On Ups, Downs, and Perseverance

I seem to be at that point in my life where I’m starting to “get” certain basic principles. I’m not sure whether this is the normal process of aging and acquisition of wisdom, or some urgent cosmic message, but I’m starting to notice the insights arriving at a quickened pace.

One recent insight was that ideas are cheap, but passion and perseverance is priceless. In other words, “its all about execution.” Now, I have heard variations on this maxim for years, decades — but I never truly understood it. I would hoard ideas like putting butterflies in a jar, and think that all I needed was the “right” idea and I’d be all set.

But, butterflies will eventually die if left in a jar. Ideas, like butterflies want to be free and its in the observing that we derive value. Whether by choice or circumstance, I’ve had to execute tirelessly on some pretty simple ideas recently, and one day, after wading through dozens of emails full of well-intentioned ideas, I finally got it: Ideas are cheap, easy and effortless. But executing on an idea is difficult, requires trial-and-error, and requires us to fail on the way to realizing a goal.

The cool thing (for some of us, at least) is that execution is so difficult for most people that they won’t do it. Which is why ideas can be safely let out into the wild without fear that someone else will ‘steal’ them. The value of the idea is in the observation, interaction, experimentation and execution.

The reason that most people won’t execute on an idea is fear of failure. The highs and lows associated with attempting anything, whether it be sports, stock market success, a new business or creative endeavors, is hard for a lot of people to accept. Its a part of the process of creation that not everything will be brilliant. Even God, if we believe the story, had to start over.

But, if you don’t try anything new, and you take no chances, you’ll never “fail”, but you’ll never produce anything great either. We are currently struggling with that at my day job — current management is so conservative that we are not allowed to “fail”, and as a practical consequence, the quality and impact of our work has dropped off dramatically.

So, the ability to tolerate highs and lows appears to be a prerequisite to achieving greatness. In this article from the recent Startup School entitled “What Startups are Really Like”, http://www.paulgraham.com/really.html, the author interviewed 70 or so startup entrepreneurs. A common theme was the sheer magnitude of the highs and lows on the way to achieving their ultimate success:

“The ups and downs were more extreme than they were prepared for. In a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next, I mean a couple hours later.”

Getting back to perseverance — in addition to getting you through the highs and lows, its amazing what you can achieve if you continuously, and over time, keep pushing towards a singular vision:

The book: The Pixar Touch (Vintage) is an absolutely fascinating story of perseverance and struggle. Over the course of more than 20 years, Ed Catmull and the others endured setback after setback on the way to realizing a dream: to make animated feature films. At one point they made commercials; at one point Pixar was a hardware company; for a time, they suffered multi-million dollar losses. But through it all, the founders kept vectoring towards their singular vision. Whenever circumstances would knock them off track, or throw up a roadblock that required a detour, they would continue pushing, pulling, nudging towards their goal.

The whole notion of perseverance in achieving one’s goals is nothing new. What really struck me from the book was that: no matter how random or chaotic the circumstances, no matter how many times you are knocked off track, if you keep applying force in a given direction you will eventually overcome the randomness of life, and move things in the right direction. Its like herding cats: the random movements of the cats will be a little less random if you keep nudging them towards the door. Its also a little like compound interest, in that the force vectors (attention) that you apply begin to multiply and compound over time.

What this model absolutely requires, however, is a crystal clear destination. Something simple, almost mantra-like: “Make animated feature films.” I’m convinced that such a vision must be the product of the unconscious mind. That is, the vision must be worthy, lofty and game-changing. And that is the real difficulty. Because no matter how disciplined you might be, you can’t force your way to a truly inspirational vision.

So, I’m afraid, dear reader, that I’m leaving you with more questions than answers: “How does one train their mind to conjure a worthwhile destination?” “How do you know when an idea is worth pursuing, or is just plain dumb?” “Does it even matter?”

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