Success largely boils down to a simple distinction. It’s glaringly obvious once you see it, but also easy to find ingenious ways of ignoring it: do the real thing and stop doing fake alternatives.
Consider one person who wrote to me saying she turned down a job working in French. She didn’t feel her French was good enough yet. So instead, she planned to listen to podcasts at home every day until she was ready.
You know what would have helped her get good at French? Working at the job in French.
Working at a job in the language she wanted to speak was the real thing for her. Listening to podcasts at home to prepare was the fake alternative she chose instead.
Or consider another person I spoke with who wanted to get better at writing music. He had come up with a complex analysis project. He was going to do a deep dive into past hits, figuring out what made them great. In all this complexity he ignored the obvious, real thing he should be doing: writing more songs. When I asked how many he had written so far, he said it was just three.
Business owners who spend more time printing business cards than finding clients. Students who create elaborate multicolored folders for their classes instead of sitting down and studying. People trying to get in shape who buy fancy workout gear instead of exercising. Pretend activity instead of the real thing.
I’m not immune to this tendency. If anything, I succumb to it more often than most. I’ve spent months dreaming up elaborate projects that precisely avoid doing the real work. Creativity and intelligence can be an enemy here, as they allow ever more elaborate rationalizations into doing fake work.
Why the Real Thing Matters
The fact that a direct strike on a problem often works better than an oblique attack isn’t surprising. But the problem is even more acute than most people would expect.
There’s an enormous literature about the narrowness of acquired skills. Learn to do X, and then switch to doing Y, and you often take a huge performance hit even if X and Y are superficially similar.
This applies most obviously to formal education. In countless studies, students are found to not be able to perform on tasks that their classes should have prepared them for. Studying economics then not being able to do better on questions of economic reasoning. Taking one psychology class and not having it help when taking a later one. Physics students failing to solve problems that differ slightly from those taught in class.
But the truth is probably deeper than just a failure of our education system. One researcher I spoke with mentioned how this applies even to very basic skills. With practice, for instance, you can get better at discriminating vertical lines. But switch the test to horizontal lines and the benefit of training goes away.
This specificity of training means fake alternatives often accomplish a lot less than you’d naively expect.
The Strategy for Success Looks Obvious
When you examine case studies of people who have had major accomplishments, you expect there to be some trick or shortcut. Some amazing technique they used that others weren’t clever enough to recognize.
More often, however, the strategy used is dead simple: doing the real thing.
Tristan de Montebello went from near-zero speaking experience to a finalist for the World Championship of Public Speaking in seven months. How? By getting on stage and speaking constantly, sometimes as often as twice in a day.
I found many other examples when researching my book:
- Eric Barone, who went on to sell millions of copies of his game, overcame his struggles at creating art by making and remaking the art assets for his game dozens of times.
- Vat Jaiswal, was struggling to land work as a new architect, until he committed himself to mastering the software and style practiced at actual firms.
- Countless polyglots show that being able to speak a language depends, critically, on spending a lot of time speaking it. Playing with apps alone doesn’t count.
Why then, if the way forward is so straight, do we insist on taking detours?
The Real Thing is Hard
Real things require real difficulty. Fake stuff never does.
This doesn’t mean fake work is effortless. Instead, pretend activity always has just enough difficulty to allow you to trick yourself into thinking you’re doing something that matters. But, conveniently, it avoids any of the truly difficult things the real situation would create.
Consider the examples above. My friend’s music analysis project is definitely a lot of work. However, it conveniently misses the real frustration and challenge of struggling to write your own songs. It requires effort, but always in a way that feels doable and safe. Listening to language learning podcasts for hours is mildly strenuous. She can feel like she’s doing “something” even though it probably won’t prepare her for working in French.
Real things have risk. They have the possibility of failure. They have frustration. They force you to confront the possibility that maybe you just aren’t good enough.
Fake activity is great for making yourself feel better, but lousy for actual results.
Rules for Doing the Real Thing
I can think of a few guidelines to try to crystallize the attitude I want to encourage:
1. Nothing is often better than something.
We’re trained to think that something is better than nothing. This is true, but only if it’s a real something. Fake somethings not only fail to create progress, they numb you to the possibility of real striving.
Fill your days with enough fake activity, and you get into the situation where you fail to make meaningful progress on any of your goals, but still feel exhausted at the end of the day.
Doing nothing, in contrast, is restorative. It fosters the urge to do something, rather than draining it away.
2. The hard way is the easy way.
The starting point for any new effort should be to ask yourself, “How would I do this, if doing it well were all that mattered?”
Difficulty is paradoxical. The hardest things often become the easiest once we’re fully committed to them. What’s difficult is the commitment, not the action; the word, not the deed.
Taking the real thing as your starting point, the deviations you must take to overcome obstacles tend to be minor. Taking a fake and convenient substitute as the starting point, and you can often never work back to the original thing that mattered.
3. If you’re not sure what the real thing is, just ask.
Those who have been there before know what the real path is. If you ask them, they can instantly spot the difference between strategies that attack the heart of the problem and fanciful projects that lead nowhere.
In case it’s unclear what you should be working on the solution is simple: ask. Find someone who has been there before. Tell them your plan and ask them if they think it’s direct enough. Forums, Quora, LinkedIn and many other places exist where you can ask the question, so saying you don’t know anyone who has done it before is no longer an excuse.
A Meaningful Life Depends on Doing Real Things
There’s a feeling that goes along with real work. It’s not always positive. It often has fear, frustration or the sense that maybe you’ve bit off more than you can chew.
But doing the real thing matters. Days wasted on fake activity may keep you busy, but they never seem to go anywhere. A life spent on real work may not always be the easiest or most entertaining, but it’s the one that adds up in the end.