After ten days of silent meditation, I powered up my iPhone to check my email, the first message was from Seth Godin – telling me I was picked for his short summer internship. An intense feeling of happiness shot through my body, and I had to read the email a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly:
I don’t need to wait until tomorrow–even though I got more than 3,500 applications and sat through more than 800 videos, putting you on the shortlist was an obvious choice. The hard part for me was narrowing down that short list of extraordinary people to a manageable cadre of superstars, visionaries and shippers who could wrangle this project into submission. I’ve never even come close to having a team like this on hand to build something cool. Write back and tell me you’re in, so I can publish the final team. Your commitment to your work, to your art, means the world to me, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to work with you. Yep, you’re in. Let me know for sure, and I’ll send you more details over the weekend. Here we go! Seth
Two weeks in Seth’s office, surrounded by 17 extraordinary individuals, were amazing. We sprinted through the internship, working tirelessly to create art, to create something that matters. I suspect this internship will be a highlight of my professional career for decades to come.
Some of my biggest takeaways from Seth’s internship were:
What do you want to fight for?
Having a clear vision helps you to execute. I want to make the world a better place is a good goal, but where do you start? I want to provide clean drinking water to those in need is a much narrower goal, and you could start by donating your birthday to charity: water. Clear and concise thought leads to actionable items.
Axes help you think
Framing your argument is crucial. Posing open, ambiguous questions to a table full of people leads inconclusive discussions. Framed discussions, where people are given a choice of A or B, help to solidify the direction of your project. Those high level, intellectual debates can be incredibly useful as you begin to form your thoughts – they just don’t help you move forward.
You can have the best idea in the world, but its meaningless unless you execute it. Set a deadline, be realistic about your goals and expectations, and send your project out into the world. Before you do, define what success is to you. Thinking and researching are useful to a certain point – make sure you ship your project. It’s hard to put yourself out there, you become vulnerable and open to criticism, but shipping is the only way to create, to build. Celebrate your shipping.
Fail Fast, Fail Small
Get feedback early and often. Work with trusted colleagues to help you refine your vision. Its a lot better to crush a project early on than to work on it for months and have nothing to ship. Small, quick failure is a good thing. It teaches you a lot. Its hard to open yourself up to failure, but its necessary to fail if you want to create something valuable.
It’s better to fail on a project after a few hours than spend months working on something in the dark.
While you want to ship a project quickly, the polish really does matter. Seth is a master at marketing, just look at any of his books. Polish is what gets people talking, what really surprises and delights them. When Seth published the Purple Cow he didn’t just send the first people who bought them a book. When the book arrived at your office it was put on your desk in a purple milk carton – imagine the watercooler conversations. (You can read Seth’s marketing plan for the Purple Cow here).
Writing a great book might have been enough to make the Purple Cow a bestseller; by delivering it in a clever and unique way Seth guaranteed his success.
Software is a lever
Software can help you to amplify your vision and connect with your audience is a deeper, more meaningful way. Can is an important word in this context, if your software isn’t elegant and intuitive it will be a distraction. Most people don’t notice good software, but they notice when software doesn’t work well.
According to wikipedia, paired programming is:
an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator, reviews each line of code as it is typed in.
Coming from a nontechnical background, I was completely unfamiliar with this style of working until Seth suggested I give it a try when I was stuck on a project. Sitting with someone looking over my shoulder, as I refined my project, forced me not just to work quickly but to work thoughtfully. Every sentence I wrote was questioned: was it necessary, could it be phrased better, would it achieve what we wanted it to? In the end it produced a great product quicker than I could have on my own.
Thrash and Push Back
Having a room full of people critique and tweak your idea can be intimidating. Putting your ideas and vision out there is tough. Your ideas become open to thrashing and push back. It is important to remember that you aren’t being challenged, just your ideas. Pishing back against other people’s ideas will force you to refine your vision – and improve it.
The Critical Path Method (CPM) is a project management tool that maps out what needs to be completed to finish a project. CPM contributed to the success of the Manhattan Project by helping to manage tasks. If, for example, the enrichment of uranium took 18 months, and all the other components of the atomic bomb could be finished in 17 months, then uranium enrichment would be the critical path. Regardless of how quickly you built the bomb casing, it wouldn’t be finished until the uranium was enriched.
When you’re working on the critical path, don’t deviate from your project because it will slow down the entire team. And when someone else is on the path, stay out of their way.
Sean O’Connor is a Fulbright Scholar and aspiring founder.
Image Credit: boingboing.net