Never mistake motion for action.
— Ernest Hemingway
One of an entrepreneur’s greatest strengths is their relentless pursuit of a goal. But few realize how this differs from most of the population. Watching others try to solve problems reminded me why entrepreneurs are different.
I happened to be sitting in my wife’s office recently as she was on the phone to my daughter in college. Struggling with one of her classes, my daughter had assured us that she was asking for help — and was reporting on her progress (or lack of it).
She had sent several emails to the resource center asking for help. She was also trying to set up a meeting with her professor. All good, and all part of the “when you’re stuck, ask for help” heuristic we taught our kids. But the interesting part for me was learning that in spite of her efforts, no one had gotten back to her.
She believed she had done all things that could be expected from her and was waiting for the result.
I realized that my daughter had confused motion with action.
This reminded me of a conversation with one of my direct reports years before my daughter was born.
At Ardent, the marketing department was responsible for acquiring applications for our supercomputer. This required convincing software vendors to move their applications to our unique machine architecture. Not a trivial job considering our computer was one of the first parallel architectures, and our compiler required specific knowledge of our vector architecture to get the most out of it.
Oh, and we had no installed customer base. I had hired the VP of marketing from a potential software partner who was responsible to get all this third-party software on our computer. Once he was on board, I sat down with him on a weekly basis to review our progress with our list of software vendors.
I still remember the day I discovered that I thought about progress differently than other people. Our conversation went like this:
Me: Jim, how are we doing with getting Ansys ported?
Jim: Great, I have a bunch of calls into them.
Me: How are we doing on the Nastran port?
Jim: Wonderful, they said they’ll get back to me next month.
Me: How about Dyna 3D?
Jim: It’s going great, we’re on their list.
The rest of the progress report sounded just like this.
After hearing the same report for the nth week, I called a halt to the meeting. I had an executive who thought he was making progress. I thought he hadn’t done a damn thing.
The Difference Between Motion and Action
One of Jim’s favorite phrases was, “I got the ball rolling with account x.” He thought that the activities he was doing — making calls, setting up meetings, etc. — was his job. In reality they had nothing to do with his job. His real job — the action – was to get the software moved onto our machine. Everything he had done to date was just the motion to get the process rolling. And so far the motion hadn’t accomplished anything. He was confusing “the accounting” of the effort with achieving the goal. But Jim felt that since he was doing lots of motion, “lots of stuff was happening.” In reality we hadn’t gotten any closer to our goal than the day we hired him. We had accomplished nothing — zero, zilch, nada. In fact, we would have been better off if we hadn’t hired him as we wouldn’t have confused a warm body with progress.
When I explained this to him, the conversation got heated. “I’ve been working my tail off for the last two months…” When he calmed down, I asked him how much had gotten accomplished. He started listing his activities again. I stopped him and reminded him that I could have hired anyone to set up meetings, but I had brought him in to get the software onto our machine. “How much progress have we made to that goal?”
“Not much,” he admitted.
Entrepreneurs Are Relentless
Jim’s goal was to get other companies to put their software on an unfinished, buggy computer with no customers. While a tough problem, not an insurmountable one for an entrepreneur focused on the objective, not the process.
This was my fault. It had taken me almost two months to realize that other people didn’t see the world the same way I did. My brain was wired to focus on the end-point and work backwards, removing each obstacle in my path or going around them all while keeping the goal in sight. Jim was following a different path.
Focused on the process, he defined progress as moving through a step on his to-do list, and feeling like progress was being made when he checked them off. The problem was his approach let others define the outcome and set the pace.
The difference between the two ways of thinking is why successful entrepreneurs have the reputation for being relentless.
To an outsider it looks like they’re annoyingly persistent. The reality is that their eyes are on the prize.
If you’re not born with this kind of end-goal focus, you can learn this skill.
My wife and I called our daughter back, declared a family “teaching moment,” and explained the difference between motion and action, and asked her what else she could do to get help for class. She realized that more persistence and creativity was required in getting to the right person. The next day, she was in the resource center having figured out how to get the help she needed.
- Most people execute linearly, step by step
- They measure progress by “steps they did”
- Entrepreneurs focus on the goal
- They measure progress by “accomplishing their goals”