us to jump from career path to career path, from project to project. We end up confused why we can’t seem to figure out what we want to do.
We begin something with a certain set of expectations, only to find out that it’s harder than we thought it would be.
Much like learning to juggle, what we first thought would be fun, turns out to be difficult and frustrating. The reason we’re frustrated though is because we aren’t finding joy in the process, we aren’t finding joy in the inputs.
Remember that dog?
One day, after months of failed attempts, the dog got his lucky break.
One day the rope, which had been yanked on and chewed on day after day, finally broke.
As a car came by the dog began his chase, barking and sprinting as fast as he could.
Luckily the driver saw the dog coming and slowed down and stopped to make sure that he didn’t hit the dog in the street.
What followed was incredible.
Not only did the dog not attack the car, but he stopped barking completely. He stared at the driver and the driver stared at the dog.
Then slowly and cautiously the driver steered around the dog and continued on his way.
The dog, still looking a bit confused, returned to his stoop with his tail between his legs.
I can’t say for sure, but to me it seemed that at that point, if it’s even possible, that dog was having its very own existential crisis.
His dream to catch the car had come to an end. But it was a hollow victory because, as the dog quickly realized, he didn’t really know what he would do once he caught the car.
Okay, now what?
I think that people come to this same conclusion, but unfortunately we take a lot longer to do so.
We strive and strive for most of our lives to achieve something that we want and it’s only once we actually achieve it that we ask ourselves,
“Okay, now what?”
In our modern societies this doesn’t just happen once. We typically tend to have these crises at the big decades in our lives: 30, 40, 50, 60.
I know I’ve certainly asked myself, “What do I want to do with my life?” more than once.
So what if we put on our Seth Godin hat and try evaluate the root cause of why we have these crises?
Is it because what we thought was the finish line isn’t the finish line?
Is it because our goals were misplaced in the first place?
Or is it because there is no goal to begin with?
I’d say that it’s a combination of all three.
When choosing what we want to do, whether that’s for our careers or our next project, what we should be thinking about is not the result we want to achieve, but rather the inputs we want to spend our time on.
Rather than asking, “What do I want to do with my life?”
A more useful question would be: What do I want to do day to day?
When I tried applying this to my own goals, I found a profound shift in my thinking.
For example, a few years ago I wanted to start my own business. There were several reasons for this desire, chief among them that I wanted to have freedom of time, freedom of money, and freedom of direction.
The question I wrestled with though was what business should I start?
I spent more than 9 months starting and stopping, starting and stopping. The ideas bounced through my head like the tumble cycle of a laundry machine.
I should start an adventure company! I should start a podcast recommendation company! I should start a creative agency!
What eventually ended up getting me out of that spin cycle was when I began to concentrate on the inputs rather than the results.
When I asked myself what I wanted to do every single day, my desires began getting a lot more concrete and actionable.
I wanted to write.
I wanted to teach.
I wanted to share new ideas.
I wanted to present.
I wanted to be asked for my opinion.
I wanted to be stumped.
I wanted to read.
I wanted to design.
I wanted to build things from scratch.
I wanted to work with smart people.
I wanted to influence big decisions.
When I listed out all the inputs I wanted to spend my time with I began to have a checklist that I could evaluate new opportunities against.
Of course it became clear that I would never be able to check all the boxes off my list at once. But this gave me a guide of how to plan my career and project trajectory so that I could move towards checking all the boxes eventually.
And, even if I didn’t check off all the boxes, at least I would spend my days doing (mostly) what I wanted to do rather than chasing dream after dream.
As Seth says, if you want to learn to juggle, you need to keep throwing the balls without worrying about catching them.
Only those who enjoy learning to juggle, actually end up juggling.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts and what you thought, feel free to find me on twitter @bogdanyz