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Uncharted Territory: Finding joy in doing hard things
How I approach doing new things outside of my comfort zone, including separating the work into two distinct phases.
It’s been 8 weeks since I took THE leap into full-time entrepreneurship. And it’s even better than I thought it would be!
Every day, I’m learning how to do new things. For example, I can now operate a bandsaw and I know how to buff and polish heat pipes. (Hold your applause!)
Every day we are figuring out the path forward for Apex Cool Labs.
For example, I recently built my first financial model.
Building this model has been one of the most thrilling things I have done in a long time (yes, I find finance thrilling!) and it got me thinking about doing hard things, especially for the first time.
I’ve written about doing hard things before – I may be obsessed – but this time I want to dissect my process because it’s fresh. Not to mention, it went well.
When embarking on doing something hard or doing something for the first time, the natural tendency is to look for examples of how it was done before.
There is nothing inherently wrong about this urge. But if left uncontrolled, it can pull you down an unproductive, uncreative, and un-innovative rabbit hole.
This idea that somebody else has the answer (and you don’t) can lead to endless hours Googling for the magical framework, reading far too many self help books, or frantically combing through a competitor’s website.
Yes, there is a time and place for seeking advice and doing research, but I find that the magic comes when I focus on the opportunity and use my brain to suss it out.
This got me thinking about how to approach the various phases of doing something for the first time.
Time to absorb
This is the time to gather information. In the case of building the business model for Apex Cool Labs, I wasn’t even sure what was supposed to be in the model in the first place. Fortunately, I have friends who’ve done this before who graciously pointed me in the direction of examples, or took the time to show me how they approached their own models.
I had also gotten very interested in understanding finance. This is one of those things I can only chalk up to cosmic intuition. At some point earlier this year, I got sick of not fully understanding a P&L, balance sheet and cash flow statement.
I had a basic understanding but not enough to look at these types of statements and read them like a book telling me what the heck was going on in a business.
So I picked up Financial Intelligence: A Manager's Guide to Knowing What the Numbers Really Mean and consumed it almost as eagerly as I did the Arnold Schwarzenegger Netflix documentary.
Between these two activities: reading and speaking to more experienced people, I had a decent foundation to attempt my own business model.
Time to produce
When I sat down to produce our business model, I was 100% focused on building it. I started mapping out how we acquire customers, identifying our key assumptions, and exploring our likely expenses.
When questions bubbled up, I thought them through. I fought the urge to look up the answers in the moment. If I really felt I needed to validate an assumption, I made a note, and did it later. I did everything I could to stay in the flow, minimize distractions, and trust myself.
During this phase, I had plenty of moments when my inner critic would scream, “you’re doing this wrong” or “you’re wasting time on a dead end road”.
My default is to seek productivity at all times. So potentially wasting time playing out a potentially bad idea, can cause me significant anxiety.
I want to know upfront that whatever I’m playing out now is going to work. Obviously, you can’t know and this line of thinking can cause you to freeze or worse, never start.
But this time, I did a great job of sitting with the frustration of not knowing how to do things. I was able to identify - hey frustration - I see you. But then dissociate from it. It’s like I’m in a superposition where I’m both freaking out and calm as a cucumber.
Honestly, it’s a really cool feeling.
I also gave up the need to hit “accomplishment” milestones early in the process. If I’m too focused on completion, then I find the angst bubbles up more. During the early phases of doing something hard, I do my best to embrace a mindset - it will take the time it’ll take and done is not the goal right now. Just explore.
What’s key is to clearly separate these two very distinct phases: absorb time and produce time.
If you allow yourself to bounce between them, you end up in this negative space where you’re looking for the “one to one” answer - the exact solution to your challenge - which ultimately prevents you from creating value.
Rather, give yourself time to build context outside of your time to create.
Growth Mindset: Finding purpose in the effort
While working on the model, I happened to listen to the Huberman Lab episode on growth mindset.
In a nutshell, a growth mindset means we believe we can get better at something with effort.
To cultivate a growth mindset, it’s better to encourage others and ourselves by focusing on the effort put forth versus the state of being good at it.
Huberman talks about using verbs to praise effort versus nouns to praise identity. Some examples:
Nice job pushing through when the project started to stall versus you’re an excellent project manager.
Way to show up every day in the gym versus you’re a great weightlifter.
People who receive (or give themselves) encouragement that focuses on the genuine effort they put into something end up performing better than people who receive encouragement for being good at something.
I could have easily said, I’m not good at financial modeling… which more or less was true a couple of weeks ago… because I had not put in the effort to learn it. Instead, I found myself acknowledging my effort on this model. Specifically, how well I focused when working on it, how calmly I allowed myself to play out scenarios without fear that I was barking up the wrong tree, and how patient I was with myself when I had to start parts of it over from scratch.
I’ve got nothing but uncharted territory in front of me, but I’m wildly confident. For many reasons. One of which is that I’ve learned to lean into doing hard things and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it.
See you in two weeks for more musings on building physical, personal, and professional strength!