Is “Just Get Started” Bad Advice?

My friend Cal Newport is a great guy who stimulates my brain. In his latest post, I’m guessing he has yours truly in mind when he writes:

Attend any talk given by an entrepreneur and you’ll hear some variation of the following:

    The most important thing you can do is to get started!

This advice has percolated from its origin in business self-help to the wider productivity blogging community. You’ve heard it before: Do you want to become a writer? Start writing! Do you want to become fit? Join a gym today! Do you want to become a big-time blogger? Start posting ASAP! If you don’t start, you’re weak! You’re afraid of success!

Cal goes on to say that he’s mainly arguing against the attitude where "every twinge of momentary enthusiasm is translated into action that consumes a non-trivial amount of time and attention." Cal says that instead of just leaping into action mode, we ought to contemplate our choices, analyze the situation, and "develop rigorous thresholds that any pursuit must overcome" before acting.

I agree to an extent that the very real benefits of planning and not acting can be lost among the "pro-action" hoopla. But the hoopla exists for a reason: many people talk about things they’d like to do but never get around to actually doing them. Cal, a doctoral student who has no problem executing on goals, naturally favors a more academic approach to the inaction problem (analyze, list options, pick best option, track success) rather than an experimental approach (jump into things as soon as possible, figure out if it’s worth it, back out if it’s not, etc). For some though, I think his wait-and-analyze approach might exacerbate paralysis — all smart people can create more detailed Excel spreadsheets instead of actually picking up the phone and take tangible steps in the desired direction.

In the end, the worthiness of the "just get started" advice depends on the task. Some tasks give feedback faster if undertaken right away in a small dose as opposed to analyzing it from afar. Take Cal’s examples: If you want to become a writer, sure you can talk to writers and study the profession, but is there a better way to understand whether writing girds your loins than actually putting pen to paper? If you want to become a big-time blogger, is there a better way to understand the blogosphere than to start a blog yourself? If fitness is your goal, what’s better than spending an hour a day in the gym for two weeks and seeing how you feel?

Starting a company is a much larger type of task and therefore more deserving of the kind of restraint Cal outlines. For the record, if someone tells me, "I want to start a company," I do say, "Get started!" But get started doesn’t mean taking out a $100,000 loan from Fat Vinnie, quitting your day job, and betting the family farm on your venture. Rather it means doing some preliminary research, maybe developing a prototype by night, and developing mini-experiments that can quickly give you a sense of the viability of the idea. Low risk actions.

Cal also says this on successful people:

They have built an exhaustive understanding of the relevant world, why some succeed and others don’t, and exactly what type of action is required. This takes time. Often it requires a long period of saturation, in which the person returns again and again to the world, meeting people and reading about it and trying little experiments to get a feel for its reality. This period will be at least a month. It might last years.

I’m frankly a little skeptical and would be interested in some specific examples. Did this saturation happen on the job or beforehand? Did they build an exhaustive understanding of the relevant world from afar, before getting started, or during? Most of the success stories I’ve been exposed to have been accidental and the person ended in place that was unexpected — for example, starting a business and then it becoming something totally different in the process of building it. Methodological, comprehensive saturation to the industry before jumping in? Not really.

Bottom Line: There are plenty of cases where not acting and analyzing options is preferable to jumping right in and getting started. It depends on the task (smaller tasks are good for immediate action) and the person (do you learn quickly from experimental feedback?).

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