Tag Archives: Seth Godin

The wisdom of low quality

There are some things in life where it’s important to do a great job. For example, the difference between being an OK musician and a great musician is an enormous amount of work … but it’s worth it, both to the musician and the audience.

Surprisingly, there are things where it’s NOT important to do a great job – it’s only important to do it. And trying to do a great job where you shouldn’t can actually prevent you from doing a great job where you should.

I thought about this yesterday while shoveling snow. The difference between shoveling and not shoveling is huge – you can’t get your car out of the driveway if you don’t clear a path. But the difference between shoveling and shoveling perfectly is insignificant. Does it really matter if there are little strips of snow between shovel strokes? Does it really matter if the sidewalk has perfectly square edges? No. It’s snow – it’s going to melt eventually anyway. Just push the snow around to clear a path for your car and clear a path for pedestrians as quickly as possible – time saved doing a mediocre job shoveling is time that can be spent doing something more worthwhile.

So what about building a startup – is there anything like shoveling snow in a startup, something that’s more important to DO than to DO WELL?

One thing that comes to mind is managing email. Fred Wilson spoke about email the other day – he gives it an hour in the morning, an hour at night, and maybe an hour in the middle. He does what he can during that time, but he’s not willing to invest more in the overall process. For him, “doing email” seems to be like my shoveling the driveway – just get as much of it done as possible, but it can never be perfect.

I’ve never emailed Fred Wilson, but I have corresponded with Brad Feld and Seth Godin, two other famous startup people who receive a shocking amount of email yet respond personally to any reasonable request, usually within 24 hours (in fact usually within 5 minutes). How do they do it?

For starters, their emails (at least to me) are very short. They trust that I will be thrilled to get a reply from them, so they don’t bother setting me up with useless niceties like “It’s very nice to meet you, Patrick …” It’s more likely to be a reply like “thanks” or “yes” or “not at this time.” Seth once gave me very quick feedback that I wrote something “generous,” which meant a lot to me, coming from him. I once asked Brad for an interview, and he simply replied back, including his assistant, saying “+1 [assistant’s name] please schedule.”

I want to be the kind of person who replies back to every email I receive and doesn’t leave loose ends. I am not that person yet – not even close. To get there, I’m pretty sure I need to learn what Brad and Seth (and probably Fred) were forced to learn a long time ago – it’s better to get email done than to get it done perfectly. If I don’t have an answer for a request, I’ve got to learn to reply back with something like “I have forwarded your message to a colleague, and I will let you know when I hear back” or even “I don’t know, but I will let you know if I find out.” That’s better than what I do now, which is stroke my chin, put it in a “tickler” folder that gets buried worse than my inbox, and never get back to it.

I want to answer every email with a wonderful nugget of helpfulness, but I simply can’t. Too often, that reality ends up burying me, which gets me down. And that feeling of defeat impacts my ability to do the rest of my job well.

The fancy word for this is satisficing: “a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.” Every email requires a decision. If you attempt to maximize every one of those decisions, you will never “finish” your email. That leaves you with a stack of unmade decisions which is worse than a stack of adequate – but completed – decisions.

Email is never going away. I just need to learn how to do each one a little bit more poorly – it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s counterintuitive, but the end result is actually “doing email” better.

Declaring victory

Seth Godin’s post from yesterday, declaring victory, jarred me: “Whenever you start a project, you should have a plan for finishing it. One outcome is to declare victory, to find that moment when you have satisfied your objectives and reached a goal. The other outcome, which feels like a downer but is almost as good, is to declare failure …”

I was just thinking how much I enjoy entering into open-ended projects. For example, I’m currently writing every day and running every day. It’s simple to understand – have I done this yet today? No? then I guess I better get to it …

I don’t always do things that way. Six years ago, I set a goal of running the Riverbank Run (15.5 miles) in May of 2006. I loved the feeling of accomplishing such a tough goal (albeit an arbitrary one). As I finished it, I set a goal of running the Grand Rapids Marathon (26.2 miles) in October. My family was so proud of me – my brother actually cried at the finish line. As soon as I finished that, I decided to run Huff in December (31 miles on trails – only 5 miles longer than a marathon, but it took me twice as long to finish). My family just thought I was crazy then.

At that point, I noticed a problem – I didn’t have a goal for running anymore. I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish to that point. I would have loved to focus on ultra-marathons and running longer and longer distances. I have one really good qualification for these: I can eat a lot during a run without getting sick. I consumed more than 1,000 calories during my marathon. Very handy. Unfortunately, I had just started working for Microsoft, and I had a 3-year-old kid. I didn’t have more time to run, I had less.

Instead of running farther, I thought about running faster and trying to qualify for Boston. I would have had to take more than a minute off my best marathon pace – it’s tempting to try, but I never really believed I could do it. If you don’t believe you can, then you can’t.

I thought about doing triathlons, but I’m mediocre on a bike (notice I didn’t say I was a cyclist), and I’m a bad swimmer (I sink). I just don’t see an immediate goal for me there. Maybe I’ll do it when I retire and have time for crazy long rides and swimming lessons.

In 2010, a buddy of mine ran every day and wrote about it every day. He even ran with me one day that year. His streak running inspired me to start a streak of my own, but I fizzled. When we ran together, I told Doug that the streak made me feel bad, but that wasn’t the whole truth – failing at the streak made me feel bad. Twice I got a streak past 30 days, and then I simply forgot to schedule a run while traveling. That sucked. I didn’t see a way to reconcile streak running with travel.

Before I started my current streak, I realized that the beauty of streak running for me is that if I’m going to commit to it, then it forces me to prioritize running higher in my life. That’s a good thing for me. I thought about that as I smiled while running along unfamiliar Chicago streets in 16-degree weather Friday and Saturday. I was making time for something that’s important to me (and thinking about Frank).

And now I have a goal. To make the official list of retired and active running streaks, you have to run at least 1 mile every day for a year. That was the goal Doug set for himself in 2010 and accomplished. Once he started, he KNEW he’d run 365 days (thus the name of his blog), but if I remember correctly, he was pretty happy to take a day off when he reached that goal. When I started, I wasn’t really thinking about the goal – I just started running every day. Now it’s going to take prolonged unconsciousness or visible bones to keep me from running every day in 2012.

There’s something I like about open-ended projects (e.g., running every day), and there’s something I like about reaching a goal (e.g, running every day for a year). Seth’s post has really made me think about the difference and in what areas of my life I should be focused on one versus the other.

I do know that running is more fun for me when I run with purpose, whether that purpose is to run far, run fast, or run frequently. And my ultimate purpose for running is simply to have fun.

I also know that there are some crazy wonderful runners on the streak runners lists. Mark Covert has been running at least a mile every single day since before I was born. Actually, I believe he’s run at least 2 in fact. He’s averaged 9. He’s scheduled surgery for immediately after a morning run and then squeaked in a painful run the following night. I wonder when he will declare victory on his little running streak project.

Thanks, Seth

One of my favorite blogs is Seth Godin’s. He writes a blog post every day, and I read it every day. About a million or so people read him every day, in fact.

One post stuck with me last year: talker’s block. Seth makes the assertion that we don’t get talker’s block, because we practice talking poorly until we get good at it. Therefore, it must be the same with writing – the way to get good at writing is to be willing to write poorly for a while. The important thing is simply to write often. Every day, in fact.

I suspect Seth is right, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m writing every day. Thanks for the inspiring wisdom, Seth!