43 Folders

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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Solving problems outside your comfort zone

I sometimes think that one factor in success as a business or as a human being has a lot to do with what kind of problems you're comfortable solving -- and how you get better at addressing the stuff that falls outside that comfort zone.

History is littered with revolutionaries who couldn't run the country they'd overthrown, Generals who've insisted on re-fighting the last war, talented programmers who were promoted to becoming ineffective (and very unhappy) managers, and, of course, there's the countless companies that just couldn't make the leap when technology or cultural change rendered their comfy old business model moot.

Seems like there's a thread here that's worth thinking about.

How do you get better at knowing when you’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately as I take what had been mostly a hobby and try to "Go Pro" with it. For me, that's meant a lot of stumbles around moving from being a one-man show into what may eventually become a small company (who knows?). I'm finding it really challenging to stop solving the problems I'm comfortable solving, and to ask for and accept help with the stuff I suck at or that doesn't represent the best use of my time.

I think this applies to almost everybody, from the time they're born, right? You figure out a few things, you do some informal experiments with reality, and then you try to suss out the patterns that won't get you hit by a car or carted off to jail. But the old patterns almost always stop doing the trick at some point or in some unexpected context. For example, that bawling and tantrum-throwing that got you a hug in kindergarten may not endear you to your company's board.

The best advice I've gleaned so far is to try and stay cognizant of diminishing returns. Just because I know how to do basic sysadmin work doesn't mean I'm the best person to work on it. And conversely, just because I loathe the idea of becoming a "manager" doesn't mean I can afford to put off learning the skills forever.

The Question to You

What’s your trick? How’d you learn to start fixing more interesting and unfamiliar problems? Can you think of any particular businesses or people who have (so far) aced the test?

brianjones's picture


In The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber advocates treating your business as if you intended to franchise it. Whether you franchise or not, he says the discipline of writing out an operations manual for everything will help you to improve the things that stink and make everything you do consistent and professional. Like McDonalds, only with better taste (hopefully).

I've found this is a useful way to work. At some point, we'd all like to get to the Four Hour Workweek, right? The way to do that is to act like an owner, not like a worker/manager. Assume others will do everything someday and plan accordingly. So you get to delegate the things you hate, but only after you've worked through the way they should be done. You specify what should be done and how it should be done. You train others to do that (or do it that way yourself, if you really want to work in the business) and you hold everyone accountable to the standards you set. So instead of getting outside your comfort zone and staying there until it becomes comfortable, you drive head first into your uncomfort zone, decide what should be done there and how, specify that in writing, then hire or outsource someone to live in that uncomfort zone and do the stuff that you find uncomfortable. Then you sit back and collect the profits.

As Gerber says, Work on your business, not in it.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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