Let’s pretend for a minute that you have the aspiration of breaking a new record by climbing a mountain faster than anyone else in history. You are striving to be one of the fastest alpinists on earth. So you train painstakingly and relentlessly for years on end. You shape your entire life, your priorities, your sleep schedule, your friendships and your relationships around your singular goal. You spend your life savings and to afford the actual climb, you raise sponsorship and borrow money from friends and family. Finally, after having spent a small-fortune and many years of your life, the day comes for you to prep for the big journey. You reach the base of the peak and you push forward with focus, precision, and unfettered ambition. The weather is perfect and everything is clicking into place. Eventually, as fate would have it, you reach the summit. You look down at your watch and you realize that you have set a new world record. You have climbed that peak faster than any person before you! You just made history.
That said, the most important question, far more important than the pace at which you reached the summit, is whether or not you climbed the right mountain. Today, I believe one of the most common causes of failure in the startup world is simple: you climbed the wrong mountain and you felt great the entire way up because you were moving at an incredibly fast pace.
Covering lots of distance, in other words, is of course awesome, but only if you’re running in the right direction. "You must first work smart, then hard. Working hard first is an empty sense of productivity to an end not worth caring about," Epstein concludes.
So, to be fair, it’s not the Epstein is against efficiency in the right context. When you know where you’re going and roughly how you’re going to get there, efficiency is, of course, a worthy thing to pursue. But if you’re worried about systems, schemes and streamlined management frameworks but haven’t yet nailed down whether you’re headed in the right direction, you could end up like someone rushing frantically to an appointment only to realize when they come to the door that they’ve gone to entirely the wrong location. Speed is worthless without direction. Get that right first.
Do you worry about productivity to avoid worrying about more difficult questions like your vision and goals?
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel