The Secret to Breaking Out of the Box

As part of Steve Pavlina’s Million Dollar Experiment, participants claim to have manifested over 1.5 million dollars, just by wishing for it. Are they just fooling themselves? Or is there something different they’re doing? Is there something different that successful people do that the rest avoid? I think there is, and I knew what it was. And if I had just been thinking in those terms two weeks ago, things would have gone better for me.

I’m not about to suggest that whatever we want, all we have to do is to intend it, and we’ll get it. That’s preposterous. It’s the sort of hogwash you hear from slimy televangelists looking for a quick donation. Or marketing superstars promising to make your home business succeed. “All you have to do is buy my e-book and discover the secrets that have made millionaires. Or at least one millionaire: Me.”

Let’s be realistic here. For all of the secret connections they claim to have, let’s not be silly. Buyer beware. Get-rich-quick schemes do not work. Following one of these plans won’t bring wealth or happiness.

But what if it will? How does that change my world? How does it change the choices I make and the opportunities I pursue?

A resistible opportunity

As I said, I’m not about to suggest that whatever we want, if only we will it into existence, it will become ours. On the other hand, how often do we rule out choices because of our mistaken beliefs?

Let me tell you about what happened to me at work. Two weeks ago, one of our customers had a problem with our system. The way they had it configured, it generated a lot of files in one directory. Thousands of files. One particular feature, however, needs to identify which file was created at a given time, in order to view the file’s contents. So software then scans the entire directory, looking for files with the correct timestamp. Doing this with thousands of files in the directory takes a long time, tens of seconds. And performing this operation multiple times, which is a reasonable thing to do, is unacceptably slow.

So we all got together and talked about what we could do to fix it. I suggested a simple “directory cache,” which would store the directory listings in memory so that we wouldn’t have to go out and read from the disk every time. Memory is faster than disk. But then I noted, “That doesn’t really make much sense, though, The operating system should be storing all that data in its disk cache. The disk cache is in memory, so it shouldn’t need to read from disk over and over again. And even if it did, it’s not that much data. Does it really take that long to scan the directory, even if there are thousands of files in it?”

The answer came back affirmative. “Yes, it does.”

What if I had made this kind of stupid mistake in my own business? What if I had to eat the wasted effort?

I consider myself responsible. Not because I was in charge, because I wasn’t. Not because I made the decision, because I didn’t. We all agreed on the decision. I consider myself responsible, because, damn it, I should have known better. Remember that I’m writing this in retrospect, and I’m telling you now, I asked the very questions that needed to be answered back then. But I myself didn’t even think about answering them. This anomaly was more a curiosity to me. But I too had witnessed enough curiosities with this particular operating system such that I missed not a beat. I began working on the directory cache.

If you are a software engineer, you hopefully see the folly. However, we had a room full of software engineers, and none of us saw the folly. This is what we deride as “premature optimization.” How do you know that scanning the directory is slow, if you haven’t actually measured it? What if it isn’t? How does that change the way you approach the problem?

Because we had already decided what we wanted the answer to be, we didn’t consider any of the other alternatives. It wasn’t until I had completed work on the directory cache that I even asked whether we had reproduced the customer’s setup, so that we could demonstrate the problem the customer was experiencing, so that we could tell whether our fix would help. As it turns out, our system has deeper problems than just scanning the directory. The directory cache does speed things up a little, but we don’t know whether it will actually address the problem our customer is having.

A liberating thought

Later, I asked myself, What if I had made this kind of stupid mistake in my own business? What if I had to eat the wasted effort? It’s always easier when someone else pays for the bungling.

And ironically, it’s also easier when someone else benefits from it. It’s easier not to pursue opportunities that may be open to us, because we can always choose to believe they’re not for us. We can always slough off our wasted opportunities onto someone else.

I once got a call from a recruiter for a job opening a friend of mine might have liked. So I asked my friend if he’d like me to put him in touch. He politely declined. He said he believe in fate. If a recruiter happened to call him up, he’d politely take the call. But he didn’t want a referral. Those of us who have worked with recruiters to keep our careers on track see how silly this is. It’s fate when a recruiter somehow calls him, perhaps accidentally dialing the wrong number, but it’s not fate when that same recruiter happens to get in touch with me? But for my friend, this was his reality. He was shutting off a whole set of career opportunities through his beliefs.

How many of us have toyed with the idea of starting our own business? But there’s always some reason why we’d rather not, or at least explore it at a snail’s pace. Lately, for me, it’s been that I don’t have the investment capital. Which is true, kind of. But what if I do have the capital? Or what if I don’t need as much as I thought? What if I can get into the market some other way?

Pam Slim on her excellent blog Escape from Cubicle Nation notes several reasons why people avoid taking the entrepreneurial leap. And if you’re taking the entrepreneurial leap yourself, your friends and family will have many more objections. But they all come down to one issue: Each of us has a preconceived notion of what makes him happy. You enjoy your corporate status. What if you enjoy non-corporate status more? A corporate job is stable. What if running your own business is more stable? Being an employee helps your career. What if being an entrepreneur helps your career more?

I used to think I’d never make any significant money by blogging. If I was lucky, I though, I could make back what I spend for web hosting. I can’t get enough visitors, and I couldn’t earn enough revenue to make a living. I’m not Steve Pavlina or Darren Rowse. I don’t have an expertise everyone wants to hear about. And I’d hate running a dozen blogs in order to make ends meet. I rarely verbalized these thoughts. But that didn’t matter. I believed them. And so I wasn’t even looking for ways to pursue these opportunities.

But what if reality is different? What if I can make a living by blogging? What if I can get enough traffic? What if I can monetize that traffic? What if I do have an expertise a large group of netizens wants to hear about? What if I would enjoy running multiple blogs?

What a liberating thought! After considering these questions, I see that I might be able to. Or if I couldn’t, I would be able to fail fast, risking very little trying it out. I’m not sure I want to pursue this idea. But I’m no longer just shutting it out.

Dream big

I’ve just begun reading The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart by Maxine Clark, the founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop®. This book especially interested me because of my own experience with Build-A-Bear Workshop.

I was introduced to the company by my younger daughter, after one of her friends got a stuffed toy there. She pointed out the commercial: It’s where best friends are made. So for her next birthday, we got her a gift certificate to Build-A-Bear Workshop. I still get a little mushy inside remembering how she picked which toy she wanted, chose what music it would play, stuffed it, and put in its heart, bringing the little bear to life. If you have a little one yourself, you no doubt understand perfectly.

We spent over $50 there that day, on a single stuffed bear and a bunch of accessories. Oh, the accessories! Did I mention the accessories? Talk about monetizing the idea. I paid more for accessories than for the bear itself. And I’d do it again. I’d do it again tomorrow, if I could justify spending another $50 on another stuffed toy.

Maybe someday I will, just for me, again visit Build-A-Bear Workshop. For now, I’m basking in the wisdom of Ms. Clark’s story, as it begins:

People often ask how I was able to take the rough idea for Build-A-Bear Workshop and turn it into such a successful business. Above all, it started when I simply allowed myself to dream. And I’m a true believer in dreaming big.

Since the very beginning, I didn’t put restrictions on my vision, nor did I let the way others made or sold stuffed animals stand in my way. Instead, I allowed myself to dream of this unique business going from one store at the Saint Louis Galleria to something that could be as huge as I thought it could be. My dream eventually came true, and continues to evolve even beyond my wildest imagination. But you must start by believing you can truly achieve whatever you set your mind to, no matter how monumental it might seem.

Most people don’t do that. They stymie themselves and their ideas with negative thoughts. They’re so caught up in what they can’t do that they don’t think about how much they can accomplish. As Marianne Williamson wrote in Return to Love, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.”

The secret to breaking out of the box is to dream. Don’t be afraid to dream. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be held back by your own doubts. Don’t be held back by others’. Dream big and dream real. And then keep trying different methods to fulfill your dream.

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