(Author’s Note: This was originally published in my free weekly newsletter, How It Actually Works.)
I have a friend who’s creating an awesome side project: LED signs that you can control to let your coworkers know you’re busy. You can see one in this article's hero image.
He has a bunch of fun features that he considers important to his future business goals: integrating with Slack & other online tools, different colors, sync with a Mac & iPhone app, and… too much more.
The reality is this: even though he gets orders with zero marketing, he’s still hand assembling the signs himself at his kitchen table.
What’s the priority as he grows his startup? Writing software for future goals, or finding an assembler to build the signs for him?
When presented like this, you, dear reader, will think the choice is obvious.
But to that I say: you make the same mistake every day.
Where he gets stuck—where we all get stuck—is tunneling on the “Future You Fantasy”.
The Big Picture with all the bells & whistles is fun to think about because it gives you all the benefits with none of the work. You can picture how you’ll look and feel, the money in your bank account, the respect of your friends and peers; at no cost you get to imagine a perfect future that has everything you want & nothing you don’t.
Because all the bad stuff, all the unexpected twists & turns, the late nights & early mornings, the rejections & betrayals… even if you wanted to, you couldn’t imagine them because you don’t yet know what they’re going to be.
Future You Fantasy gives you the pleasure of all your future accomplishments with none of the speed bumps or potholes. It’s your brain tricking you into something that feels good today in exchange for lost meaning and purpose, and can severely impact your potential for accomplishment in the future.
Do The Work
Starting a new project is like being dropped in the middle of nowhere with a hundred different paths in front of you. You have no clue where any of them will lead & can only see the first three steps in any direction.
Most of us bootstrappers don’t choose at all, and instead do more “research” or “planning”.
To continue the metaphor: instead of choosing one of the hundred paths and beginning to walk, we start building a tower that we believe will let us see higher to help us choose the “best” path.
Of course we don’t know whether the extra vision from the tower will give us more useful information than walking a few steps down one of the paths, but we do it anyway because it feels safer and isn’t as likely to end in immediate failure.
While building your tower, you get to keep all the optionality and your perfect Big Vision can’t be proven wrong because it’s still a dream. And the entire time, you’re Future You Fantasizing, so it feels like you’re making progress towards your dream.
I suggest we do away with the towers and hand-wringing; throw out the paralyzing fear and overbearing what-ifs. I suggest that all bootstrappers just pick the path that has the best three feet.
Back to my sign-friend’s case: he should follow the money! People want the signs, so find the cheapest and most reliable way to make them ASAP. More product is something that is desired, and impacts your business right now, instead of dreaming afar.
Unfortunately, most of his fear stems from uncertainty. Focusing on production requires going outside his expertise... and, more importantly, it might not work! The path he chooses might be a dead end or might have more bumps than other paths. Or it could fail entirely and hurt him in the process.
Who wants to work on something that might not even work out? Yet another reason to daydream about the future instead of doing work today.
You probably point at my sign-friend and think “yeah, but that’s so obvious; you do the thing in front of you first”.
OH REALLY? Have you ever…
- been inspired to get in shape and instead of immediately running gone online to shop for workout clothes?
- Started a business by making a website instead of finding a customer?
- Complained about your dating prospects instead of making yourself more dateable?
- Emailed someone where a call would be better?
- Starting goal-setting by buying a fancy journal instead of opening a Google Doc ?
- Put off the correct, hard work for the easier, less effective work?
We are all my sign-friend.
Meaning Without Success
The hard work is the direction we need to go. Not only will it get us closer to our goals, but it will add value and meaning to our lives even if we never accomplish them. I’ve attached some links to to bottom of this article to help my fellow indie hackers get started on their path, instead of building their tower.
Future You Fantasy is a crutch and a trap. Stop dreaming, stop hemming and hawing, and start doing!
Exactly what it says. Skip to the bottom for the list.
Surprisingly effective advice for such a cliché topic. I like #4.
From 2010. Now “tweet” is in literally hundreds of their own headlines.
Biographer David McCullough (1776, The Wright Brothers, Truman) released a book with some of his old speeches and essays. McCullough’s brand of American optimism in spite of whatever the current reality is my kind of American hope.