What Mistake Do Most People Make When They Decide What To Do?


Wednesday, 9.23pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation – Henry David Thoreau

We all know people who go to work and then come home and do what they really want to do.

They make furniture, work on home improvement projects, sell things on Ebay.

Others find ways to pass the time – TV, sports.

And along the way we have ideas – ideas for businesses that we might like to start.

And, of course, some of those ideas might be at work.

Now, think about how one might think when trying to decide what to work on?

Some people focus on the importance of market research – going out and talking to consumers.

That might work – although you must keep in mind that Henry Ford aphorism that his customers would have told him they wanted faster horses.

Others believe that they have something that people will definitely want – and they pour time and money and significant chunks of their lives into the project.

And sometimes that works out and often it doesn’t.

The mistake we’re making, perhaps, is looking outside ourselves.

Consider this – how well do you know yourself?

If you were to ask yourself what you liked, what you disliked, what you really wanted out of life – how many of those things do you really know clearly, completely?

Most of the time we find it hard to know what we want.

So, when we get out of our own heads and try to understand what other people want – surely it’s going to be harder?

And if we take one more step – going from thinking about what people want from the things they can have right now to thinking about the things they would want that they don’t already have – surely we’re simply stumbling around in the dark?

When you really think about it what are the chances that you’ll come up with something that the majority of people will embrace wholeheartedly?

Well – judging from the proportion of startups that make it big – fairly small.

Which is why it makes sense to turn the approach around.

Why do you go on holiday?

Because you’d like to visit the place you’re going to and believe you’re going to have a good time.

Why do you work on your house – build an extension or put in a new kitchen?

Probably because you believe you’ll use the space or find that you really like having those self-closing doors.

In these everyday situations you’re doing something because you want to have the benefits of doing the activity – the experience, the space, the stuff.

And so that leads us to a principle, articulated by Eric Allman – the inventor of sendmail.

“One general principle of software engineering is that you should be writing a program that you want to use.”

And in that statement I think lies the secret what we should work on.

If you’re a manager looking to get the best out of people you should design systems and processes that you want to work on yourself.

A manager who reluctantly gives up the fun of doing the work to engaged and motivated staff has created a different system to one that needs bullying and threats to get anything done.

If you work in the knowledge business you know that it’s overrun by people who think they need to do things because it is what other people want.

From trying to create new apps to learning how to spam people better – it’s all about perfecting some kind of interruption based selling process.

But, if you work on something you really want yourself – then there is a good chance that other people will want it as well.

And if you’re an engineer the fun is in taking things apart and building them – really understanding the internals rather than just using some shiny thing that someone else has made.

And you might avoid making the mistake of building for an anonymous “market” and instead create something of real value to yourself and others.


Karthik Suresh

p.s Some of the ideas in this post were inspired by links in Arnold Robbin’s site – the maintainer of Gnu Awk.

He links to a few interesting articles but they’re broken, so see links below.

The dumbing down of programming Part 1

and here is

part 2

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