Should You Study the Greats, or Just Improvise?

It’s not uncommon for the most devoted students of personal health, or business startups, or filmmaking, or success more generally to be only moderately successful themselves. We’ve all met people who have read every “7 Ways”, and, “10 Tips” book on the market, yet still haven’t really gotten off the ground personally. So is greatness just too unique and context-dependent for useful road maps?

Most classes and books and seminars on how to succeed are run by those who have succeeded in some field or another. While their track record may be impressive, I always feel a little bit like successful people make up a lot of rules and patterns that helped them succeed in retrospect, and only some of them are real and valuable. If you’re too serious about it, it can make you feel like you can’t succeed unless you follow such rules or have great formmulae in place. In reality, those come later. First comes just doing stuff.

I think most endeavors in real life are more like bike riding than the checkbox tests in schools. If you wanted to be great at cycling, what would you do? Would you start with a seminar on bike riding? Best case, maybe you’d gain 5% of what’s needed from theory and experienced riders – like why a helmet might be a good idea – but you have to get 95% from just doing it.

This doesn’t mean experts and books are useless. Once you are an avid rider, only then do tips and techniques from Lance Armstrong really help you. It’s hard to even know what they’re talking about before that.

A lot of people in business school or getting MBA’s or at entrepreneurship conferences are like an aspiring cyclist spending years studying inside tips for winning the Tour de France and drafting and advanced specialized techniques for hill climbing, etc. before ever getting on a bike. Hop on and ride. A lot. Enter a few small races. Then whip out the books.

You don’t have the master something before studying it, but to really benefit from the insights of experts, you have to know what they’re talking about on a gut level. You have to be doing the stuff they’re teaching.

Glean what you can, but don’t ever let the quest for more knowledge on how to do something get in the way of just doing it.

%d bloggers like this: