How Persistence in the Small Things Pays Off
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The case for making small, insignificant, often misunderstood actions. Based on my own experiences, from a New York Times Best-Selling book and from a man who has made millions of dollars, lost it all, and gained it back again.
Becoming an 'original'
Last month I started reading Adam Grant's bestselling book 'Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World', and it's been incredibly inspiring. I'm pretty late to the party with this one (it's 3+ years old) but better late than never. Based on some of the greatest business successes (like Warby Parker), and failures (like the Segway) of all time, Adam breaks down step by step, what it takes to change the world.
In chapter 2, he explains how simply increasing the volume of ideas (products / services etc.) we generate increases our chances of coming up with ideas that truly change the game. We all know that people like Picasso and Maya Angelou were highly skilled and successful in their craft, what I didn't know what just how much work they created that never made it into the limelight:
What it takes to become an idea machine
From this I was reminded of something that I had learned a few years earlier from a man called James Altucher: a hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, author, venture capitalist and podcaster. James wrote an extensive blogpost about what it takes to become an 'idea machine', someone who has access to what he defines as the true currency of life, which can never be depleted. And in James' thesis, becoming an idea machine means generating 10 new ideas every. single. day.
Why 10? James says:
If I say, “write down ten ideas for books you can write” I bet you can easily write down four or five. I can write down four or five right now. But at six it starts to get hard. “Hmmm,” you think, “what else can I come up with?”
This is when the brain is sweating.
Note that when you exercise in the gym, your muscles don’t start to build until you break a sweat. Your metabolism doesn’t improve when you run until you sweat. Your body doesn’t break down the old and build the new until it is sweating.
And if you can't come up with 10? James advises:
Here’s the magic trick: if you can’t come up with ten ideas, come up with 20 ideas. You are putting too much pressure on yourself. Perfectionism is the ENEMY of the idea muscle. Perfectionism is your brain trying to protect you from harm. From coming up with an idea that is embarrassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain.
Adam Grant also talks about our obsession with appearing perfect, not seeming like a failure and avoiding embarrassment. And while it's our instinctive response for protecting ourselves, it prevents us from truly being innovative.
So finally, with the help of 'Originals' I started to warm up to Jame's 10 idea theory... 6 years after I first read it. How? Because I realised that in a way, I had been doing it all along.
Let me tell you my story.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what it takes to be more innovative. In my areas of interest (spirituality, wellbeing, marketing, business) I’ve spend a lot of time thinking, theorising and processing ideas. Recently I was asked how I was able to pursue diverse interests and make transitions between industries despite how many times people tried to put me in a box.
Similar to when people ask questions of purpose, they expect a neatly wrapped method to the madness. But here’s the secret.
There’s not one activity. There’s not one action I took. There’s not one formula that worked. In fact the opposite is true.
Every career transition, new project and good idea has come from a series of false starts, less-than-great-ideas and doors (temporarily?) shut in front of me.
Stay with me. This isn’t a cliche article about succeeding against all odds. It's simpler than that.
Hobbies that become hustles
We live in a time where social media can’t be ignored. We have watched how teens become multimillionaire influencers and how some of the world's biggest companies have become obsolete. We know that now, but in 2006 none of this existed.
In 2006 I was in my early teens, and I spent a lot of my time playing with this piece of ancient history called MySpace.
After school and on weekends, I'd sit in front of my computer redesigning and reorganising my profile, learning basic code (HTML) so that I could personalise my page with features like music, custom fonts and of course, a HelloKitty background. I made friends with people I'd never met, and going to parties for underaged kids on the 'scene'. MySpace was my hobby and I was having the time of my life.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2010, this new thing called Twitter started to gain some traction. Again, I was ready and raring to go. Tweeting my days away and #NowFollowing lots of new people. I was blissfully unaware that as I went deeper into the social media vortex, people who couldn't relate started to have a big issue with it.
Very quickly, I found that in real life social settings friends and acquaintances would quip, tease and challenge me saying things like “why do you tweet so much?”. Call me sensitive but it plagued me and made me feel like I was doing something wrong, like I was doing life wrong. It didn't happen a couple of times. It happened EVERY time, for 3-4 years consistently. When you hear that for so long, you start to question yourself. And I nearly believed them.
Remember what James and Adam said about wanting to be perfect and/or avoid embarrassment? That's when this instinct was tested in me.
Then, 2015 came along and I started this blog.
I decided to actually try and do something more constructive than play online. So I chose to write. As Jeff Goins says, I was “practicing in public”: tweeting, instagramming, blogging and just doing the same thing I’d done with MySpace: write and send updates, add nice pictures, do a bit of coding here and there.
And as you probably know, that has led to the growth of this blog, the release of my first book, guest blogging for some brilliant startups, and being paid to consult on digital/social media/websites as my day job. It also led to me being paid well for one of my tweets to be used in an advertising campaign in Asia, for one of the world's Top 3 largest tech companies.
But there's not much to boast about here. None of this happened because of anything special that I did, I was simple, unconsciously following the principle of continuous idea/product generation. And when you're generating 20 tweets a day, when you're forever writing in your journal… in a way you're creating 10+ ideas a day. You’re flexing your writing and marketing muscles. I guess that's why I've not yet run out of things to share with you.
Reading 'Originals' gave me a new perspective on my experiences so far. I learned that continuing to play, experiment and engage in my hobbies (no matter how weird or misunderstood) can result in tangible results. And I haven’t even scratched the surface.
But this isn’t just about my experience. This isn't unique to me. As you can see from 'Originals' and James' 10-deas-theory, this might just be how life works.
So what could this mean for you?
If you're dreaming or working on something, don’t let fear or your ego get in the way. Don’t worry about it being a “bad idea” - generate the idea first, then test it afterwards. Don’t self-select before you’ve even got it out there, and don’t drop something you enjoy because other people don’t get it at first.
Keep creating, keep knocking on those doors and eventually they will open. Based on my experiences I truly believe that everything good will come. If you’ve got a clear vision, you also have staying power to withstand the “bad ideas”, “failures”, “false starts” and tiny steps of process along the way.