Exploring the Unordinary: Navigating Your Calling
In the days before GPS and Navigation tools, a ship would leave the harbor and set sail into the unknown, they would use the sun and stars to navigate across the globe. Along their journey, night would fall and clouds would cover the stars or a storm would come and the ship would not know which direction they were headed.
When you choose to do interesting work, a time will come when you leave the harbor and you enter into the unknown, a time when there are no stars or maps to guide your journey.
Just like the sailors of the past, this can be both frightening and disorienting. However, the sailors also had a logbook of past events that they would reference, to see if they had been in a similar situation in the past and if that failed them, they would imagine what the skies would look like and navigate their way through. So too can we look to past events and imagine what our future can look like.
When we are able to enter into the unknown we allow for amazing things to happen.
The work moves from ordinary and expected to an unexpected magic. The magic and excitement in doing work that is truly important is the ability to enter into the unknown and rather than step back into the known, moving forward and stepping into the unknown.
When the clouds are overhead and you do not have a map, eventually you will get lost, and that is ok. These five questions are intended to move you forward, rather than panic and step back into the known. These questions will serve as a logbook to help you guide your decisions and continue to make magic.
1. What is Project-Adjacent?
When Elon Musk started SpaceX in 2002 he had a three-fold goal. The first goal was to create a rocket that could be reused, the second was to commercialize space travel and the third was to colonize Mars. When you are doing the unknown, no one has done what you are doing but you want people around you that have experience solving similar problems. Musk looked at his project and found a group that was doing parallel work. He opened SpaceX in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is home to the world’s top aeronautic thinkers at companies like Boeing, The Aerospace Corporation, and Northrup Grumman. Musk then joined the Mars Society and began reading obscure Soviet rocket manuals he bought off of eBay.
Musk knew that space travel has been around since the 1950s and he knew that if he was going to move the goal further into space that he would have to study the projects that are similar to what his goal is.
He knew that if his goal was to get to Mars that he should surround himself with people who had gotten their projects to space.
Musk knows that if he is ultimately going to get to Mars, his project will have run adjacent to others who have the goal of getting into space. By moving the goal further, he will eventually move past the teams studying space exploration, but by running adjacent to them for as long as possible he will be gain their expertise and knowledge in space exploration.
What project is similar to your idea? What skills and people do you need running alongside you while you are on your way?
2. What does the data say?
In 2008, four recent graduates decided to start an eyeglass company. At the time Luxottica was the main player on the market and could control prices and they had relationships with all of the retail eyeglass centers. For a small company to take on a large giant is crazy. The data in starting up a company definitely advises against such an undertaking. Consumers of eyeglasses, at the time, tended to buy one pair of glasses at the location of their eye appointment. People wanted to try on the glasses, they wanted to see how they felt and see how they look, and due to the cost, people tended to only own a single pair.
The problem with most data is that it is tracking data.
This means that the data will tell you what has happened. It tells you what revenue was, it tells you what consumers did, and it tells you what expenses were. Most data does not do a good job of telling you what can (or will) happen. Data does not do a good job of predicting change.
Warby Parker changed the eyeglasses industry. They offered less expensive alternatives to traditional eyeglasses. They began by selling their product solely online and sending three different pairs for a “try-on” period, lessening the risk of buyer’s remorse, and they added a charitable dynamic of donating a pair of eyeglasses to someone in need. Warby Parker is now worth over a billion dollars, if they had followed the data, it would have certainly told them that the eyeglass industry was saturated and not worth pursuing.
At some point, you will be so deeply immersed in the unknown that the data will not be useful.
When a project is new, when the map has not yet been drawn out, data will help but it should not be the guiding factor. At some point, you will be so deeply immersed in the unknown that the data will not be useful. The rules will have changed too much for the data to guide you where you want to go.
It is important to know when the data stops helping you move forward.
3. What are the critics saying?
“If you absolutely can’t tolerate critics, then don’t do anything new or interesting.” - Jeff Bezos
It is easy to do nothing.
It is easy to sit on the sidelines and tell someone that what they are doing is not worthwhile. It is hard is to do something new and interesting. An early decision that Amazon made was that they allowed every product to be reviewed by the consumer. This review process allowed for both positive and negative reviews without censorship. This has also been true with their business, they have allowed their business to be criticized and to be critiqued.
The most dangerous place to be on a battlefield is right out in the open.
When you are out in the open it is easy for the enemy to see you and attack you. When you are doing something new and different, people are going to tell you that you are doing it wrong, that it won’t work, and that it is bound to fail.
The unfortunate truth is that some critics are right. As the pioneer, you need to decide if the criticisms are valid and if they warrant a change.
When asked about how he responded to critics, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said, “You listen, you ask are they right, or even if they’re not completely right is there some piece of it that’s right that you can be inspired by, if you decide that your critics, that there is something, then you should change, if you decide by the way that the answer is no… then no force in the world should be able to move you.”
Some people will have your best interest in mind, they truly want to protect you from failure and they want you to succeed. Most of society is set up to reduce risk so when you are voluntarily entering into a realm of risk, even the people that you love are going to tell you to take the safer route.
It is your job as a leader to know who to listen to, understand their concerns, and decide whether the concern is valid enough to make a change.
4. Where are your guideposts?
In 2020, Southwest Airlines had the recognition of being profitable for 47 years. For any industry, this is an amazing accomplishment, but within the volatile airline industry, this is practically unheard of. One of the keys to their success is that when they are moving forward and into the unknown, there are never any questions on the values that will guide them. They actively share their guidelines on their website and with their employees to ensure that there is never any question as to how they will act and how they will make decisions. Their values fall into three different categories, individual, team, and company.
Their values are:
How I show up; Pride, Integrity, and Humility
How we treat each other; Teamwork, Honesty, and Service with Luv
How Southwest Succeeds; Efficiency, Discipline, and Excellence
By the very nature of doing something completely new, you get to make up the rules.
No one can tell you what you are doing is right or wrong because no one has ever done it before but you having a strong set of guidelines will make your decision-making process easier. It will ensure that you can move forward with integrity and with pride.
5. Where is the next step?
In 2007, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky needed some extra money to make rent. They knew that there was a design conference coming to their hometown of San Francisco and hotels were hard to come by. They bought the domain airbedandbreakfast.com, and three people responded to sleep on air mattresses in their loft. The idea became a reality but they were unsure whether other people would be interested in hosting strangers in their house.
In the early days of airbedandbreakfast.com, two things were decided. The first was that Airbnb was a better name, the second was that if they were going to ask people to host strangers in their home they would have to understand the experience. So Joe and Brian decided to live out of AirBnBs and ensure that the hosts and the guests had a great experience. Rather than attempt to be everywhere, Airbnb was methodical in the hosts they allowed on their site.
They didn’t need to have everyone host, they just needed to increase the number of hosts one by one.
When you are walking across the desert, the horizon begins to drift away at five kilometers.
If you are ever crossing the Sahara Desert, there is a stretch of land, in Algeria, that is approximately 800 kilometers where there is no water, no foliage, and no animals. This stretch is unable to sustain life.
In a featureless landscape, it is easy to get lost and when you are lost in the desert you will eventually die. In fact, thousands of people have died attempting to cross.
When businessman and adventurer, Brain Tracy, was crossing the Sahara Desert with his team, he entered the 800-kilometer stretch of barren land. As he looked around at the featureless landscape, he noticed just at the edge of the horizon there was an oil drum. As his team passed the first drum, he looked off into the distance, and again, on the edge of the horizon, there was another oil drum.
In the mid-1830s, in French-occupied Algeria, they placed 55-gallon drums across the desert five kilometers apart, right on the edge of the horizon. So at any point on their journey, Tracy and his team could see one barrel in front of them and one barrel behind them.
He knew then that if he just took the journey one barrel at a time, he would reach the end.
On any venture that brings you into the unknown, things are going to get tough. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of your project. It is easy to look at a grandiose idea and think that there is no way it will ever be accomplished. At times like these, it is important to find the next host or the next barrel.
You don’t need to do everything, you just need to keep moving forward, one by one.
Making Something New
When you are creating magic, people are going to tell you not to, they are going to tell you it is too hard, that the pay-off is not worth it, that if it was actually a good idea somebody would have already done it. The problem is we already have plenty of people who are willing to color in-between the lines, people who are willing to grind away day-by-day and maintain the status quo.
What we need are more artists, more magicians and more people willing to challenge the status quo, and step into the unknown.
Famed screenwriter, William Goldman, once said, “Nobody knows anything.”
Nobody knows with any certainty what will be successful, what will fail, or what will be a hit.
So step up, move into the unknown and pursue interesting work. Create magic.
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