Balancing Your Efforts with a More Nuanced Sense of Urgency
Startup culture took us out of balance by celebrating fast action—but quick, repeated failures aren’t a sure path to success.
“Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes or figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe. So if the fruit of a fig tree is not brought to maturity instantly or in an hour, how do you expect the human mind to come to fruition, so quickly and easily?”
Being aggressive and scaling rapidly seem to be two of the unquestionable beliefs of the startup world, and “being busy” is worn as a badge of honor by many.
We hear about countless success stories that were possible only because of an aggressive approach and massive growth that left the competition behind.
The problem is that this image has a huge survivor bias.
We do not hear about the 90+% of startups or individuals that are aggressive but burn and fail miserably. Many fail not in spite of the aggressiveness but precisely because of it. The countless ones who crashed don’t make it on the covers of magazines, and they’re not held up as examples all over the internet.
This directly connects with another questionable part of startup culture.
The advice to “fail fast and fail often,” so ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, as well as the narrative of the serial entrepreneur (often just a euphemism for serial failure) who learned from his previous mistakes both turn out to be largely bullshit. At least if you look only at the hard numbers.
A Harvard Business School study showed that founders who failed previously are almost no more likely to succeed on their next attempt than first-time entrepreneurs, while people who previously succeeded are more likely to succeed again.
The bottom line: You seem to mainly learn from your successes, not your failures.
Of course, there are many reasons for why entrepreneurs fail, but being too aggressive and taking on too much at a time is certainly one of the top ones.
Many startups are already hustling and working on X, Y, and Z before even A has fully solidified. Then, eventually, their foundation collapses.
“It’s hard enough to do one thing right. Trying to do ten things right at the same time? Forget about it. […]
You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.”
— Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
In a slightly different context, I am quite familiar with this issue myself.
I remember as an undergrad physics student I really wanted to work on string theory. So in my first year, I decided to buy a graduate-level book on the topic and forced my way through it.
It was more than a waste of time.
Not only did I not understand anything, but I could have instead focused on the foundations and gotten to a point where I could actually seriously attempt to understand this advanced material much quicker. (Fortunately, I lost interest in string theory at some point and chose quantum information theory instead, but that’s a different story.)
By wanting to do things too quickly and too soon, I got slowed down and lost valuable time.
Later on, as an entrepreneur and early-stage member in several startups, I saw the same mistake repeated in many different situations.
The Cost of Choosing Busyness Over Productivity
There is a massive difference between a true sense of urgency and blind haste. Moving too quickly too early can cost huge amounts of time in the long term.
Unfortunately, in many cases, particularly in the current startup culture that seems to value aggressiveness above all else, people actually often really mean something that is much closer to blind haste when they talk about “sense of urgency.”
This misinterpretation is also part of our workaholic culture.
In a previous article, I talked at length about the difference between busyness and productivity, and this issue is so dear to me and my friend John Fitch that a large part of our book “Time Off” is dedicated to it.
The key takeaway is this: Busyness and productivity are absolutely not the same. More than that, busyness and productivity are often at odds with each other!
As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson note in their book “ReWork — Change the way you work forever,” workaholics “make up for intellectual laziness with brute force.” But in doing so they decrease the morale of everyone who is not willing to spend their entire life in the office.
Stress is contagious. But so is calm. So make your choice — for yourself and the people around you.
And it gets worse: Stressed, tired, and frantic workaholics make one hasty decision after another, feeling extremely accomplished in the process. But often doing more damage than good.
In the best case, they just generate some unnecessary distraction. But in the worst case, they create completely avoidable (or even non-existent) crises that waste tremendous amounts of valuable time and attention — both theirs and others. This can often very simply be fixed by taking a more contemplative approach.
Take a break, get some rest and detachment from work, and come back with a new perspective and a clear and calm mind.
Sometimes, slowing down and taking a break can be the hardest thing to do.
If you see your competition rushing ahead, it’s difficult to step back and take a more thoughtful approach instead of running along with them. Even if they might be heading straight for a cliff.
Memento Mori and the Contemplative Approach
The Stoics had their own version of sense of urgency: Memento Mori. Remember your mortality.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. […] The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
Regularly reflecting on your own mortality certainly makes you want to move quickly and not waste time. But it also makes you focus on the essential, being aware that every decision counts.
This is not haste. It’s deep contemplation, coupled with a readiness to make difficult decisions.
This gets me to another important point.
Being wary of over-aggressiveness must not be mistaken for an excuse to put off decisions, or to wait for the perfect timing or more information (although if approached deliberately, there can be tremendous value in delay as well).
The timing will never be perfect, and you will always operate based on incomplete information. But you still actually have to do the work and execute on the things you have committed to.
Ideas are great, but without execution and decisions, they don’t just magically turn into a great product. You want to focus on producing quality and not on overreaching or blindly following the most recent fashion.
As well as constantly introducing new distractions, the wrong kind of aggressiveness only leads to more unmade decisions and half-baked ideas piling up, which can be extremely paralyzing.
A more contemplative approach is also not an excuse for endless planning. Plans are often no more than elaborate guesses. They may even adversely anchor you to past assumptions and preconceptions instead of allowing you to act based on the present moment.
There is one thing that will always sell: quality.
Often, quality simply does take time—but that doesn’t contradict with a sense of urgency you can feel in wanting to do the best work of your life. And there are also cases where quality doesn’t require extensive time but does take a very thoughtful approach.
Contemplation instead of hustle.
A Matter of Balance
I hope it is clear that I’m not condemning quick action.
There are many cases where there is a huge first-mover advantage and it makes sense to be quick even if the action taken is not completely perfect and needs some course corrections later on.
But I’m questioning the glorification of aggressiveness, busyness, and extreme growth in our current culture. Aggressiveness and rapid growth per se are neither bad nor good. But if not combined with the proper level of care, this work style can lead to the exact opposite result than intended.
And there are alternatives. Alternatives that in the currently very one-sided discussion are often forgotten or ignored.
I believe that a more balanced view is necessary.
Maybe the next time you are worried about being left behind or losing out in a race over the newest trend, instead of rushing ahead with everyone else, slow down, take a breath, and think.
Do it like the tortoise against the hare!
Life is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. You can catch up in the long term and leave your exhausted competition behind.