Last Friday, I ate for three hours straight.
I was honored to be asked to serve as a judge for the annual Pick Tennessee products competition. My duty was simple: listen as food makers across the state pitched the benefits and highlights of their products to a panel of judges in hopes of being named Product of the Year. In five-minute blocks for an entire afternoon, I sampled cookies, sauces, granola, pies, biscuits, and coffee. It was a tough job (but someone had to do it).
Some of the makers had been honing their craft for years and had distribution in as many as 400 stores. Others were just beginning and were printing bottle labels at home, rather than as part of some major production in a large-scale facility. For the panel, however, longevity or reach didn’t matter. What did matter was a commitment to producing the best possible item you could and a dedication to keep getting better.
Nothing is fully baked
No matter how long we’ve been at something, if we’re leading or creating something we believe in, we want it to be the best it can be. But no hero of ours achieved excellence on the first try. Just because we humans tend to remember legacy as the final product of a life well lived, we mistakenly think that the greats were always great. In reality, the greats became great because they decided not to quit when they were really terrible.
The artist trying to make it faces this same dilemma. Here’s Ira Glass, host of This American Life articulating the tension between the art you want to make and the art you’re actually making:
The internet has said (I’ve heard several people reference this; I’m not gonna scour the entire web to find the originator) that we should never compare our start to someone else’s middle (or even their end). If I’m a new entrepreneur, why would I compare where I am now to where Richard Branson or Oprah Winfrey is now? Of course I’m nowhere close. While I can aspire to those heights, I know I’m not there yet. Better for me to stay on my level, keep getting better, and be open to guidance and improvement.
We need works in progress as role models
One of my most popular keynote speeches deals with the topic of young people and entrepreneurship. Whether it’s current college students launching a company while living on campus in a residence hall, or helping a large corporation understand why so many of their Millennial employees eventually want to begin their own venture, I encourage my listeners to help young people embrace entrepreneurship by steering them away from idolizing the likes of Zuckerberg or Beyonce.
We all know of those who have reached the pinnacle of success in their given field. Whether they write code or song lyrics, today’s media is saturated with success stories. But the worlds of leadership and entrepreneurship are bigger than mega-success.
- There’s the local dentist who runs a thriving practice and is home for dinner with his family each night.
- There’s the financial planner who launched her own firm and gets the chance to meet exciting new people every week.
- There’s the honey farmer who simply wanted a job that allowed her to raise her daughter in the country.
- There’s the candle maker who dreamed of a job where he’d get to spend more time with his wife.
I could go on. The above entrepreneurs are all people I personally know; I could list a hundred more. But each time I get to meet and listen to the ups and downs of any entrepreneur, I freely share my struggles and successes, too. While it feels great to get congratulated for making headlines, the reality is that it’s more important just to make progress.
Make sure your problems keep changing
When people ask how things at Batch are, I’ve stopped saying, “Great!” or “Busy.” Instead, I tell them that I’m thankful to still be on this ride, in the driver’s seat, with a bus full of people I love to work with. I also add, “The problems we have this year are not the problems we had last year.” To me, this is a good thing and proves we’re getting better as a team, living into our collective identity as a work in progress.
- Last year, we had to figure out how to scale back in markets that weren’t thriving. This year, we’re figuring our how to keep up with rapid growth in markets that are working.
- Last year, we had to figure out how to deliver quickly using a third party provider. This year, we’ve had to figure out how to fulfill everything in house.
- Last year, we had figure out how to drive people to our retail storefront. This year, we’re adjusting forecasts due to growing demand while also being aware of overall reliance on a single vertical.
And again, I could go on. Just because you grow and have more time under your belt doesn’t mean your problems disappear. Being a constant work in progress means problems will arise time and again and if you want to keep climbing toward better, then you simply can’t give up when you know you’re not as good as you can be.
How to work on progress
Whether you’re trying to lead a large team or you’re burning the midnight oil of a venture that is yours alone, we must remember that all of us are works in progress. Perfection isn’t the goal. Progress is.
Three ways that I remind myself I’m not done yet and that my team still has work to do.
Ask and you shall receive. While the highest standards that will ever be placed upon me will be those I create, I also ask for feedback from a select group that I trust to be honest with me and also want me to be the best entrepreneur and CEO I can. When they speak up and let me know how I can be better, I know they see me as a work in progress and want me to keep improving.
Resolve to get better
Once I hear how I can do better, I’ve got to commit to taking the steps to put those ideas into action. It’s called being a “work in progress” because you’ve got work to do. So don’t take your feedback and ideas and sit on them; get busy trying new things, pushing yourself into new areas and measuring how it’s all shaking out.
Feedback and resolve are not singular activities that happen once a year during a review or downtime. They are constant exercises that any leader must undertake on his or her journey toward company and self-improvement. So, be sure to ask for feedback and then make commitments based on it regularly. Perhaps this happens once a month at a routinely scheduled meeting or even more often based upon the speed of your company’s work and how it’s changing as things grow. Pay attention to all the ways you and your organization are works in progress and you’ll ensure that you actually are working toward progress.
Let’s be nice to each other, ok?
Remembering that you are a work in progress will also equip you with the grace and patience you need to work well with others, be they direct reports, colleagues, supervisors, vendors, customers, or investors. No one is done yet - nor should we expect them to be. This life is long, and some seasons are really difficult. The beauty is that it keeps going and we’ll all be better tomorrow than we are today.