Doing things that don’t scale

I’ve heard time and time again that we should follow our dreams. That dropping everything we’re doing to pursue what we want to is the only way to happiness in life. And as compelling as that sounds I’m not sure it works.

I’ve recently been going to the gym and the classic exercise used to measure the upper body strength of an individual is the bench press. For some it’s quite easy for others not so much. I can call myself athletically challenged so I fell in the latter category. In the exercise there is a barbell or metal rod and on each side of the barbell the individual adds weight. Naturally the more the weight on the bar the harder the exercise. There’s a moment in every “benchers” life where they can life a bar with 45s (45 pound plates) on each side.

For me, getting to a plate on each side of the bar took eight months; for some they can do it their first time in a gym. We aren’t all created equal but hard work can catch up to talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The next barrier for me is two 45s on each side of the bar. But it didn’t have to be eight months, and I made so many mistakes.

See if I attempted to follow my dreams and try two 45s on each side without training or consistently showing up, I would have either hurt myself badly to a point of no return or let the bar fall onto the safety straps. Sometimes in life we don’t have safety straps and building that confidence, awareness, network and skill set, consistently and strategically is the best way to achieve our goals.

You may think, “well in a startup or a team sport everyone will help me lift that weight or achieve that goal” and there’s some truth to that. The phrase a chain is only as strong as its weakest link also holds true. Ask for help, understand the process, spend time with experts, but always be learning.

Asking the same question four, five, ten or more times and not understanding the response may be an indication that you need to step back and do things that don’t scale. It may be an indication that you don’t quite understand the context of the questions you are asking. It’s disrespectful to the people that actually put in the time to understand the problem and unfortunately I’ve seen it time and time again (guilty as charged). It’s quite okay to ask for more time to understand something. I suggest using the internet and the various resources around to pick up this information. We live in an information saturated age. Theoretically you can learn anything. Don’t be afraid to waste time, I’ve found that creativity and learning spawns from it.

Networking is only as beneficial as opportunities we take advantage of and without a solid skillset and strategy it’s hard to make the most of any opportunity. Thinking, just like working out, is a muscle. When I first walked into the gym, I was absolutely terrified that the weight would kill me and I’m sure many of you are terrified of other things maybe maths or science, perhaps programming or even relationships.

But before you can deliver value to others, to truly take advantage of the networking opportunities afforded to you, I believe that you need to fail and fail quickly and in very small ways. A feedback loop for yourself is imperative. The easiest way to do that initially is by yourself. If you don’t take failure personally it won’t matter anyway. Failing in-front of an audience is much harder to do I’ve found then failing by myself, well unless you’re a sociopath.

This is a bit counter-intuitive when thinking about it in the context of the internet culture because there’s a belief that stating what you’re doing to someone else, that person, the internet, karma, or even Instagram holds you accountable. I’ve found though that it isn’t the best motivator and here’s why. There are intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivators include curiosity, fascination, love, lust, whereas extrinsic motivators include power, status, jealousy, signaling.

The reason why telling someone else your plans is so effective is that it tricks your mind in subtle ways to feel obligated to your word and unless you’re sociopathic it’s very hard to ignore the guilt when you inevitable fail at accomplishing what your commit to. The only way to combat this is with the a higher intrinsic motivator.

Intrinsic motivations like curiosity and pride were at our strongest for most of us as a child. My fascination for human behavior, biology, space, computers and the world consumed me for most of the summer breaks I had as a young child. It didn’t matter whether someone thought that sharpening sticks on the side of the road or taking apart RC cars was stupid; that was extrinsic. I found it fun, though futile at quenching my insatiable curiosity. And it solves this problem of feeling like an imposter because frankly that’s the side-effect of extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivations tend to creep in as we grow through life. The insecurities we never anticipated as a child slowly start to dictate our every actions as we try to climb out of the quicksand. Recently, I participated for a time in a fad called “ego lifting” at the gym, lifting more than I could because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I wanted to signal to people that I wasn’t weak, that I could handle the weight, frankly I couldn’t. It was only when I started going to a new gym with few or no people that I could actually focus on what I was doing correctly and incorrectly. It was when I stopped focusing in signaling and started focusing on failing strategically that I made the most progress, and ultimately had the most fun.

Focusing on status and signaling can create opportunities but I’ve found that it places me at a severe disadvantage. The food tastes more bland. The sun seems less bright and I feel alone, out of place and fraudulent. My creativity is almost non-existent and the extra attention or money I get feels meaningless. I feel misunderstood, an imposter. Some it has to do with my age and the era of image consciousness we currently live in.

In our teenage years and early 20’s life seems like popularity contest and in some ways it is unfortunately. The prettiest people get certain opportunities not afforded to all, teenagers with a wealthier upbringing are live life much easier and the only person that seems to care about you is your mother/father if that. Even that statement is skewed with a certain perception of reality, and those people have problems you can’t anticipate.

Society seems to try and sell us on this idea of power, wealth and fame. That it’s the secret to happiness. That it’ll solve all of our problems. But deep down we know that it won’t. Being a CEO is cool, it’s also a status play, an extrinsic motivator, a signal, but it might not make you as happy as you initially might have though.

The only way I know how to attain happiness and flow state, is to first focus on intrinsic motivators, to build and test out ideas I may never truly finish, to make mistakes that were never really mistakes, to be okay being perceived as an idiot, to learn process that doesn’t bring immediate value, to stay in the shadows and never drown in the ever-present noise of the internet, to do things that don’t scale.

Thanks for the read. Love to hear your experiences below!

If you’re in Seattle and wanna make a friend:

abhishekpratapa (at) gmail (dot) com

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