After years of running my own agency, working with many clients, colleagues and suppliers, it’s now clear to me what separates those individuals who are remarkable, impressive and – ultimately – successful from those who are replaceable and forgettable.
“You're either remarkable or invisible. Make a choice.”
~ Seth Godin
I’ve written before about the difference between doing what is right and what is easy, and the importance of committing to excellence no matter what. Having researched and been fascinated by the right versus easy theory, and taken inspiration from authors in this field, I now believe it’s more fundamental to success than we realise.
The right thing to do is often the hardest. The one most avoided. The one that’s carried forward to next week or deemed too tricky. But it’s the most important by a long way.
Ben Horowitz commits a whole book to describing and defining the Hard Thing About Hard Things. Cal Newport wrote Digital Minimalism and Deep Work to distinguish between the easy distractions that technology offer versus the, sometimes seemingly unattainable, deep and focused effort that makes the real difference. The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene includes rules on outsmarting, outworking and outlasting rivals, albeit whilst making it look easy.
This isn’t about seeking difficulty for no reason. This isn’t about being abrasive or argumentative when there’s just no need to (and rarely is there a need to!). This is about knowing what to let slide and what to address, knowing the difference between a short cut that’s beneficial and one that defers problems only in the short term. It’s about knowing when your opinion is welcome and when you have no place offering it.
Let’s start with the easy things. When running a business, the easy things are great, and include the following:
Hiring great people who get off to flying starts and are eager to please. Giving praise, giving pay rises, sharing good vibes. It’s easy to share good news before it’s fully confirmed, to paint a rosy picture of the future and sell it to your board, shareholders or team. It’s easy to take your clients for a drink, get to know them well and make small talk. It’s easy to talk to people about your ambitious growth plans.
In any role, it’s easy to talk; to give away more information than required, to gossip about co-workers, to criticise the actions of others and think you know best. It’s easy to read a headline and jump to a conclusion, or fly off the handle at a snippet of information.
However, without the hard things that accompany all of these easy things, you’ll build a business with little substance. It will be superficial, shallow, and won’t stand up to stress tests, like a house of cards ready to collapse. Be wary of hiring managers who are great at doing the easy things but don’t have the experience, commercial awareness or authority to do the hard things, and don’t fall into the trap yourself.
The hard things are those that I believe are prioritised, executed and even enjoyed by those entrepreneurs and business leaders who really do stand out as being exceptional at what they do. They include:
Working out their own weaknesses and addressing them without relying on others. Having the difficult yet necessary conversations to give the feedback or constructive criticism that someone needs to hear in order to improve and progress. Doing the most important thing on their to-do list first, always. Picking up the phone instead of hiding behind email or assistants. Revisiting a strategy for the fifth time to ensure the best results possible. Knowing when enough is enough and having the strength to back down, cut their losses or say goodbye.
It’s not easy to pull the wall down and rebuild it instead of papering over the cracks. It takes courage to refuse to participate in gossip, rumour or biased opinions. Always seeing the other side of the story and withholding judgment until you have all of the information requires practice, as does verifying before trusting implicitly.
You might not enjoy empathising with someone you really don’t like, or showing kindness that has no chance of reciprocation, but do it anyway. Above all, the hardest thing to do is to always, without fail, back yourself to thrive and survive in any given set of circumstances. Which, funnily enough, is only possible when you’re truly committed to doing what is right, even when it’s difficult.
“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
Shying away from impactful and meaningful actions that really move the needle in favour of shallow niceties and fluffy stuff is harming your career and stunting your business. I’m certain that, deep down, everyone knows when they are doing something worthwhile and when they are just passing the time to little avail. Let this be the sign that it’s time to do the former.