The other day, a friend who works in robotics posted an Instagram of a 3D printer at work.
If you’re not familiar with 3D printers, they add layers of molten materials, one layer at a time.
Over and over and over again.
Until they make virtually any object you want.
There is massive potential for what they can build.
But they are a metaphor for life because of the way they work.
The printer slowly builds up.
It can’t go faster because there has to be time for the material to dry.
Before adding the next layer.
Watching that video reminded me of all the people I’ve seen solve really big problems.
It reminded me of my own experience building Interact.
It is very much a 3D-printer type of process.
One layer at a time.
And so, I’ve identified 11 elements for going after the most challenging problems.
Here they are, in random order.
Meaning: Showing up every day and producing
“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop” —Confucius
If you read philosophers and leaders throughout history, they all come to nearly the same conclusion.
The way to get the things you want in life is to keep going in a measured way.
This makes sense logically: if you want to go a very far distance, you don’t run; you walk.
You could run for maybe a few hours if you’re in great shape, but if you walk eight hours a day, every single day, you’ll go way farther.
The base layer of tackling big problems is creating a system where you can slowly and sustainably work away at them.
Meaning: Not giving up when you hit impassible roadblocks
Our first customer at Interact wasn’t a subscription customer. It was someone we found on Upwork who needed a custom quiz built.
We charged them $150, which after all the work we did meant we made about $3/hour.
That customer was never happy with their quiz and didn’t pay.
After nine months, our first subscription customer signed up for a $99/month account, and we were so excited.
They canceled after a month.
And no one else signed up for a few more months.
Both of those setbacks were hard and debilitating. Honestly, they left us feeling like maybe we weren’t doing the right thing.
In retrospect, I have two thoughts:
- If we had decided to move on to something else, that would have been okay. Perhaps we’d be working on something else that we enjoy.
- Anything worth doing will go through times when it just doesn’t seem like it will work out. I’ve observed this pattern at Interact and in people who do incredible things in their lives.
The circumstance could be an athlete facing injury, an entrepreneur getting sued, or a YouTuber under imminent pressure from a big corporation that just doesn’t like them. Nothing is certain, and there will inevitably be times when the other side of a problem is out of sight.
The people who persist are the ones who can look at a seemingly hopeless situation and see the potential for a solution on the other side.
Meaning: Showing up every day and producing, even when panic issues are happening
The only certainty is uncertainty.
That is very easy to say flippantly, much harder to internalize and push through.
One of my biggest regrets in building Interact is that the moment we started getting paying customers, my focus scattered into a million pieces.
Everyone wants to make money and have customers, but after talking to thousands of entrepreneurs, we all have the same experience. As soon as people start paying, there’s a constant barrage of messages.
Some will be encouraging and happy, while others will be angry and upset. Some will even come from people who treat you like a therapist, exposing you to deep personal issues, which, frankly, ends up being A LOT.
Once we entered this phase, I stopped creating space for producing content and reaching out to people, and it had detrimental effects on our growth over time.
I wish I’d known that some people will say mean things, no matter how amazing a product or service.
There will always be something “on fire” (which has not stopped to this day). And the fires get bigger and scarier the more success you have.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t show up every day and produce work I enjoy. In fact, when I set aside time to show up every day and produce, those big scary things don’t feel quite as scary.
Meaning: Applying your full mental capacity to the work being produced
“I took myself to a cabin for a week to sort it out.” —Quinn Tempest
This quote is from a recent episode of the Creator Stories podcast, in which Quinn talks about making space to be fully present at work while sorting out some complicated tasks in her company.
While going to a cabin in the middle of nowhere is one way to go about this, another way could be simply committing to a daily ritual to create presence.
For me, it’s candles, a blanket, and a couch in the early morning hours, which is when I sit down to write for an hour.
Yoga is another effective ritual to create presence, and I highly recommend it if you’re struggling in this regard.
Meditation also helps.
Meaning: Creating regular checkpoints and defining what progress means
This year, we deleted 200 of my blog posts from the early days of Interact. I wrote them because blogs were working to drive signups, and so it seemed like a logical step. However, we didn’t measure to see if the new blog posts actually did anything.
Which, down the road, resulted in our deleting them, erasing thousands of hours of work.
The lesson is to simply pay attention and see what’s working and what isn’t. It doesn’t have to be complicated—just know what your metrics of success are and measure against them. Like a science experiment, which I was terrible at, but now it all makes sense 🙂
Meaning: Identifying inefficiencies and solving them one at a time
There is only so much you can fix in a day. Your brain and mental energy eventually run out. When I observe people who set out to do too much in a day, they end up falling short. The reality is, there is a finite amount of time in a workday, and success shouldn’t be measured on how much you add to your plate.
It’s much better to take on a big problem one piece at a time. Think of it like clearing a road of boulders so you can drive on it. If there are hundreds of boulders and you remove two per day, you’ll get there in a year. The other option is removing all of the boulders in a week, hurting yourself, and having to stop entirely.
I’d much rather spend a year slowly removing boulders than fail.
Meaning: Refocusing your mental capacity on things completely outside of your work
Pretty much everyone who goes after big problems has hobbies to take their mind off work, to refocus on something else entirely. I know a lot of people who play sports, workout, or read consistently.
These are all things that can take up your mind space, but in a super different way, so you can come back to your work with fresh perspective and renewed energy.
Meaning: Fully engaging in activities that replenish your energy
Many creators tell me they’re not diligent about taking time to rest.
I won’t get into all the negative effects of not resting. Just google “What happens when you don’t sleep enough” and follow an internet rabbit hole into a world of fear that will make you want to drop everything and sleep for four days.
Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a time for pushing: in business, there are seasons when it just makes sense to go really fast for a while, and that’s okay. However, I see people falter when working at an unsustainable pace becomes the norm.
It’s a long game, or, in Dorie Clark’s words, a Loooooooooong Game (great book, I highly recommend). So, the real question is, “How do I set myself up to work on this problem every day for the next three years?” Rather than, “How do I get this fixed in the next week?”
From what I observe, these paths diverge quickly.
I see new businesses come along all the time, where the entrepreneurs want to fix things in weeks or days.
They create massive amounts of content, send sales emails, build product, and, honestly, it’s really good a lot of the time. It even seems impressive. But a year or two later, these companies are nowhere to be found.
But when I see people publishing or creating regularly, and they’ve been doing it for a while with consistent improvement in the quality of their work, they often end up bubbling to the top after five to ten years. These are the people who show up in the major publications and get the big, life-altering payouts.
Meaning: Making space for yourself and placing distractions in the passengers’ seat
Did you know that when you are scared, your IQ can drop by 50%?
Now juxtapose that to the concept that many people create businesses because they are trying to prove themselves. This, of course, comes from a place of fear: “Am I good enough to be accepted?”
And this leads to a conundrum because if you’re operating out of a place of fear, your ability to perform actually decreases. From my observations and experience, there is no easy way to get past this one. It is difficult.
I’ve found that people who are successful at solving their biggest problems create calm space for themselves. Maybe it’s a few hours of quiet time every day, without distraction, when they feel safe to get work done.
Of course, there’s something to be said for working on the core issue of why we feel like we have to prove ourselves, but that is a long game. Creating calm space to work on big problems is a way to get there.
Meaning: The feeling that you will be okay if your work completely fails
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African proverb
Over the last 10 years, I have spoken to thousands of entrepreneurs who have built businesses from nothing and, in some cases, have created multi-generational wealth.
A common element among every successful founder is that they have a close-knit group of peers who they connect with regularly. No one is a lone wolf, at least from what I have seen.
Meaning: People you trust expressing their support of your work
In Oprah’s book, What Happened to You, she talks about her guests over the years. After every interview, she says her guests want to know how they did. No matter how big or successful we are, we just want to know that we did a good job.
The same is true when we’re working on a problem. There is something extraordinarily powerful about being in the middle of a big problem-solving process and having another person see your work and say, “You’re doing great. Keep it up.”
This type of feedback gives us reassurance to keep going, reassurance that our hard work is steering us in the right direction.
For this post, I drew from my own experiences solving long-term problems (specifically during my 10 years building Interact) and by observing truly incredible people accomplish gargantuan feats.
Take what you will and leave the rest. I hope it helps!