Business is a forest.
You stand on the edge of it, and a dozen paths fan out at your feet.
Four of them could accommodate a Jeep. Other than a few rocks, roots, and potholes, the going should be fairly easy.
Three of them look like old logging roads, overgrown with weeds and saplings. You’d have to drive more slowly, and your paint job would probably suffer scratches and scuffs. Nothing you can’t handle though.
Three more hiking paths meander through the trees. You would be on foot, but many feet have pounded out a clear ribbon of dirt.
Two game trails almost escape detection. Little more than an impression through the leaves and fallen trees, they trace the land’s contours. If you look too hard, try with your mind’s eye to draw a hard line, the trail disappears altogether. You must instead rely on instinct: Which steps might a deer or fox take?
You have an old map. It shows the landmarks that don’t change: the forest, the mountain in the distance, and the city invisible on the other side.
Much to your chagrin, the map doesn’t tell you which is the right path. One, or perhaps two, leads through the forest, over the mountain pass, and out onto the plain and its city.
A few adventurers who have made this journey — the ones who made the map, in fact — told you what to expect. Some paths lead to unscalable rock faces. Some lead to precarious cliffs and, for the unobservant, a long and rather definitive fall.
Others peter out in glades and meadows — scenic spots, to be sure, with wildflowers and pools of sunshine, but not your destination.
Which path do you pick?
Maybe they had some special knack, some exquisite inborn quality, embedded like a diamond, that set them apart from day one? Some telescope into the future?
And yet, if you read the interviews, the inimitable CEOs like Jeff Bezos contradict the notion that they ever had knowledge of the path:
If you read between the lines, a different narrative emerges: The journey was and is improvisation.
You may have had some idea of the destination. As for the long sequence of steps, through the forest and over the mountain, well, they made it up as they went.
And if you were to ask these men and women, luminaries in the industries they disrupt and dominate, how they decided what to do next, they have nothing to say about certainty and safe bets.
After a few moments of quiet thought, they talk about risk tolerance. You often cannot find the right path until you rule out the wrong paths.
You must hurry down a path, with full knowledge that it might be a dead-end, because only by choosing and, later, by failing quickly, and you gain insight into this path and the others you might have taken.
Every path is a teacher, and by process of elimination, you find a path that, though no less arduous, can funnel you into the pass.
In that respect, there is no arrival. Or, if you do finally walk the city’s cobbled streets, you realize that they point to the harbor, and the harbor, to the sea.
Perhaps the destination really does wait around the next bend, but each step closer brings fresh temptation — to not let the time wasted on detours and dead ends paralyze you with fear and second-guessing; to not let the hope of certainty beguile you; to not let the idea of perfection persuade you to wait.
Were you to catch those great adventurers in a moment of transparency, he or she would divulge the truth: “We made it up every single day, and if we did one thing right, it was turning mistakes into opportunities. It was wringing every last drop of wisdom out of our frustration and disappointment. It was starting again, quickly, with the confidence that success is always 90% failure.”
In their own words, they would echo what General George S. Patton said: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
No one knows the future. Everyone battles uncertainty.
But some people stop believing that certainty is the aim. When certainty itself is a dead end, the right path can only be the very next step. Success is not sitting down.
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