Ignoring your customers, falling in love, failing, being cheap. It’s surprising what can contribute to your success. Here are a few suggestions.
Saying no to new opportunities
Intuition tells us we have to say yes to new opportunities. The motivational posters tell us we’ve got to be ‘in it to win it’. It’s tempting to go everywhere, meet everyone and do everything, just in case we miss an important opportunity. But here’s something to ponder. Successful people say no, a lot. Or as Warren Buffet put it:
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
To be successful at one thing you need to focus on it, which means saying no to other things. If you’re single-minded about your business or career, you’ll sometimes have to say no to social events, video games or vacations, but those are actually the easy choices. Harder choices involve saying no to things that could support that business or career, like a high-paying job that takes you further away from your long-term career goals, or a great business opportunity that distracts you from an even better one.
Having trouble identifying what you should say yes to? I find it useful to ask myself this question from Gary Keller’s book, The One Thing: The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results:
“What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will become easier or unnecessary?”
Sometimes, when it comes to business, finance, and life in general, your one thing is the thing that will bring in immediate profit and allow you to outsource all the other things.
For a year or so now I’ve been on a quest to do less, but better. As usual when I’m on a quest, I’m taking it way too far. I’m writing a book on the topic. I’ve already bought the domain name DoLessButBetter.com. For now, I’ve pointed it to my Etsy shop where I’m now selling a printable ‘do less, but better’ journal and a ‘do less, but better’ planner.
I’m still not great at doing less but better, but I’m moving steadily toward my goal. I no longer let myself glorify busyness. Being busy isn’t always a sign you’re productive. Hours spent working don’t always result in successful finished projects. Hours spent playing aren’t always an indication of an idle mind. Time spent walking in nature or gazing out to sea is rarely wasted time.
Failing to take proper time for rest and recovery means you burn out quicker. By all means work hard, but only on the things that matter. Learn to let go of the things that don’t, and spend that time relaxing instead.
We live in an age where constant availability is glorified. We admire the business contact who gets back to us in 2 minutes flat, even though it’s 3 am in his time zone. We expect instant responses to emails and voice messages, and one of the few viable excuses for a lack of immediate availability is ‘she’s in a meeting’.
That’s a problem. If our only two choices are constantly available and responsive, or in a meeting, when are we ever going to get any real work done? Where’s the time for creative thinking, planning and analysis? When do we do what author Cal Newport describes in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World?
Deep work is work that requires us to focus without distraction, achieve flow and be truly productive, and few of us have much time for that any more. I achieve my deep work when I turn off my phone, often for hours at a time. When I turn it back on, there are lots of notifications waiting for me, and almost none of them really matter.
Skipping the college degree
Obtaining a college degree has become seemingly more important (and certainly more expensive) than ever before. But is it vital for your personal goals? If you want to be a doctor or lawyer, yes. If you want to work in any creative field, or run your own business, not so much.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, your college diploma may never be more than an expensive wall decoration. Some of the most successful people in history were surprisingly poorly educated, and if you’re a true creative, your college degree may even hold you back, not because having a degree hurts your creativity, but because debt does. In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert cautions young writers against the traditional MFA career path, not because it will hurt their writing, but because the debt it generates will force them into career choices that are more about money than artistic integrity. As Gilbert puts it:
“Nobody needs debt less than an artist.”
Falling in love
Bet you’ve heard that success is single-minded. You don’t want to be distracting yourself with anything as complicated and unproductive as love. Singletons are happy to announce they’re ‘married to their work’, and it’s widely assumed that being single and child-free is good for your career. Statistics don’t always support this view, though. A number of studies show that those in stable marriages are not only happier and healthier, but also wealthier and more successful overall.
There is a case for focusing on your business or career when you’re young, but there are also some compelling arguments for taking the time to develop a serious relationship in your twenties. Keep in mind that few of us are truly ‘single’ long-term. Often it’s a choice between the drama and stress of dating and serial relationships, and the stability and support that comes with a more long-term relationship.
This is perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all, but nothing contributes to your success quite as much as failure.That’s because, in most endeavors, first-attempt success is so rare it’s an anomaly.
You instinctively know this, if you just let yourself acknowledge it. If you’ve raised a child, you’ll remember that child didn’t go from sitting still one day to getting up on his feet and strolling casually and confidently around the room the next. The process of learning to walk is paved with bumps and bruises and scraped knees, because that’s how learning to walk works.
Learning to talk, swim, ride a bike or read your first story book is similar. Long-term, success is expected, and even anticipated as a certainty, but immediate success would be so unexpected as to be unnerving.
Your first draft won’t be perfect, your first prototype won’t work flawlessly, and your first website won’t be without glitches. Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s one of the steps that allows us to eliminate the stuff that’s not working and get closer to the stuff that does. That’s why so many entrepreneurs live by the idea that you should fail fast and fail cheap. In fact, do as much as you can cheap.
Keeping overheads low is underrated. People say you “gotta play big to win big”, but being frugal in your business can work too. Low overheads can lead to bigger profits.
This is why I love being a solopreneur and encourage others to consider it as a long-term business model too. You can outsource without taking on full-time employees, you can start small and slow and grow naturally. “Grow your business organically” is one of the best pieces of advice Richard Branson ever gave me, and he gave me lots, because I’ve read his books, Losing my Virginity and Finding my Virginity, which are jam-packed full of advice.
The truly successful are often surprisingly frugal, because keeping overheads low is easier than making huge profits. And a lack of debt (and having money to fall back on) allows for bigger risks and more innovation.
Ignoring your customers
Asking your customers what they want doesn’t always work. As Henry Ford reputedly said:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
He’s not wrong. Apple customers wouldn’t have come up with the iPhone. Virgin records customers wouldn’t have suggested space travel. Sometimes it’s up to you as the business owner to innovate in a way your customers wouldn’t have dreamed of.
Entrepreneurs are thrown off-course, and disappointed, by this concept all the time. They asked their audience, and people said they wanted this training or that tutorial, but no-one signed up for it.
Customers don’t always know what they want. They just know what their problem is. Instead of asking them what they want, find out what their pain points are and solve them. If people using horses for transport want to go faster, they’re going to ask for faster horses. It’s hard for people to want what doesn’t yet exist. Sometimes the innovation has to come from you.
So next time you do something you think is contributing to your success, take a moment to question it. You’re probably right, of course, but what if you’re not.
A version of this article first appeared on The Savvy Solopreneur.
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