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The Preparation is the Work, Why Profits are the Key, & The Power of Being Specific (Reading Notes 6.20.18)

Resource: Cold yeast


“Almost every element of good bread happens long before it goes into the oven.”

“Too often, we spend our time and effort on the exciting last step. And too often, we forget to spend our time and attention on the preparation that’s a lot less urgent or glamorous, but far more important.”

“Poor preparation is a lousy excuse for a last-minute selfish frenzy. That frenzy distracts us from doing it right the next time.”

“If you want to understand where mastery and success come from, take a look at the inputs and the journey, not simply the outputs.”


Excellence lies in the process, not merely the final result.

The real work is the prep that goes into the work. If you have to give a lecture, do a coaching session, lead a workshop, update the team at a meeting, or whatever else it is, you need to spend ample time/energy setting yourself up for success.

If you want to be an elite performer, you need to be an elite preparer.

This post makes me think of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant who both had reputations for practicing as hard as they played.

Don’t focus on what you can get away with. Focus on how great you could be by bringing your best to the task.

Resource: Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas?


One major key to succeeding at a startup is focusing more on making a profit than on coming up with a cool idea. If you measure what’s cool by something other than profits, you’re likely being misled by untested stated preferences. As an entrepreneur, you want to be cool at the level of revealed preferences (ie. so cool that people are happy to pay for it).

The hardest part about problem-solving is choosing which problems to solve. In traditional schooling, most students have their problems picked for them. Marketplace education needs to help students develop a greater sense of agency when it comes to choosing what problems to solve.

You can’t learn business in the abstract. You have to do things in the real world. Business is not a general subject. It’s a specific practice that always takes a specific form.


On the still life effect:

“If you’re going to spend years working on something, you’d think it might be wise to spend at least a couple days considering different ideas, instead of going with the first that comes into your head. You’d think. But people don’t. In fact, this is a constant problem when you’re painting still lifes. You plonk down a bunch of stuff on a table, and maybe spend five or ten minutes rearranging it to look interesting. But you’re so impatient to get started painting that ten minutes of rearranging feels very long. So you start painting. Three days later, having spent twenty hours staring at it, you’re kicking yourself for having set up such an awkward and boring composition, but by then it’s too late.

Part of the problem is that big projects tend to grow out of small ones. You set up a still life to make a quick sketch when you have a spare hour, and days later you’re still working on it. I once spent a month painting three versions of a still life I set up in about four minutes. At each point (a day, a week, a month) I thought I’d already put in so much time that it was too late to change.”

The biggest cause of bad ideas:

“So the biggest cause of bad ideas is the still life effect: you come up with a random idea, plunge into it, and then at each point (a day, a week, a month) feel you’ve put so much time into it that this must be the idea.”

On avoiding the start-up version of the sunk cost fallacy:

“How do we fix that? I don’t think we should discard plunging. Plunging into an idea is a good thing. The solution is at the other end: to realize that having invested time in something doesn’t make it good.”

On why you need to take inventory of your idea:

“An idea for a company gets woven into your thoughts. So you must consciously discount for that. Plunge in, by all means, but remember later to look at your idea in the harsh light of morning and ask: is this something people will pay for? Is this, of all the things we could make, the thing people will pay most for?”

On why the money is where the hard work is:

“One of the most valuable things my father taught me is an old Yorkshire saying: where there’s muck, there’s brass. Meaning that unpleasant work pays. And more to the point here, vice versa. Work people like doesn’t pay well, for reasons of supply and demand. The most extreme case is developing programming languages, which doesn’t pay at all, because people like it so much they do it for free.”

On why you need to make profits your #1 priority:

“The purpose of a company, and a startup especially, is to make money. You can’t have divided loyalties. What I mean is, if you’re starting a company that will do something cool, the aim had better be to make money and maybe be cool, not to be cool and maybe make money. It’s hard enough to make money that you can’t do it by accident. Unless it’s your first priority, it’s unlikely to happen at all.”

On why there is no such thing as business:

“In fact there is no such thing as “business.” There’s selling, promotion, figuring out what people want, deciding how much to charge, customer support, paying your bills, getting customers to pay you, getting incorporated, raising money, and so on. And the combination is not as hard as it seems, because some tasks (like raising money and getting incorporated) are an O(1) pain in the ass, whether you’re big or small, and others (like selling and promotion) depend more on energy and imagination than any kind of special training.”

The mistake young people make of prioritizing cool ideas over money making ideas:

“Looking at the applications for the Summer Founders Program, I see signs of all three. But the first is by far the biggest problem. Most of the groups applying have not stopped to ask: of all the things we could do, is this the one with the best chance of making money?”

On the widespread availability of idea:

“Reading the Wall Street Journal for a week should give anyone ideas for two or three new startups. The articles are full of descriptions of problems that need to be solved.”

Why schools need to teach young people how to choose problems, not just solve them:

“Why did so few applicants really think about what customers want? I think the problem with many, as with people in their early twenties generally, is that they’ve been trained their whole lives to jump through predefined hoops. They’ve spent 15-20 years solving problems other people have set for them. And how much time deciding what problems would be good to solve? Two or three course projects? They’re good at solving problems, but bad at choosing them.”

“But that, I’m convinced, is just the effect of training. Or more precisely, the effect of grading. To make grading efficient, everyone has to solve the same problem, and that means it has to be decided in advance. It would be great if schools taught students how to choose problems as well as how to solve them, but I don’t know how you’d run such a class in practice.”

What makes choosing problems difficult:

“Hackers are perfectly capable of hearing the voice of the customer without a business person to amplify the signal for them. The hard part about figuring out what customers want is figuring out that you need to figure it out. But that’s something you can learn quickly. It’s like seeing the other interpretation of an ambiguous picture. As soon as someone tells you there’s a rabbit as well as a duck, it’s hard not to see it.”

On why you need to do work that’s “beneath you” to succeed:

“That’s the essence of a startup: having brilliant people do work that’s beneath them. Big companies try to hire the right person for the job. Startups win because they don’t—because they take people so smart that they would in a big company be doing “research,” and set them to work instead on problems of the most immediate and mundane sort. Think Einstein designing refrigerators.”

The most important thing for startups to do:

“Make something people want.”

Resource: Get specific!


Here’s something Romany Malco once told me: “The universe responds to specificity.”

You can’t act on vague plans and you can’t get people to invest in vague ideas.

Challenge yourself to think about all the details you need for a given goal. And do research on the things you don’t know.

Forcing yourself to get specific not only better prepares you for action, but it also lets you know if action is a waste of time.


“This is one of the most useful lessons I’ve learned in life. When you don’t know your next step…When you’re feeling unmotivated… When asking someone to help you… When you’re ready to make a dream come true… Get more specific about what’s needed.”

“When you have a vague or distant goal — like “be a great singer” or “make a million from my music” — break it down into specific ingredients. Describe concrete milestones, and exactly how to reach them. Then break those down into actions that you can start doing today.”

“Most people know what they want, but don’t know how to get it. When you don’t know the next step, you procrastinate or feel lost. But a little research can turn a vague desire into specific actions. For example: When musicians say, “I need a booking agent”, I ask, “Which one? What’s their name?” You can’t act on a vague desire. But with an hour of research you could find the names of ten booking agents that work with ten artists you admire. Then you’ve got a list of the next ten people you need to contact.”

“A life coach told me that most of his job is just helping people get specific. Once they turn a vague goal into a list of specific steps, it’s easy to take action. It also makes you realize if something was a bad idea. Many things only sound nice in theory. So do this for yourself. Take the time to get specific.”

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