[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 2/21/07]
At a talk I gave recently at Dartmouth, I spent some time
discussing the art of accomplishing big projects. I received some
interesting feedback from the students, and now I want to explore this
Clearly, this issue is topical to academics, as what is a major term
paper or research endeavor if not a big project? But it goes beyond.
The happiest, most interesting and successful people I have
encountered tend to be those who have completed at least one or two
major, passion-fueled projects – be it writing a book or starting an
international non-profit organization.
A couple months ago, I began sending around an e-mail, addressed to
the most productive people I know. It asked for answers to a basic
question: “what separates a talker from a doer.” That is, what
separates a person with big ideas from a person who executes those big
ideas? Below, I have excerpted some of the more interesting points
from this discussion.
What Separates a Talker from a Doer?
Here are some differences I see:
1. People who get stuff done maintain a high commitment to themselves.
They don’t want to let themselves down. The chief motivation to
achieve comes from within, not external factors. It is very easy to
not keep promises you make to yourself (“Gee, I think I’m going to
stop smoking” or “Gee, I’m going to join the gym this month”).
2. People who get stuff done strive for “good enough.” Good enough is
a key principle in entrepreneurship. If your aim is “perfect,” the
future is so far away it may be hard to get going.
3. People who get stuff done think about the short term future – At
the end of meetings, they ask, “So what are the next steps?” It’s easy
to analyze the present or dream about the distant future, but
actionable tasks over the next 2-4 weeks is most important for keeping
the ball moving.
4. People who get stuff done “dream” and “talk” as much as the next
guy, but they share these dreams and ideas with others. By sharing
your intentions with others, you introduce yet another accountability
The action habit, in my opinion, is indeed a learned habit, not a
permanent part of a “successful personality.”
Selected comments from readers of Ben’s blog
I think one piece of the pie regarding “action habits” has to do with
that short term future to a certain degree. But, there is another
facet to it. Namely, being able to consistently 1) prioritize tasks
according to importance rather than urgency, and 2) complete high
priority tasks on a regular, daily basis.
This may sound profoundly stupid, but the most important trait about
doers is that they overcome their fear and take that first step.
Well, I don’t know if I have a complete answer, but here are a few
tips from my experience.
1. Don’t bullshit, don’t hype. Sometimes you do need to get certain
people like VCs or the media excited about your company or product,
but do it with real substance whenever possible.
2. Be brutally honest with yourself.
3. Surround yourself with really smart, hard working people.
4. Work hard and intelligently consistently for multiple years.
5. Set goals and write them down.
6. Track the actual results versus the projected results and write
down why you did better or worse than expected on at least an annual
if not quarterly basis. (very key)
7. Don’t jump from project to project. Stick with something dammit.
It’s almost always going to take 5 years to build anything of
significant value. So find a good idea and then run with it. If it
doesn’t work out initially, if the core idea is good, keep at it. It
took us 27 months to get Broadwick to $1 million in sales and just 7
months to make the next $1 million.