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In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

    Everyone these days is chasing after the billion-dollar idea. We look at the giants in the technology industry – Google, Yahoo, eBay, even Microsoft – and see companies that only a few years ago (or a couple decades ago in Microsoft’s case) were tiny startups struggling to get by. When they hit, they hit big, and made their owners more money than anyone on Earth had ever dreamed of having.

    Good for them. But their success has radically distorted the way most people look at their own lives, businesses, and prospects. The Google model of success is great – hooray them! – but frankly, it’s a little irrelevant.

    Most of us won’t have a billion-dollar idea. And even if we do, we’ll have it at the wrong time without the resources to make it a billion-dollar company. And you know what? That’s fine.

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    Oh, business books don’t think so. Peruse the shelves of your local bookstore’s business section and you’ll see book after book analysing, studying, describing, and generally fawning over the huge success stories. They all claim the same thing: follow the example of Apple, Starbucks, GM, Warren Buffett, or whomever and you, too, can be successful. Don’t follow their example, and you’re… well, doomed to failure.

    What a crock.

    First of all, visit a thrift store sometime and have a look at all the business books of yesteryear, and all the companies they held up as success stories. Compaq, Enron, Digital Equipment, Chrysler, AOL. Models to follow?

    But more importantly, it’s a false vision of success. Few companies ever operate at the scale the business gurus plot “success” at. And few of us need the kind of validation that building a billion-dollar business – or even a million-dollar business – provides.

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    I’m speaking out in praise of small success. The band that sells 50,000 copies of its album. The local dry cleaner who runs 6 branches citywide. The family with the chain of fast-food franchises. The couple that runs a popular pre-school and daycare. The painter voted Best Local Artist three years in a row by the city’s alternative weekly paper. The independent spirit who runs the city’s alternative weekly paper. The high school band teacher whose students win music scholarships year after year.

    I know it’s not flashy. But it’s good, damn good.

    1000 True Fans and the Stallman Model

    My thinking here derives from two sources. The first is Kevin Kelly’s notion of 1000 true fans. Kelly’s suggestion is simple: to survive as an artist doesn’t necessarily require a major label distribution deal, a wealthy patron, a contract with a multi-national publishing house, or an appearance on Oprah. All it takes is the cultivation – by whatever means necessary and possible – of 1000 loyal, devoted fans. People who will buy your books, records, t-shirts, paintings, or whatever else; who will travel hundreds of miles and line up for hours or days to see you speak, play, or perform; people who will spread the word, give your products (whatever hey are) as gifts, and talk you up to local business owners, media outlets, and other artists.

    If a thousand true fans are willing to spend just $100 a year on whatever it is that you do, that’s a healthy $100,000 a year income. Just from that core – others might well buy an album here and there, ask a library to carry your book, or purchase a print of your painting. But that core of true fan support is what sustains the artist, year in and year out.

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    Richard Stallman advocates something similar in his crusade for free (as in freedom) software. Again and again he’s asked how people can make money if they don’t charge for their software, and again and again he responds: by providing services related to their software. Support. Training, Customization. Made-to-order programs.

    Doing the right thing, Stallman admits, is not the fast-track to riches. Instead, he says, it’s a way for people who love coding to bring in a healthy income year in and year out. Coding for the software equivalent of 1000 true fans.

    Making a Living vs. Making a Killing

    What both Kelly and Stallman are advocating is making a living – a good, solid, stable living – doing something you love. It’s a living built on community-mindedness, social spirit, and a solid relationship with the people who buy or use your work. Yes, it means giving up the ability to “monetize” every interaction between a potential customer and whatever it is you make. But in return you gain the ability to focus on the thing you love, and the value it brings to other people’s lives, instead of the bottom line.

    Most of the business books on the shelves, and most of the businesses functioning  in our contemporary society, don’t have that luxury. They’re not focused on making a living but on making a killing – bringing in the big bucks, milking whatever they’ve got for whatever it’s worth, and making sure that not a single person derives value from their products without first ponying up some cash.

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    Of course, this hasn’t been without its successes. I’m not going to say there is no use for the kinds of innovations that some corporations have brought about – although it’s notable that very few corporations last more than a couple decades, and even fewer stay at the forefront of their field for even half that long. Microsoft is positively ancient by the standard of market leadership time (and there are plenty of folks who see their crown slipping); Apple is getting pretty ripe as well (they’ve been at the top of their game for about a decade now, in a rare corporate second  chance). Far more often the leaders of the pack give way to upstarts – remember Altavista?

    More importantly, the “making a killing” approach really is killing. Big corporations, especially publicly held ones, can’t afford community-mindedness, unless it yields a positive return for their public relations department. They can’t afford to build personal relationships with the people who buy, use, and live by their products – especially when, as so often happens, they are hiding information about health, environmental, and other risks from their customers. And let’s not forget that it was a handful of corporate leaders and financial players out to make a killing who brought the current economic crisis on us all.

    But it’s not to speak out against corporate greed that I am writing this piece. It is to celebrate the little successes, and to suggest that for most of us, they are more than enough to lead us to happy, healthy, and in the end regret-free lives. Because not a lot of people are willing to say it – certainly the folks who write business books aren’t. And it deserves to be said.

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    Last Updated on October 15, 2019

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why we procrastinate after all

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    So, is procrastination bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How bad procrastination can be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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    8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

    Procrastination, a technical failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

    Reference

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