Efficiency is an Excuse to Not Do the Actual Work

This was originally published in my newsletter, How It Actually Works

If you’re trying to do something efficiently you’re probably stalling.

Premature optimization is the root of all evil for engineers, but it’s also an excuse that prevents progress in personal goals.

Looking for efficiency in daily life is similar to seeking “the best way” of doing something.

And it’s insidious because the logic isn’t all that bad…

“If I’m going to try and lose weight, I might as well do it in the best and most efficient way possible, right?”


You need momentum. You need progress. You need forward movement happening right now.

The importance of morale is vastly underestimated.

”I want to lose weight, what are the best exercises to do?”

Get down RIGHT THIS SECOND and start doing push ups. Go for a run in whatever clothes you already own.

”I want to start a SaaS business, what stack should I use?”

Pick up the phone and call 10 potential customers to see if they want the thing.

”There might be a parking space closer to the entrance, I’ll keep looking”

There’s tons of parking 50 feet back, pick a spot and just walk.

”I want to sell an online course. What’s the best way to make a website?”
Send 5 emails right now to the first 5 people you can think of who might need this. Do not write templates – bang out the email and hit send. If they actually need the product they won’t care about typos.

”I want to be a photographer, I wonder what gear I should buy.”

Use your iPhone.

So much “work” is merely distracting ourselves from the reality: we have no customers, we don’t know what people want, we don’t have a sales channel, and on and on.

This was originally published in my newsletter, How It Actually Works

What Stories Do You Tell Yourself That Aren’t True?

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works

How much of your view of the world is based on stories and narratives?

We hear things like:

  • the economy is good/bad
  • X actor’s career is dying (based on 1 movie)
  • buying a house is a good investment

…and often take them at face value.

Too much of what we think we understand about the world is from a narrative we’ve absorbed without examining the underlying data.

You can disocver this trap by attempting to explain the details of an idea that you internalized as a story.

This happened to me on a phone call last week.

I was chatting with a Disney executive friend who works in Beijing, and asked him what he thought about China’s competitiveness with the US.

It’s a big topic these days and something you hear about semi frequently: China is working harder, moving faster, growing more, etc.

(All narratives.)

So I asked him, Are they doing better than the US?

And his stupid simple response made me pause: “What do you mean by ‘doing better’ ?”

Uh…. And I hesitated, because I had to actually think about it.

What exactly did I mean by “they work harder”? Or that they’re “more innovative?”

What does it even mean for one country to be “doing better” than another?

I had an opinion built from a story I’d consumed by reading hundreds of tweets, headlines, articles, etc., but never from looking at actual data.

We fall to narratives all the time. This is why people do things like buy houses and go to law school.

(Wanna be THAT GUY at a dinner party? Ask someone the top 3 specific changes their favorite politician would enact if they won office. Most people can barely name 1.)

Ask yourself: what stories do you accept as reality about the world?

Maybe it’s that tech is too powerful and needs regulation.

Or that San Francisco would fix its problems by building more housing.

Or that entrepreneurship is sexy and worthwhile.

To be clear I’m not saying whether these things are true or not. I’m saying be cognizant of how you come to your conclusion, and beware how much of that is just a narrative you’ve accepted without doing critical thinking on your own.

Same Facts, Different Story

There’s a similar mistake we make which is having widely different interpretations of reality based on nearly identical facts.

Take a game of basketball that’s won by a single point.

After the game the commentators always have some “analysis” or opinion of what mattered in the game and led to victory.

Ask yourself how would their comments change if, instead of losing by a point, that same team had won by a point.

You know the story would be different.

The importance of players on the winning team would grow, the significance of the losers’ mistakes would be magnified, the talk about which players should be traded or let go would change, etc.

Yet the facts between the two outcomes is identical but for a single extra point!

3 Women World Leaders

In a different universe we’d have the narrative of 3 simultaneous, powerful women leaders in Western democracies:

  • The 1st woman President of the United States, Hillary Clinton
  • The 1st woman Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel
  • The 2nd woman Prime Minister of Great Britain, Theresa May

Women increasing in influence, opportunity, etc., would be a big narrative.

And First Woman President Follows First Black President is a headline that literally would have made the history books.

But yet again the factual differences between that headline and what actually happened on election day is minuscule: a mere 80,000 votes.

Trump could have died on November 9th without a day in office, and the narrative about the United States would still have been fundamentally different than had Clinton won.

Instead of headlines about multiple women leaders in powerful countries, and the transition of US presidential power from one minority to another, we saw headlines like “An American Tragedy”.

Like a game where the winner wins by a single point, the facts are almost identical but the story that gets told is completely different.

It’s cliche but the word story makes up most of history. And history is just the emphasis of certain facts over others.

Stories You Tell About Yourself

This happens everywhere, e.g. in headlines based on the same research study.

But a more interesting example is that you do this to yourself.

We tell stories about ourselves constantly: about how successful we are (or aren’t), about why we have certain preferences, about our own personalities.

Are you “lazy” or do you “work smart, not hard”?

Are you “introverted and shy”, or “someone who makes friends intentionally”?

Try this exercise:

Tell yourself 2 different versions of your career narrative.

Try one version where e.g. you’ve worked hard, made smart choices, minimized mistakes, and overcome a myriad of struggles.

Then try the total opposite where maybe you got a few lucky breaks, you happened to meet the right people at the right time, and you were in a field that was already growing.

Which one do you prefer? Does it matter?

So Anything Goes?

“So Trevor are you saying I should dig for the “true” story? Or that I can make up any story that best suits my needs? What the hell is your point?”

My point is to be cognizant of what information you have stored as a story.

Sometimes there are multiple narratives that are equally valid. And sometimes there aren’t! (i.e. there’s no reason to rerun the experiments that led to the periodic table! That story checks out.)

But other times there’s more accurate or improved stories we can tell about the world and about ourselves if only we’re self-aware enough to notice.

Read more about this in my newsletter How It Actually Works.

Why You Should Ignore Every Founder’s Story About How They Started Their company

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works.

Founding Stories Are Myths

Company founding stories are almost always non-malicious lies. Take Netflix:

Reed Hastings has said many times that he got the idea for Netflix because he once was charged a $40 late fee on Apollo 13.

That didn’t actually happen.

It’s unfortunate because it will inevitably mislead anyone learning how to start a company.

Sam Walton’s Overnight Success

Sam was already 44(!) when he opened the first Walmart and had been running his own retail stores for over 15 years.

He wondered why people focused on the beginning of Walmart:

Somehow over the years folks have gotten the impression that Walmart was something I dreamed up out of the blue as a middle-aged man, and that it was just this great idea that turned into an overnight success… Like most overnight successes, it was about 20 years in the making

If you’re trying to build your own thing & you want to learn from “the founder of Walmart”, looking at the start of the company itself is stupid because at that point he already had 15 years of experience

So let’s start with Sam’s very first store.

The Biggest Mistake Of Sam’s Professional Life

Sam started his retail career at 27 buying his 1st store, a “Ben Franklin” variety store franchise.

As a beginner he relied on the franchise’s playbook but also incorporated his own experiments.

Things like:

  • putting popcorn & ice cream machines in front of the store to drive traffic
  • doing huge discounts but actually making it up in volume (i.e. not ironically)
  • buying directly from manufactures instead of going through the franchise (which allowed for cheaper prices)

He worked hard on that single store for 5 years, grew sales 3.5x to $250k/year and became the #1 Ben Franklin franchisee in his six-state region.

But then he found out he’d made a gigantic mistake.

When he signed the store lease he didn’t include an option to renew it.

The owner (a local department store competitor) saw his success & refused to renew the lease at any price, thereby forcing Sam to shut down the store.

Imagine working on something for 5 years straight, becoming the best at it, and then having a single person end it all.

Sam was devastated:

It was the lowpoint of my business life. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me… I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community – done everything right – and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn’t seem fair. I blamed myself for ever getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious at the landlord.

He was mad, but he accepted responsibility:

I’ve always thought of problems as challenges, and this one wasn’t any different… I had to pick myself up and get on with it, do it all over again, only even better this time.

If Facebook or Google change their algorithms you at least get to keep your old customer base and your business assets.

But with a retail store you have none of that.

And because of the structure of the town they couldn’t just open another store somewhere nearby.

The Waltons literally had to pack up their family of 6 and go find a new town.

If he’d wanted to Sam had plenty of reasons to sulk: they were starting all over in a smaller town (Bentonville) that also had its fair share of competition (3 other variety stores).

But Sam said “it didn’t matter much because I had big plans.”

Unsexy Determination

Sam spent the next 12 years in what I call narrative lingo.

It’s the crucial part of any “overnight success” that doesn’t get covered in the Successful Entrepreneur genre.

No one writes about all the random tangents and mistakes you make here.

Like, say, that time Sam tried to start a shopping mall 10 years too early and lost $25,000?

Or what about the time a tornado destroyed his best performing store? All he had to say was “we just rebuilt it and got back at it.”

This is important to know if you’re trying to learn from Sam, but it doesn’t fit into any narrative.

The lesson here is that there will be mistakes and problems on any path to success. As a recent book title says, those obstacles are the way itself.

A coworker said Sam excelled here because he woke up every day “determined to improve something”, and that he was

less afraid of being wrong than anyone I’ve ever known…Once he sees he’s wrong, he just shakes it off and heads in another direction.

You don’t get any of this from Reed Hastings when he talks about $40 late fees. You think “oh I need a great idea” when the reality is the idea is nothing and your psychology & persistence is everything.

Eventually Sam got to 15 stores & by 1960 was the largest independent variety store operator in the US, doing a a total of ~$12M (in 2018 dollars) in annual revenue.

It Would Seem Obvious

It was here that Sam finally saw the opportunity for much bigger discount stores and got to work on the 1st Walmart.

He was the most successful independent operator in the US & had 15 years of experience in retail, surely it should have been easy for him to raise money from investors…?


Sam asked other store owners, entrepreneurs, competitors… basically everyone said no.

He got a measily 5% from his own brother & a store manager and had to borrow the other 95% (signing their house and all their other stores as collatoral).

Even the great Sam Walton couldn’t find investors to start the 1st Walmart, on the back of a near-perfect record in retail.

The 1st Wal-Mart

Finally, the point where most people look at to learn, is the end of our story.

The 1st Walmart was an ugly retail store (8-foot ceilings, concrete floor, wooden fixtures) but it worked because Walmart’s prices always beat competitors.

(Even the name “Walmart” was selected with customer prices in mind: it was cheaper to buy neon signs for 7 letters than the longer names Sam considered.)

And you think Sam cared 2 cents about what anyone else thought about his stores?

The New York Times doesn’t mention Sam or Walmart until 1969, 7 years after the 1st store opening, and he’s just one random quote in the back of the paper:

And the Walmart 1970 IPO got a single mention on page 44 of the Times:

If you want to learn from entrepreneurs, look at the start not the finish.

Read more stories like this in my newsletter How It Actually Works.