You know you ultimately want to have an impact on <insert what you think is important here>, and you want to maximise your chances of having maximal impact towards that, but there will still be many roads to Rome, some fuzzier than others. So how do you do this? I think two aspects are crucial: picking the right thing to work on, and execution.
Working on the right thing
Intuitively, most of us know that we shouldn't waste our time on things that don't matter that much and that we should focus only on the things that do matter. In reality, we don't always stick to this all that well or spend way too much time contemplating between various options. Spending enough time to pick the right thing to focus on for large choices is underrated in general, but overrated when comparing options with expected outcomes in the same order of magnitude.
I'm talking here about large choices, such as career decisions, figuring out which product your company should be working on, etc. Decisions that should not be taken lightly. Some people make these choices seemingly without too much consideration and end up spending significant parts of their life working on things that weren't that impactful (or worse: make other people work on things that are not that impactful). Ideas like "I'm too busy now and I can always do X later" and "We know how to do Y, so let's do Y" are killing here. It is worth spending a lot of time thinking about these choices. Ideally, you want to pick something that will make all the previous look like a footnote.
On the other hand, this can lead people to try and apply an excessive amount of analysis to attempt to predict which alternative would be best. Say you want to have an impact on health in poor countries. You can spend enormous amounts of time comparing whether you should go there and help out in a local hospital, or go into disease research, or work on hygiene education, or perhaps improve medicine distribution, or ... You get the point. Although the size of the decision for sure warrants a considerate analysis and choice, I would argue that often we spend too much time trying to get to a solid answer here. For most big decisions, what matters is the order of magnitude of impact. An order of magnitude analysis is much quicker than trying to estimate exact impacts for each option. So if you find that any of the above options is 10x more impactful than the rest, you should go for that, even if the path towards that is fuzzy and uncertain. Most projects that do not make an order of magnitude of difference are not worth spending your time on in the long run.
This seems undervalued. A lot of people tend to prefer to select projects by lowest risk and some small but certain impact. But you can be both risky and realistic simultaneously. In fact, the best ideas are exactly those: they're risky, they're uncertain, the path is fuzzy, you may not know how to do them, or even where to start. But you do know that it's not thin air, that there likely is some path towards it that takes you less than, say, 10 years, and that you're confident you can find this path once you explore it.
What if you have multiple options that are comparable in orders of magnitude? We tend to then apply more analysis. We try to see if the expected value of one is higher than the other. This for sure is a useful exercise if you think you can estimate this with a high degree of certainty. For most projects that are that far out though, you won't be able to know with a reasonable amount of confidence. There will be many uncertainties you didn't model. Those probably won't make an order of magnitude difference, but they could be the difference between project A turning out better than project B. In my view, it's not worth spending too much time on this beyond an order of magnitude analysis. Realistically you're probably not going to get the error bars down too much, at which point even statistically it doesn't make much sense to draw strong conclusions on the comparison.
But if that's the case, how should you decide between two such projects? I'd argue that at that point it comes down to expected execution. Which of those projects do you think you'll be able to execute better on? This is not hard science. It means answering questions such as: Which skills do I have that are relevant? Which one motivates me more? Do I know people that have experience in this? etc. We should be optimistic here. A lot more is possible than you think, and people can grow incredibly fast once determined. But you want to stay realistic.
Once you've chosen what to work on, strong execution is critical. It is the single most important skill I think. Everything else will be dwarfed by it when done well. Paul Graham called failure to execute a bigger risk for most startups than being copied.
Great execution is a collection of skills, but the two most important ones are focus and grit. Focus can be incredibly difficult. If you're moving fast, especially in a growing or starting company, a hundred things will seem both urgent and important every day. In reality (and especially in hindsight) only a handful will be; those that make the biggest strides towards the goals. Focus is the skill to identify and only work on those. This is not something you do once at the start of the project. Great execution requires you to do this every single day, perhaps multiple times a day. You'll have to constantly be asking yourself: "Is this the most impactful thing I can be doing right now?". Focus then will allow you to move faster towards the goal.
Besides focus, grit is essential. Along the way, there will be setbacks, other people telling you that you're doing it wrong, and other hurdles. Grit is being able to persevere towards the goal, especially when facing difficulties. Without grit, it's difficult to make significant progress over longer periods, and most order-of-magnitude projects do require consistent effort over a long period before you start seeing payoffs.
Great execution also has a spillover effect, which can be incredibly powerful, but I think is often neglected. If you see people around you execute well, you'll be more likely to do so. Execution can be part of the culture you set; and to run successful impactful projects it should be. This is especially relevant as most projects will be too large for individuals. You will need to collaborate with people and get other people to execute on your ideas. Having a culture that promotes this then is critical.
There is a pitfall to grit and extreme focus on the goal: the risk that you don't see the bigger picture anymore, lose the ability to adjust your assumptions, and change course if needed. On the other hand, you don't want to be going back to the drawing board every time you hear another view. This is a tricky but healthy balance to strike. I think the crux here is to be able to have great judgement: don't take other views for granted, but be able to effectively judge whether there's a core of truth in there and if so, whether that should result in an adjustment of your plans. I don't think this is a skill that is easy to learn, but I do believe it is learnable. "Gut feeling" is often a synonym people use for using great heuristics they learned with experience and practice, although they may not experience it as such.
If you choose the right project and can execute on it well, many things are possible. We often prefer clear path projects, but those are rarely the order-of-magnitude projects. I think many more people than are currently working on such problems are capable of tackling these. Fuzzy paths will become clear only once explored, so why not try?
Enjoyed this post? Subscribe below to get the latest posts directly in your email, leave a comment, or follow me on Twitter.