What it Takes to Build Something Significant (Part 1)

Why is it that some people have ideas and dreams, and yet never seem to realize any of them, to a large extent? Why is it that other people seem to be able to do the impossible, by transforming a spark of thought, into a lifetime of purpose and accomplishment?

I have been fascinated and haunted by this kind of question for much of my life. I read and researched what many “successful” people claim is their advice. Unfortunately, more often than not, I found these kinds of pieces to be hollow, and too removed from my actual life circumstance. They can also consist of a bit too much fan service. Instead of understanding the mechanisms of how to change things, I was often given a trip down memory lane, to reflect on past heights from icons whose days of innovating and building, are squarely in the rearview. For many of us, trying to learn about how to become successful from CEO’s and athletic champions, is a dead end. It’s like trying to learn how to play the guitar, by attending a reunion concert of a band that was big in the early 90s. You may certainly learn something from this experience, but it probably won’t help very much, if your aim is to improve your future.

Of course, there is no one “right answer”, to a topic as sprawling and complex as this. As the famous philosopher Dan Dennett once said, in a talk about confounding questions, “there’s the wrong answer, and the long answer”. So, although there can never be a single clear-cut answer to why some people succeed where others don’t, I think exploring the question can be valuable. It can help in trying to stack the cards in our favor, and bias the winds of chance, so that fortune may fall on our side, hopefully more often than not.

Let me start with a very mundane and tedious situation, that can serve as the stage for some much more exciting and powerful concepts. For the past few weeks, I have been in the midst of an immense bit of data shuffling. I realized that the content side of Primary Scenes was nowhere close to where I wanted it to be, and I needed to make some major changes to address that. In the course of analyzing why content was so behind schedule, I used Primary Scenes itself, in particular by consulting the Path, to get a sense of what I should do. It then became apparent that there was not enough raw material, not enough base content, that was in the pipeline ready to be edited and published. Now, for many people this is just a brute fact of where they are, and they just need to start generating a lot more ideas and content to seed their pipelines. Fortunately, in my case I have already been doing this for years, and now have more than 40,000 notes that I can potentially draw from.

So, I began the epic task of importing more than 9,000 notes from Evernote, where they have been sitting, and into Notion, where they can actually be transformed into published content. After many false starts and dead ends, I eventually arrived at a process and a cadence that works. It allows me to reliably import close to 200 notes per day, and that will allow me to move the 9,000 in a few months time, if not sooner. Surely, I could do it quicker, in a more concentrated fashion, but that is all a part of the bigger point I will make in this piece.

I am not actually writing about the data shuffling here, instead I’m using it as a backdrop that adds some context and contrast for the main point. That main point is about the difference between people who think about creating systems and processes to fit their purposes, and people who merely run processes in systems, that other people impose on them.

A week ago I had a conversation with someone who really opened my eyes about the way people think and act in the world. It was a very unremarkable conversation on the surface, but like many things in this world, it had more value under the surface if you know what to look for.

This person, who I will call Jane (real name not being used here), decided that I should start a podcast, and wanted to tell me about the reasons and benefits. Now to be clear, Jane is not the first or the last person to suggest that I should start a podcast, so it is something that I had considered many times before.

After speaking about the possibilities of starting a podcast for a few minutes, we changed topics and the conversation went another way. What really got my attention was a follow-up conversation I had with Jane, maybe a week later. What struck me was that Jane seemed surprised and almost disappointed that I had not already started a podcast, in the days since our prior conversation. At first, I wondered if this was sarcasm, or forgetfulness, but as the conversation progressed, I realized that Jane was genuinely a bit disappointed that I hadn’t started a podcast, since first discussing it in the previous week.

So as we began to talk about the idea of starting a podcast again, I decided to take a different approach than I normally do. Instead of merely agreeing with the surface suggestion of starting a podcast, I actually began to go through some of the details that I immediately recognized, I would need to consider.

I told Jane that if I started a podcast, I would have to figure out how to stock my content pipeline continuously, what hardware and software would be used for recording, who might be willing to be on the podcast, how I would interview them, what hardware and software would be used for editing, what hosting provider I would be using, how many episodes I would be publishing per week, how many hours a day it would take to run this podcast, how it would mesh with everything else that I’m doing for Primary Scenes, from product side to, e-commerce, to written content etc.

The response was very telling. Jane effectively replied that she didn’t mean for me to do all of that, she just thought I should start a podcast. I’m paraphrasing for brevity, but the meaning is spot on. In other words, what I began to realize is that Jane and I see the world in radically different ways.

Jane sees a world of outcomes that sort of just float around, to be plucked out of the air on a whim. In contrast, I see a world of systems and processes and functions, that might need to be built in successive layers, that grow and evolve, over time.

So, when Jane was saying that I should start a podcast, what she really meant is that I should skip right to the end of the venture. I should grab the abstract outcome of having a podcast, without doing any of the work associated with creating and running a successful podcast.

I am not blaming Jane, or even looking down on her. That is not the intent. In fact, there was a time in my life, when I used to think of the world much more like Jane. What is particularly significant, is that thinking like Jane, had me stuck for many years. I had to learn to think much differently in order to start making changes, and moving forward with the priorities that are most important in my life.

In the second part of this piece, I will go into what drives people to think like Jane, and how this is a dead end for anyone looking to do something different and significant in life.