In business and in our personal lives, there’s a great deal of pressure to win the race and finish first. That small voice that says, “Hold on, let’s see if there are dragons on the other side of the finish line” often gets drowned out by our excitement and our anticipated enjoyment of the rewards that come from success. Civilization’s earliest stories tell of people who, in their passion to reach their goals, forgot to think through all the consequences. Some still succeeded; others failed, spectacularly. Consider the story of Icarus and his father, Daedelus. Daedelus and his son were imprisoned on Crete. Dad conceives of a way to escape: He’s got the mad skillz, he’ll build himself and his son some wings, and with them, they can fly over the walls and off the island and get away. No one could follow them. It’s a foolproof plan. There’s just one thing – one little problem the materials at hand can’t quite overcome. Daedelus warns his son: Fly low. The hot sun could melt the wax that holds the feathers together. Once that happens, you’re going to fall and fall hard. You’re probably going to die, and that would defeat the purpose of all this effort – I’m not doing this just for myself, son, but I got us into this mess and you have your whole life ahead of you. Shame to see you waste it.
What does Icarus do? Like any kid, he thinks he’s going to live forever. His old man’s batty. Man, the sun is warm and beautiful and he’s got the wind beneath his wings…
You know this doesn’t end well. We still can’t fly on wings constructed of wax and feathers, but we have put men on the moon. They didn’t get there by flapping their arms.
Think about this, for just a second: You probably have more raw computing power on your desktop, right now – possibly on your smartphone – than NASA had back in the 1960s when they launched the first manned mission to the moon. Sure, there was a little cowboy spirit, a lot of insatiable curiosity, and most likely a fair share of hubris involved – the “Space Race” was also seen as critical to national security, at the time – but scientists had studied, thought, calculated, considered, and planned for everything they could plan for. They had sent up test flights – airplanes, rockets, apes. Some failures were inevitable; large-scale failure would be discouraging, demoralizing to a nation, and extremely costly in terms of time and money. They didn’t just strap a man to an explosive device and point him at the moon.
When the outcome is important to you, how tempted are you to take shortcuts on your way to achieving your goals?
Innovation or Epitome of a Bad Idea?
I know that many of you, reading this, are bloggers. As a writer and a blogger, let me give you a personal example: You’ve written a book. You think it’s the next Pulitzer Prize winner; barring that, it will surely sell like hotcakes. And the thought of all that money, fame, and acclaim has got you eager to race to the bank to cash that huge royalty check (which you’ve imagined, by now, rivals the royalties earned by Stephen King, even though King has had his salad days and his fair share of rejection slips and has been at this longer than many of you have been alive). You find an outfit that agrees with you – by Jove, your book MUST be read by the masses, and NOW!! For only $5000 (or, hey, $47) they’ll help you bring your dream to life, and the readers will beat down your door to buy it. You miss the fine print that says they own the rights for the next seven years, and by the way, you are responsible for all editing, promotion, inventory storage, order taking, and fulfillment. You might as well deal with your local Kinko’s.
What you should’ve done, in this scenario, was take a deep breath. You’ve got a product. Is it a good product? Your mother thinks so. Your spouse loves it – “Love it, Babe” – and your cat is only slightly less disdainful of it than, say, the morning news. The dog thinks you’re fantastic, so whatever it is that’s caused you to ignore him for months on end must be stupendous. GET AN EDITOR. And do not get the one employed by, or recommended by, your publisher – unless the publisher is paying for it and you’re NOT. Because otherwise, your editor thinks you rock, too, and that’s a waste of time.
Find an editor who charges a fair price and doesn’t care about you half so much as they care about your book being a credit to their portfolio. If you cannot afford that, at least find a college grad who majored in English and again, doesn’t care about you, one way or the other. They will critically examine your product with a jaded eye, offer suggestions for improvement, and let you make the final go/no-go decision. The point is, you are responsible for ensuring that your product is something customers – complete strangers to you, and lots of them – will feel is worth their time and money.
Odds are, no one is going to die over a bad book – although, I can think of a few exceptions, and don’t recommend a hasty go-to-market strategy if you’re writing medical advice! But if you publish a book – or a blog post – before its time, it’s going to make the next sale twice as hard as it has to be. You think it’s hard to get readers to visit your blog? Try alienating them with sloppy content and see how hard it gets.
IF you make it all about you, your “customers” are put in the position of doing you a favor (“Please buy my book and tell me it’s wonderful, so I can stop wondering if you think I’m a pathetic loser”). In return, you owe them something more – especially if your product is crap. Isn’t it easier and better if they owe YOU? If they’re happy, in the end, to pay for the value you give – whether it be in cash, or word-of-mouth advertising, or repeat business – or all three? If you want to succeed in business, you need to understand that it is ALL about your customers, so before you can even define “quality,” really, you need to understand, or better yet, accurately anticipate their wants and needs and what “value” means to them. Henry Ford is often (if most likely mis-)quoted as saying, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse.” What he actually said was this:
I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.
In short, he had a good grasp of his customers’ real needs: affordable, reliable, maintainable transportation. Something simple to get from point A to point B. And yet, he also had a vision – a vision of families enjoying time together on the open road, exploring this great land. The reality of economics, combined with a vision of something more than getting from here to there, helped to propel the Ford automobile forward – customers got a good product they could afford, and they felt they got someone who understood and shared their dreams and their values.
Haste Makes Waste
Timeliness is crucial. Make no mistake – hesitancy and procrastination do not lead to success. But imagine if, in our hurry to beat the Russians to the moon, we’d strapped an astronaut to the outside of a rocket and lit the fuse, so to speak. It would be the difference between Daedelus’ deliberate and successful escape, and his son’s impatient rise – against the caution of the inventor’s knowledge, wisdom, and advice – on waxed wings, to an unrelenting sun. When trying to figure out how much research and experimentation is needed before leaping towards what seems a bright and sunny future, ask yourself, “Will the knowledge I can gain from this affect my choices – will it help me to make a better decision?” And ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen, at this point, if I’m wrong? Will anyone die or get seriously hurt? Could I go bankrupt?” If the risk outweighs the benefit, keep going back for more information before leaping that stepping stones that stand between you and success. When you’re pretty sure that a misstep or a complete flop won’t drown you or anyone else, then the benefits probably outweigh the risk, and it’s time to leap.