Can you work your butt off for hours and days and weeks and months and have the strength to throw it all away?
Can you look at your own work and have the courage to admit it’s not good enough?
If you can’t honestly answer “yes” to these questions, don’t beat yourself up too hard. It wasn’t long ago I couldn’t do it either. But it’s important. To be self-aware. To be able to look at yourself and your work objectively. It’s one of the top attributes I look for when I’m hiring.
To move fast, we need to be agile, we need to correct course quickly. We can’t afford to dwell on sunk efforts. We can’t afford to invest good money (or time) after bad.
I worked all weekend on a project I was sure was going to be a homerun. I had it all figured out. I stayed up late. I cancelled plans. It was sunny and warm outside and I stayed inside and worked. And then, 20 hours later, when the work was done, I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as I hoped it would be. It wasn’t up to my standard. There were holes in my logic all along. The right move was to throw it all in the garbage. To cut my losses.
But was it really?
Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe I could salvage a piece of it. Maybe with a little more work I could turn it into something good.
I caught myself in this line of thinking after about an hour. I wasn’t thinking right. I was upset about wasted time and effort and money. I was no longer making an optimal decision with the information at hand. I was emotional. I was grasping for anything that would mean I didn’t burn an entire weekend for nothing.
Put up your hand if you know the exquisite pain that comes from having to throw out something you’ve worked your ass off on. It hurts. But you have to do it. And I’m proud that I did.
Here are four mindset tricks I’ve adopted over the years, that make it easier to do this.
1. Take pride in being objective
I’ve written extensively on the power of objectivity. It’s one of the most powerful qualities I look for in leaders. It’s something I’ve worked hard to develop in myself. Self-awareness and objectivity will keep you on the right path no matter where your emotions try to steer you. To be successful in the long term, you need to be able to see yourself and your work for what it really is, not for how you wish it would be. Just because you worked hard on something does not mean it is any good. In fact, many of the projects I’ve worked hardest on were total crap. Many of the projects that came out easy, were my best work.
My advice to managers and career-minded people is to force yourself to be objective. Pride yourself on self-awareness. Nurture this skill in yourself and your teams. Objectivity begets credibility. Credibility begets trust. And trust, brings new opportunities for growth and expansion.
2. Focus on making an optimal decision right now
All you can do is make the best decision with the information you have at any given moment in time. This is my mindset whenever I’m making decisions. Am I confident that when I look back on this decision at some later time, that I’ve made the best decision possible with the information at hand? Am I using good judgement? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, it will give you the courage to make a tough call.
Even though, as the months and years pass, some of your decisions may prove to have been wrong, you can still be confident so long as you made a solid decision with the information you had. In my case, I’m very comfortable with my decision to invest an entire weekend on a project that landed in the garbage can. Based on what I knew at the time, my approach made a lot of sense. It just didn’t work out. Things happened that were impossible for me to foresee at the outset. And that’s ok. I made an optimal decision to start the project based on what I knew, and then I made an optimal decision to trash it when I discovered new information that changed the dynamics of the game.
My advice is to leaders is to focus only on making optimal decisions based on the information at hand. It’s rare we have perfect information to work from. And waiting for more information will slow you down and make you less competitive. Make good decisions and then make new good decisions when the information landscape changes. Then be satisfied with all the optimal decisions you’ve made.
3. Never compromise your high standard
Every time I compromise my personal standard, I regret it. Every time I let something squeak through, or give something a pass when I know it deserves a fail, it comes back to haunt me. I can’t think of any time where I compromised my standards for quality, that ultimately helped me progress in my career.
It’s easy to be tempted to compromise your high standard. I nearly was today. I made several arguments (to myself) for why I should just go ahead and publish my crappy work. But ultimately, I couldn’t do it. It takes years to build a reputation and minutes to blow it all away.
My advice is to figure out what your standard is and hold to it. Hold your team to it. Don’t take short cuts. Do great work. And when your work isn’t as great as you thought it was going to be, fix it or do something else.
4. Take “learning” as a win
In the moment, when you’ve just “wasted” 20 hours working on a project that will never see the light of day, the value in learning a lesson is hard to swallow. But I do find, with enough time, I can point to the value in the hard lessons I’ve learned. If you can force yourself to step back, and view things with a wider perspective, you can take solace in learning from your fruitless efforts.
I will admit, if someone had told me to “take learning as a win” about three hours ago, I wouldn’t have responded as positively as I should have. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Most of my success (and ironically, most of what I write about) comes directly from my mistakes and lessons learned.
My advice is to search for the wins in admitting defeat and moving forward. They’re not always easy to find in the moment, but they are real and they will help you in the long run.
It takes great discipline and strength to be able to look at your own work, after hours and days of effort, and admit it isn’t good enough. The courage and objectivity to do this are qualities I look for in every candidate I hire. I may have wasted my weekend on a project that will never see the light, but my hope is by sharing my lesson, I’ll have created some value for you in the process.