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?).

5 comments on “Is “Just Get Started” Bad Advice?
  • Ben, as usual, an insightful reaction.

    To keep the debate alive, let me clarify my essay. I think I am less interested in how one tackles a specific activity — i.e., whether they plan or jump in — and more interested in the overall volume of activities. My fear regarding the “get started!” culture is that it leads people to believe that impressiveness comes from doing lots of cool little things.

    The reality is that in the long run, if you want disproportionate reward for your efforts, you need to develop, in an economic sense, a scarce skill. In the end, this requires the Steve Martin Method: you have to become so good they can’t ignore you. This, in turn, requires focus at the expense of other activities.

    We now return to my original point. If you’re constantly running around, trying things out, and experimenting, you aren’t, by definition, focusing. In some sense, I see it as a tough love lesson: if you want to jumpstart an unusual, highly-rewarded life, at some point you have to dig in.

    Now, of course, the problem with this theory is that it doesn’t explain how you decide what to focus on in the first place. Here I’m baffled. Some people seem to be born knowing that they want to be a novelist. Others, I guess, might need to experiment in the way you describe? In my own experience, I tend to dance around an area of focus, sometimes for up to a year, always trying to find out more, but resisting the urge to commit myself to any serious time, before finally making a decision about whether or not to go “all in.”

    Some of these dances, such as writing and grad school, returned a positive, others, such as my 18 month screen writing obsession, returned a negative.

    I guess the only thing I’m sure about is the topic in general is fascinating, and definitely worthy of discussions like these…

  • It really comes down to a personal decision about what you feel is interesting – and in most cases trying new activities (even if they don’t meet a high threshold) has more upside than downside. Some people are actually devoted to one thing for the whole life – but probably a lot less people that we usually think. What I would call the best things in my life have mostly developed over the last 2 years – in some cases from trying opposite things and sticking with the one I liked best. Until you find something that actually makes you ignore “cool little things”, you might as well try a few different options with the only requirement being that each thing has the potential to be a little better than the last.

    Cal, your perspective seems to be that if you spend a year on something and then decide it’s not worth it, you wasted your time. But that’s not always the case – one way or another, doing something like that gives you more experience in deciding what you want and getting it. You also need to look at the opportunity cost. Is it taking you away from something better, or from watching more TV?

    I’m always interested in learning about different business ideas and business models – I used to plan a new business virtually every month. Now I’ve shifted my focus more towards the business I was building the whole time and it’s doing much better as a result (although I still have a few smaller things I’m thinking about doing on the side). In my case starting over all the time would take me away from something that I actually like (and is helping me a lot).

    However, there are people who think about running a business all day… while bored at their job. In that case if you try something new each month at least you’re learning more about what you really want to do, and you can see how it feels to actually do something. So if you’re not trying to make something your life goal, or you’re not sure how, experimenting is good.

    Even with my (current) main business, when I decided to do something myself instead of applying for jobs I had no idea where it would go, what I would be spending my time on now, or what I would need to do. I’ve learned partly from experience, partly from seeing what people ask for the most, and partly from others with more experience – it would probably take 5-10 years of intensive study and research to learn what I know now from what I’ve done in less than 2 years. And even then it would be a theory that I would mentally walk through at first, not something that I know without thinking.

    It depends on the area of course. If you try to start a business instead of getting a job and it doesn’t work out the initiative could help you get a job. If you’re launching a rocket you can’t just bring it back, fix a bug in the systems, and try again. But generally when it comes to deciding what you want to spend your time on and what challenges you want to overcome, I have yet to see any convincing evidence that reading about something can even bring you close to understanding what it’s like – which is what you really need to decide if you can do it and if you want to do it.

    Like Ben says, most people err in the direction of planning rather than doing, and that often has a higher downside!

  • I thought I would share a clarification of my thoughts that came from the comment thread over on the original post:

    In general, I find it’s best to choose a small number of things and stick with them over time. Once you’ve fixed something, within that pursuit it helps to experiment, and seek randomness, and, in general, keep taking action. But insist that you are really, truly inspired by a new pursuit before you devote any time to it.

  • I had a feeling Ben would pick this one up.

    I’ll try not to repeat my comments already made on Cal’s site, but focus on a good add Ben made to the discussion.

    Ben’s comment in the final section of the post revolves around a specific question: How do people learn most effectively and efficiently? Is it thorugh calculated planning and waiting for the correct opportunity or just doing?

    It depends on the individual and there is an obvious balance between the two.

    I would put the balance to the 80/20 rule. 80% of what you learn comes after you start. Similar to Richard, thats where the line was drawn for my business.

    The funny thing is that I tried to start a couple smaller things a few years back that didn’t work out. Both, upon reflection, were for personal growth reasons as opposed to building the next Fortune 100 company. I mostly did them because I had an itch. I needed to create something on my own and just see if it would work. I don’t think that building a sustainable advantage to drive disproportionate gains really entered my mind.

    I’m not sure I would ever have seen the opportunity behind my latest business without following my instincts on those couple earlier projects.

    This brings me to a question: Do you need to try a few times to get to a position were you can succeed? Where you can build a unique brand?

    I would say yes.

    p.s. Check out this 1996 Charlie Rose interview of Jay Leno. Leno describes seeing one of this comedy buddies one evening on Ed Sullivan. When the show was finished Leno said to himself: ‘I can do better than that.’ That night Leno left his apartment door open, told the neighbors to take what they wanted and moved to LA.

  • To clarify:

    I really am not saying that you are supposed to pre-plan your path in a given pursuit. I am very much in favor of randomness, and taking small action, and learning on the fly.

    My big picture point is to limit the number of general pursuits in which you are doing this type of learning. I think their is confusion on the scope of “pursuit.” I mean it at the level of: “I want to be an entrepreneur of some sort,” not “I want to start this particular business.”

    For example, JP, you had a commitment to entrepreneurship in place when you started those two small ventures. That’s excellent. You were staying focused. Jay Leno was already doing comedy when he decided he had to move to L.A. right away: again, excellent.

    If, on the other hand, you decided on a whim to move to L.A. to do comedy or Leno had marched out his apartment to start a business…that would be an example of the getting started mindset causing damage.

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