X != Y

From the time we start learning we’re taught that if we put in X (time) that we’ll get Y (what we want). In school, if you study and do your homework, you’ll get good grades and be able to get in to a good college. At most jobs, if you work long and hard and are a team player, you’ll get raises and promotions (regardless of whether or not the work you did positively effects the bottom line). These statements are correct in most situations for most people. So when those same people read about a business that took 3 years to become a big success, they think of it in similar terms: the founders put in 3 years of hard work and the result was the success.

Except anyone who has run a business knows that’s not true. Business success does not have such a simple formula. The time and effort you put in does not necessarily correlate to success at all. In fact, a lot of hard work can leave you in a much worse spot than when you got started (think of the entrepreneur who spends his/her life savings on a failed venture).

And since this isn’t something we’re taught, and since most of our parents and teachers would never even consider teaching it (or know how to teach it), we’re all taken by surprise the first time we start a venture, work really hard on it, and don’t see the results we’re used to seeing all of our life. We expect that if we just put in a few weeks/months/years that we should see comparable success to when we put that much time in to our school or our jobs. Then when we don’t, we get frustrated. Even ventures that ultimately succeed have an unbalanced effort-to-success ratio: you put in the longest and hardest work in the beginning when the success is minimal, with the long term payoff of a venture that has a lot of success for comparatively less effort (for instance, if we stopped working on Detailed Image today, it would probably still grow because of the 5+ year foundation we’ve built).

Most people I’ve known, myself included, learn this pretty quickly. Then you decide whether or not to keep going. If you do, and you’re successful, those years of hard work are much harder than other types of hard work because of the ongoing uncertainty of success and this unbalanced effort-to-success ratio. People who aren’t business owners have a hard time grasping this.

For a successful venture, you don’t just need to work hard. You need to be working on the right stuff, at the right time, in the right market, with the right people, with the right amount of capital, and still have a considerable amount of luck…while also working very hard.

2 comments on X != Y

  1. nethy says:

    Hey Adam.

    Good post.

    I think we’re sort of put in a lot of protective fairness bubbles in life that make us expect effort to equal reward. Schools are designed in a way that rewards effort. If you put in the effort and don’t see any reward, teachers or lecturers will probably try to “fix” it. Jobs are designed around it as well. I guess it makes sense in terms of creating incentives and effort does translate to reward, on average but..

    Unfiltered reality where reward isn’t regulated on purpose doesn’t have that smooth equivalence. If you fish and hunt very hard you have a better chance of eating, but a bad week can always come along. Business too. You might have started a textile company in the 70s or you may have put a lot of effort into what seemed like a good idea and wasn’t. Nature doesn’t give you that kind of certainty. Neither does business or sports or creative pursuits.

    It’s strange, but somehow we expect that the systems we create will behave like that even though they aren’t “natural”. Employers feel like they should compensate rewards and employees feel that is only fair.

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