Being the Doer or the Analyzer

When columnist David Brooks visited Claremont the other week, he said something interesting over dinner.

He said that if you go into journalism, you have to remember that you’re not the star. You’re not the one actually doing things. You’re just commenting on what other people do. You need to be really interested in other people and their ideas rather than yourself and your own ideas.

This is basic but true, and illustrated a central difference in two life tracks I think about: entrepreneurship and journalism/writing.

People who start and run companies are the ultimate doers. They are the ones in the trenches creating new stuff, solving real problems. Business reporters, venture capitalists, bankers, headhunters, etc. are not the stars. They play an important but secondary role in the new venture creation process. Being the entrepreneur – being the person creating a new thing – is a uniquely rewarding pursuit for this reason.

Journalists are the ultimate analyzers. They report on and analyze and interpret the world. The better journalists even influence the doers. The great upside to this type of job is the diversity of topics you get to cover. The downside as the journalist is your sleeves are never rolled up. The world of management gurus, speakers, and some parts of academia is similar. You rove around and posit theories on different topics, but don’t assume the hassles or rewards of implementation duties.

I like to say I have “macro-ADD” – meaning I’m interested in many different topics and like to maintain a diverse portfolio of activities to keep me stimulated. A career in writing or think-tanking (or similar jobs) provides this stimulation in a way that the tunnel-vision atmosphere of start-up entrepreneurship cannot. Indeed, the great downside of the start-up world is the obsessive focus it tends to require. (Here’s the lively debate at TechCrunch over whether you can be a non-workaholic and still be a good entrepreneur.)

So I appreciated Brooks’ comment as it spoke to some of my own career uncertainties.

9 comments on “Being the Doer or the Analyzer
  • I face a similar conundrum in my own life. Many of my strengths lie in analysis and advice.

    My raw skills involve being able to listen carefully, take in data at a much higher-than-average rate, synthesize that data, and express simple conclusions in a way that others find easy to understand.

    The problem is that many of the occupations that such skills are suited for (journalist, venture capitalist, executive coach) don’t mesh with what I like to do.

    None of those occupations are doers, and at heart, I enjoy doing. Or more precisely, I hate sitting on the sidelines, unable to affect the outcome directly.

    I’m not one of those entrepreneurs whose advantage lies in an iron will that refuses to accept reality…my ability to perceive reality and to be reasonable is too strong. On the other hand, I think that being grounded in reality is very helpful in entrepreneurship.

    And so I pursue a hybrid path–I work as an operator, but also provide advice to other startups and entrepreneurs. Handing out advice to a wide variety of startups satisfies my desire to analyze many different situations, but keeping my own hand in implementation keeps me from going stir-crazy, and vice versa.

    Maybe we should start a venture fund together, and combine investing and advising. Then we could allocate other portions of our time to starting companies, writing books, and praying that Hillary Clinton takes Seth Godin’s advice and drops out of the race.

  • I think all doers will mostly be good analyzers too. I say this because the axiom “practise make things perfect” has not yet been falsified.

    But all analysts need not necessarily be efficient doers – much to their comfort. They are never held responsible for their action. They make a pass and get (paid and get)away. S&P and Fitch-‘s of the world still survive because of that.

    Look at bond street. Mortgage lenders and Banks are busy writing billions of housing $$ down, borrowers lose homes or face foreclosures but those agencies that smartly `winked’ the credit derivatives off for bond investors escaped unhurt. Had they put some of their own money where their mouth had been, they would’ve bitten the dust as well.

    But they show up for work everyday ! Hence smart advice – go be an analyst, never a doer:)

  • Interesting discussion, but I have one qeustion.

    Isn’t this a false dichotomy? We’re all doers and analyzers…As you (and Chris Yeh) point out, journalists often create change and entrepreneurs need to analyze before taking action.

    (For full disclosure, I say this as someone who’s been called a “practical analyzer.”)

  • Thinkers are doers. They just have different aims. Entrepeneurs aim to make profitable companies. Thinkers aim to understand. It’s as hard to understand the world as to start a profitable company. Yet they’re not seen as equal. Why? More people value entrepeneurship than analysis because more people value money than understanding. It’s not that people are dumb. It’s just that all people, curious or not, use/value money. But only some people, smart or not, are curious. Since money has more admirers, money-makers are legitimized more than understanding-makers.

    Thus, we legitimize entrepeneurs by calling them doers. We de-legitimize, to an extent, thinkers, by not treating them as doers. We don’t see them as doing something equally hard, or legit. Yet the best thinkers, like the best entrepeneurs, work hard constantly. They erect monuments of thought like a magnate erects a business empire. Intellectual visionaries, like business visionaries, struggle to nurture new ideas/perspectives from incubation to maturity, despite initial hostility, ridicule, and resistance. Bringing new ideas to the world is much like bringing new businesses to the world. Similar gauntlet/struggle, different arenas.

    Of course, the point I’m making is about intellectuals, not necessarily journalists. Some journalists are major public intellectuals e.g. H.L. Mencken. Not all. (And they needn’t be major public intellectuals to be good journalists). So I think one thing you might reconsider is whether you should take entrepeneurs and journalists as poles of your action-thinking spectrum. Really, journalists fall in the middle, with business people and intellectuals closer to the extremes. Journalism skew intellectually deeper than business hustle, but shallower than pure intellectualization. This is needed because journalists communicate ideas to a smart but non-specialized public. They must be rigorous enough to be accurate, challenging enough to illuminate, yet not so rigorous as to be unreadable or tedious for a lay audience.

    Anyway, bringing this back to you: people with “Macro ADD” are no better off in business than intellectual life, or journalism for that matter. These activities can be done well or poorly in an eclectic “ADD” fashion. They can be done well or poorly in an intensely focused, monomaniacal fashion. Follow your passion and you’ll fall into the best niche for you. Maybe it’s simply to start ventures while blogging on the side.

  • What about some the “doer” journalists out there who actually make stuff happen? Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, etc. Weren’t these partially the result of entrepreneurial journalists?

  • What about some of the “doer” journalists out there who actually make stuff happen? Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, etc. Weren’t these partially the result of entrepreneurial journalists?

  • How to achive doer’s mindset quickly ? Specially when you’re frustrated by someones past actions …

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