You Don’t Need No Preparation

Why taking the first step beats more planning

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Photo by Gia Oris on Unsplash

The great, men and women of history tend to have one thing in common. No, not the fact they’re dead. I refer to their insistence on planning and preparation as a prerequisite for success. Here’s Ben Franklin with one for the ages:

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

This ethos of planning and preparing is drilled into us right from school. Maybe that’s why whenever we decide to work towards a goal, often our first instinct is to start gathering resources. Whether its knowledge, connections, or funding we begin our quest by collecting what we think is required to achieve our goal. On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable thing to do.

The only problem is that the act of preparing can very quickly become an end in itself. Like junkies lusting for just one more hit, we start believing that we only need a little bit more to get started. Why do we fall into this pattern with such regularity?

The simple answer is that we crave certainty that our actions will not be in vain. Since the thought of failure is so terrifying, we obsess over preparation as a way of defending our ego. Moreover, collecting resources gives us a sense of purpose just as we are embarking on an ambitious project. Reading books, listening to talks, taking advice — all this seems like we’re making headway. But as the tired history of failed projects and broken dreams tell us, most of these efforts end in nothing more than a giant heap of discarded resources.

Contrary to what most self-help books say about success, our own efforts are only part of the equation. Barring luck, which is not under our control, success also depends on the difficulty of the goal and the resources we have on hand. Both these factors determine the first step we take. And the first step is everything.

As far as goals go, we’re told to go after big, audacious ones. This is not bad advice, but it doesn’t apply to everyone equally. For someone who is less prepared, this advice just makes them delay the first step.

You can’t aim to write a half-decent book if you’ve never even written a blog post. Nor can you hope to start a high-tech company when you can’t even configure Microsoft Outlook (to be fair, it is bloody hard). It’s all about levels — you get to fight the dragon only when you’ve paid your dues and survived till the end. Simply put, you have to earn the right to go after the big goals.

I wish to propose an opposite approach, which is unsexy, but more effective. In this case you begin with an inventory of what you already have: your natural talents, the skills you have picked up, your life experiences, and your unique view of the world. Then you simply ask yourself: given what you have right now, what is the best you can do? Assume you will not receive any further aid, in any form. What you have is all there is. What can you do now?

This attitude works because it places momentum above all else. It urges action by pushing you out the door. We’re conditioned to think of success as a big bang event because our minds work in abstract terms. They can conjure up the end goal clearly, but not the struggle it’ll take to get there. As a result, we often stumble into something with high hopes, only to get discouraged at the first signs of trouble. By starting with action, we get two benefits: knowing whether we’re moving in the right direction and the thrust of small wins.

The world is way smarter than any of us individually. We can keep wondering whether our plans are going to work or we can just ask the world. Even in its apathy, the world will teach us valuable lessons quickly. If, however, the world happens to like what you’re doing, it will reward you with little boosts of energy. No amount of preparation can give you the momentum these little wins can. And the only way to build momentum is to build something and put it out in the world.

Most of us start with the assumption that between our goals and us lies a gap, a lack of something. If only we were smarter, if only we understood an industry well, if only we had taken a writing class. Junk that attitude completely because you already have the materials to start. Slap together something and let the world tell you exactly where you’re going wrong.

The act of gathering resources is usually is a sign of fear. It shows we don’t really trust our own ability and it delays our confrontation with the truth. The right way is to be out there, getting smacked in the face by reality. We won’t learn unless we feel the consequences of our miscalculations in our bones. That is the only way to grow. Not by endlessly preparing. Taking the first step is more important than taking the right step. You anyway can’t know what the right step is beforehand, so stop wasting your time guessing.

Taking the first step is more important than taking the right step.

If you have to spend considerable time building up strength before you even begin, you have probably picked the wrong goal. If you need to read 50 books to take the first step, the odds are already overwhelmingly against you.

Ideally, a goal should choose you as much as you choose it. It’s never a one-way street. All of us are already inclined towards certain things, but we ignore those inclinations for ‘acceptable’ goals. By doing so, we hamper our ability to do what is most important: take the first step.

What should you do then? The simple answer: do what you can today. Give life to your thoughts through your actions. These actions will then inform you what you are lacking, and tell you whether you’re chasing a worthy goal. That is the only way.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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