The Pragmatist and The Visionary

Their offices were gorgeous. Beautiful wood tables, art on the walls. Employees milling about. It didn’t feel like an office. It felt like a workshop. It didn’t feel like things were being produced, it felt like things were being crafted. It felt special. 

How does this happen?

I went to New York the other day and got dinner with a good friend of mine who also happens to be the CEO of an awesome company. They’re well funded, run by guys who are about my age but dropped out of school. I’ve been to their offices before, but somehow walking in this time it felt different. It felt like things were happening, like they were really working on something important. 

I’ve know their CEO for about a little over a year, before any of this had happened. Back then it was just three guys working in a dorm room. A year ago they were in the same position that I’m in now. Talking to him even then it was clear he had a big vision. He also had a plan for how to get it done.

But it got me thinking: how does that happen? We’ve been working on Airtime for about 7 months now and we’re grinding it on it every day. My goals for it are simple and pragmatic: build it up enough so that we can support ourselves with it full time. That means cold emailing customers, refining the product and trying to get the word out however we can. But the question still remains: how do I get from where I am to where they are? 

Obviously the fact that they raised a lot of money helped. But I don’t think that’s the full story. I don’t think the way he got from his dorm room to something special is just investors. Success is not equivalent to money raised. I think the key for world-altering success as an entrepreneur lies in maintaining a balance between two personalities: the visionary and the pragmatist.

We all know visionaries. They’re the guys (or girls) that always have zillions of ideas that they’re working on. Generally their ideas are great. And they’re passionate about all of them. But somehow they never end up doing any of them. You hear things like, “Well I was going to get going on it but then…” or “That was really cool but now I’m working on something even cooler…” 

In a way these guys are their own worst enemies. They have so many things going on that they just can’t pick one to work on. They’re paralyzed by choice. Pure visionaries end up standing at the docks of opportunity while the ships bearing their dreams sail out of sight.

Pragmatists are very different. They don’t do anything unless they can justify it rationally. They generally have very little problem focusing on one thing at a time. But the problem with pragmatists is that very often they work on opportunities that make sense from the beginning: low competition, low risk opportunities with smaller markets. 

Once he finds an opportunity the pragmatist wastes no time executing. He hammers and hammers away at it, continually optimizing and refining until things are running perfectly. But even though he’s doing everything right, there’s a problem. Very often the thing that he chose to work on at the beginning (because rationally it made sense) has a low ceiling. He can definitely make money, but he can’t change the world with it.

When I was little I used to go to sleep away camp every summer. A lot of the time at summer camp was boring. So to entertain ourselves, like any good 10 year old, we used to burn shit. From an early age you learn from whispers at the cafeteria that if you hold a magnifying glass at the right angle relative to the sun you can burn ants and leaves. You can even start full-fledged fires with it.

Burning shit with a magnifying glass is exactly what world-class entrepreneurs do.

Think about it like this. The visionary is like the sun. The sun dissipates huge amounts of energy, but it has no direction. It spews the energy everywhere, and ends up not lighting any one thing on fire but heating up a lot of different things. The same is true of a visionary: they spread their energy out so much that they never end up accomplishing anything. They just generate some warmth every once in a while.

The pragmatist is like a guy with a magnifying glass. Except instead of using the sun as his energy source, he’s using a flashlight. He spends all of his time focusing the tiny amount of light from the flashlight into a little dot with his magnifying glass. Finally he gets it at just the right angle. But not much really happens. He gets a little smoke, but his 6-legged target, far from blowing up in a blaze of insectoid goo, lives to fight another day perhaps slightly singed.

A world-class entrepreneur is like the sun and a magnifying glass. He or she has the passion and energy necessary to do great things. But he also has the focus and direction to get them done. He focuses his passion into such a tiny dot, that suddenly a fire springs up. And if tended correctly that fire becomes a blaze that becomes bigger than he is. If tended correctly that blaze leaves a giant scorch on the earth. 

And that’s what changing the world is all about.

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29 Mar 2012, 6:50pm | 6 comments


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