Two Ways
There are two ways to live life:
1) like a fast lottery ticket – by having one-time-payoff goals and going after them, and
2) like a squirrel gathering for the winter – by surely and consistently going after your plans.

Here are some arguments for the benefits of consistency. Sure, the lottery ticket is a draw – it is exciting, it is potential, and it can be huge! The squirrel, however, will always make her nest for the winter.

The Lottery Ticket. A friend of mine is a film reviewer. (I love dance movies: you name me a dance movie, and I’ve probably seen it!) My film-reviewer friend and I were talking about dance movies recently, and he said, “Senia, doesn’t it seem that most dance movies give the performer one chance or one performance or one try-out, and that that is the one that counts? And that things better be right for that one dance because it’s the one big chance?” And I thought about it, and he’s right – typically, dance movies are structured towards one dance or one night or one show or one try-out. It’s the lottery ticket – it’s the one chance to get things right. It’s what everything in your past training as a dancer has been moving you towards.
So you give it your all. And that’s the right thing to do. But it’s so hard to live life that way, anticipating one big hit every several years, and other than that, barely eeking by. It’s possible, but so hard. As Hugh MacLeod says (via Dave Seah’s post), “If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.” Living the lottery ticket is looking for big breaks all the time – looking for the job in which in a couple of years you can make enough money to retire, looking for the business contact that will bring in the company’s annual revenue for the entire year in January, looking for the book publisher who’ll love your idea for a novel and want to make it into a major motion picture.

The Squirrel. On the other hand, “slightly, lightly, and politely,” as I once heard a guy say at a dance club, the squirrel gets things done. She knows that she doesn’t have all summer to play, and so she builds and gathers for the winter. And the squirrel may be able to get even more things done while she rushes with the winter preparations. Yes, the lottery ticket is exciting. At the same time, a lottery ticket may not pay the bills. And if it does take 10 years to become successful at something, or if it takes 10,000 hours, then YES, start now, and consistently work at it. Just like after college, in your first job, some folks show you the benefits of investing early into a retirement account – that it is the amounts you put in earlier that reap the greatest gains later – just like that, the consistent attention to your chosen activity reaps the greatest gain from consistency. Just ask anyone who plays an instrument. Putting it down for a year definitely moves you back a bit.

There are two brief stories that illustrate the squirrel’s deliberate life of consistency:

The Fisherman
The story goes that a business school student was on his spring break in a small fishing village, and saw one fisherman who seemed to be more efficient than all the other fishermen. He watched him day after day, and just before returning to school, he approached the fisherman and said, “I’ve been watching you, and your catch is larger than all the other fishermen. I think if I help you out, we could get a few more boats out here, and you could train me and my friends, and we could make a lot of money very fast, and then, just think, you could retire very soon.” The fisherman just looked at him. And the business school student continued, “Just think, if you could retire, what would you do?” And the fisherman replied, “I would fish.”

“Sew a Little at Night”
There was a man who was the main tailor to the king, but one day a genie came to him and told the man that he would now be rich beyond all his beliefs, and the king would let him go as his servant because the king would have a tailor who could do things magically for the king, and that the man was free to go and enjoy his life. The man thought that was fine. Then the genie asked him, “What will you do all the day long now that you don’t have any cares and now that you have all the money that you want?” The man answered that he would live a relaxed life during the day, including walking, reading, eating, and then, he added, “I would sew a little at night.”

It’s what he does well – he would “sew a little.” Plus, even at that point, a little more money wouldn’t hurt. Of course, both these tales are exaggerated tales that show two things: the benefit of doing what you like to do and the benefit of consistency. I bet you would argue with me, “Well, Senia, why wouldn’t I want to do both? Shoot for the lottery and keep consistently improving at what I’m doing?” Actually, YOU WOULD! That would be the ideal!

DO BOTH – Shoot for the Moon and Keep the Day Job

Dana Gioia One of my heroes in this sense is Dana Gioia (pronounced “JOY-a”). Dana Gioia has a Stanford MBA and worked for General Foods for 15 years, becoming a Vice President. Currently, he heads the National Endowment for the Arts, and here is his bio on the NEA site.

For years, Dana Gioia did both – published poetry books and worked a corporate job. I find that wonderful and incredible and inspiring. That’s the whole point. That’s what Hugh MacLeod means by “Keep your day job” and “Put the hours in.”

Dana Gioia has been masterful on two levels – at work with a corporate managerial role and in his spare time with poetry. That’s incredible! That’s like a story I heard from my friend that you are what you do in your spare time. If you consistently work at a hobby (or work more at your job like most entrepreneurs) in your spare time, you will be good at it. You will be good – whether it’s guitar-playing or rock-climbing or golf or running or writing. Whatever you consistently do, you will be good at. There are other ways to push yourself to improve at your chosen activity (through incremental challenges, asking raw questions, etc.), but you are already good at it if you do it consistently.

I heard once that John Grisham wrote his first few legal thrillers by getting to his law firm at 5am and writing from 5 to 8am. That is consistency. That is perseverance.

“Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

You are sure to wake up somebody. Like the little squirrel who finishes all her preparations for the winter, and then goes to the store to buy a lottery ticket … just in case. Although her affairs are in order, she thinks, “Why not?”


7 Comments

  1. Posted Wednesday August 9, 2006 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    This is relevant to a discussion I had with a coworker recently. The Lottery Ticket is definitely desirable but in no way is it realistic. Big ideas that succeed are hard to come by. For every one that does succeed, there hundreds, if not thousands, that don’t.

  2. Lila
    Posted Wednesday August 9, 2006 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    A couple of comments.

    Not sure I agree with your first statement, that “there are two ways to live life.” What about people who just don’t really set goals, who take life as it comes, who just try to enjoy themselves as they do what they do? That’s a third way and I’m sure there are others. I think maybe a rephrasing, something like, “there are two ways to aim for your goals” would make mores sense to my mind!

    I think dance movies may not be a great indicator of reality. It’s a movie, a story, fiction — so it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end, of course, can be the big climax you’re talking about. Even if it’s a documentary (like the wonderful “Mad Hot Ballroom”) it only shows a part of the life, the action. Those kids are all still alive (I hope!) and all continuing to grow up regardless of how that experience affected them.

    My sister, as you know, is a performer. She has these big-shot auditions or performances occurring occasionally. While she is preparing for them, she *has* to regard them as her lottery ticket because she has to focus enough to give them the attention they deserve. And sometimes they go well and she gets whatever reward she deserves. And sometimes they don’t and she just has to go back to plugging away and hoping for her next break. That is just the nature of the performing arts — or, for many people, of book writing, for that matter. There’s just no way to know which one of your performances, auditions, or books is going to be the one that hits it big.

    Most book authors, incidentally, *cannot* do it in their spare time. I’m a writer, I’ve heard this said a hundred times at conferences and such. They just either get too involved in the book to do other work or never get it done. I know a writer who’s been working on her book, on top of all her other stuff, and she’s now been working on it for 10 years! It’s still not done, and it’s very depressing to her. I know others who worked on it in mornings and evenings as long as they could — and then took a leave from their jobs to finish. And yes, i do know one guy who wrote three books while also working a fulltime job, and all I can say is, he never went out, got no exercise, and barely slept for months and months on end. Not sure that’s a lifestyle I’d want to emulate!

    Anyway, the point I’m making in a very roundabout way is that in some situations — and for some people — it makes sense to have a lottery ticket mentality.

    The funny thing about my arguing all this is that I personally don’t work that way at all. I just know people who do!

  3. Lila
    Posted Wednesday August 9, 2006 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    PS: Really interesting topic.

  4. Posted Thursday August 10, 2006 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Chris, thanks for the comment. Exactly – the lottery ticket is certainly desirable. So it may be interesting to aim for it as long as while you’re aiming, the squirrel things still get done. :)

    Lila, cool comments! Especially about the musical auditions and the books. Yes, in a sense, each book or each audition is a lottery ticket. On the other hand, neither your sister nor your writer friends are people that stake their entire lives on one audition or one book. You can stake part of your life – and in business that happens too! A certain partnership or choosing a direction in which to develop your technology – these are decisions that are hard to change later. At the same time, you’re usually plodding along on the delivery front – making real products or services for real people.

    You know what I’m arguing against? That company that runs in stealth mode for two years without any input from customers, making “the next huge thing”. No, instead, make something that brings in revenue. Make something that you know that some client needs while you’re developing in your spare time your huge idea.

    Gauss, in addition to making mathematical discoveries, was the map maker for the king. Gauss had a day job.

    So if each lottery ticket opportunity is along your way of progressing you along in your craft, then kudos, wonderful! But if your attitude is, “Oh, I’ll make my great masterpiece someday,” then that’s potentially the one lottery ticket that just may not come through.

    I don’t think there are just these two ways to live life. ;) It was just a fun way for me to get the topic moving. Sort of like starting with… there are three kinds of people: those who can count and those who can’t.

    Thank you, thank you! Love this comment of yours! And super-interesting that you’re arguing for not your natural inclinations.

  5. Posted Friday August 11, 2006 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    This is very interesting about the auditions, and how there seems to be that “big break” moment that determines everything. Although I wonder what that big break is measuring or assessing…I’m thinking that it’s not a pure lottery, but an opportunity to demonstrate everything that’s made you you at that place and that time, and by owning the moment you get a chance to show off your stuff and MAYBE you’ve got it together right there. Maybe you don’t. But it’s not THE moment…it’s a culmination of many moments, many squirreling-aways of past experience. The true lottery-ticket mentality would be not to prepare at all, show up for the audition, and hope you win. I don’t think that works for anyone in the long run, but maybe it is a pervasive mentality. I think of people who believe in entitlement, by virtue of having finished school, or having won some award, or maybe just feeling like they’re old enough to stop having to work for it…life may then look like a series of lottery moments.

    I just had a funny vision!

    A young squirrel decides to make her way into the Big Forest, and enters a copse of very very tall acorn trees. Under each acorn tree, she noticed, were dozens and dozens of squirrels, squatting still and looking up at the tree with an expectant look. Some were old grizzled gray squirrels, closer to the trunk of the tree, some were young like her out toward the periphery. She scurried up to one of the squirrels and said, ‘Hello! I’m a new squirrel here! What’s going on at this tree?’ The other squirrel, without taking his eyes off the sky, muttered, ‘This is my acorn drop zone. Please find your own.’ Our squirrel was confused, but obligingly moved away some distance. A brisk wind picked up, and the branches overhead started swaying, which caused an excited ripple to rise from the assembled squirrels. Our squirrel, which we’ll call Shirley, watched as three acorns fell straight down and into the waiting paws of three very relieved looking squirrels. They collected their acorns and filed out toward the left, where a very large squirrel counted them and then sent them away. ‘How odd’, though Shirley. She moved on to the next tree, which was even larger and more grand, and had even more squirrels under it. She sat and watched for a bit, and saw the same sequence of events recur. None of the squirrels strayed from their “zones”, and they were all spaced evenly from each other. One of the lucky squirrels was loping by her, so she asked, ‘Hi! Nice catch!’ The other squirrel smiled and said that she was very fortunate to have gotten such a good acorn, because some days she didn’t get ANY. ‘Why don’t you go to look in the forest for more nuts?’ Shirley asked. ‘Oh, but these are the BEST TREES in the forest!’ exclaimed the other squirrel. ‘They are very well known for dropping the most and biggest nuts. All you need to do is sit underneath it, and they come to you. Of course, there are rules to ensure that there’s no fighting, but it’s a fair system. I have to go now, good luck! You should try to get in close, maybe today you’ll get lucky!’ So Shirley found a spot and sat for a while, looking up at the tree and thinking thoughts like ‘Come on acorn!’ and ‘Acorns love me!’ and everything else she could think of. In a way it was comforting that the other squirrels were doing the same thing, and offered her tips on how to stand with your hind feet spread apart a bit (‘it helps with the lunge’ explained her neighbor to the left) and to bend the knees a bit (‘absorbs the shock of the fall, don’t forget to roll with it a bit’ helpfully offered the neighbor to her right’) but she soon became restless. She could see plenty of other acorn trees, smaller and kind of far away, and sort of inconvenienetly located compared to this copse of trees. ‘I think I’ll just go over there and look’ she thought. So she did. She found a lot of acorns lying on the ground, under leaves and mixed up with rocks, and some of them were rotten. Some of them weren’t even acorns, but something else, but she soon gathered enough acorns to feel like she’d ACOMPLISHED something for the day, so she hid them under a hedge and after that decided that she didn’t mind the inconvenience of finding her own acorns, because it was a lot more interesting than just letting them come to you sitting with your knees bent and your arms getting sore. It was just plain unnatural. The other squirrels started calling her Crazy Shirley, but she didn’t care. She had what she wanted, and she lived happily ever after!

  6. Maria
    Posted Sunday August 13, 2006 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    That is a great squirrel story, Dave!

  7. Nick
    Posted Monday August 14, 2006 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… do you think NASA would accept me as an after-hours, part-time astronaut?

2 Trackbacks

  1. By senia.com » SENIA.COM Summary - August, 2006 on Wednesday November 22, 2006 at 2:07 am

    […] Expertise is Trainable! – nurture may be winning over nature in the debate of how expertise develops. First, You Copy – copying can be an excellent way to gain expertise. Consistency – what do you choose to develop your expertise in? (aiming for a one-shot win or steady-Eddie getting things done). […]

  2. By Popular Science on Wednesday August 22, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Popular Science…

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article, but it sounds interesting…