Horses or Carts: What Comes First?
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the sources of value in our lives, and how we often confuse symptoms for causes. The wise saying goes, “Don’t put your cart before your horse”, in other words, you can't move forward if you’re focusing on the wrong thing. This problem manifests itself in so many different aspects of our lives, which I’ll outline here. This essay is about how to identify and nourish the horse.
Pimp My Ride Mania
In 2004, MTV (Music Television) launched what would become the hit show, Pimp My Ride. Essentially, the cast finds a beat-up, “car in need” belonging to a deserving average Joe, and in a few days, totally transforms the vehicle to match the unique personality of the owner. No expenses were spared as the cars would be decked out with custom interiors, flat screens in the trunk, etc. Then something happened.
Not too much time after Pimp My Ride became a smashing hit, I began noticing more and more cars on the road, sporting bigger rims, fancy paint jobs, and yes, completely useless TVs. “That’s cool.” I remember thinking at the time. But it’s not until now, that I really think I've grasped why there was such an emphasis on looking like a baller on the road.
Vehicles have always been somewhat correlated with wealth. Whether it's the pedigree of your horse, or the size of your rims, traveling in style is what the rich and famous (not all) do with extra cash. Yet, it’s not uncommon to see someone who makes just enough to cover basic necessities like food and rent, go into debt to buy bigger rims for their car. Why?
The confusion here is quite literally putting the cart (car) before the engine (horse). Having a fancy car with big rims and a custom paint job might make you look like a celebrity for a moment, but unless you’re actually famous, you’re really just a normal guy in a car, pretending to be something you’re not. In other words, it's not the car that makes you famous.
In America, it’s a “free country” and people can spend the money they earn how they wish. I’m no exception to splurging on expensive things that add no practical value in my life. I’m only observing that this is something I want to improve.
The "Pimp My Ride phenomenon" is everywhere. Expensive brand-name clothes, job titles, and the neighborhood you live, are all hollow signals of value. If you like to pay attention to these things, that’s fine, so long as you understand you’re looking at the cart. Understanding where real value comes from is the ability to see the horse.
There are few places better to confuse yourself with sources of value than online. Social networks like Instagram and Twitter allow users to accumulate followers and track metrics that communicate buckets of info without actually saying anything.
Businesses struggle to measure the ROI from such activities, because the value is extremely elusive. I might look at someone with 150K Twitter followers, and think, “Gosh! That person must be important.” and click the follow button. Yes, that’s how how it happens, but once again, these are the wrong signals.
In Dr. Martin Luther King’s, 1963 I Have A Dream speech, he talks about judging people for the content of their character. Thanks to the power of curation, our Facebook and Instagram feeds have become the highlight reels of our lives. We measure impact by the number of likes or favorites, instead of the deeper morality behind what we share. I spend five to ten minutes editing a picture, for what?
People have good bullshit detectors. It’s why we can sniff out an online get-rich-quick scam, or see through advertisements. Yet, somehow, as a society, we just accept it. When I hear an ad for tires, like I just did while writing this article, I know that whoever made that commercial could care less about me. In fact, they don’t even know me and they want my business. Well I say, no deal.
You know what resonates even more than super cute selfies? Authenticity. After three years of blogging about my life on the Internet, I’ve found the very best way to connect with people and make real impact is to present my authentic self. I don’t need your highlight reel to like you, I just want to see you. If this sounds obvious, kudos, but it took a long time for me to learn. Posting a photo of myself in front of the Eiffel Tower isn’t brave. Courage is found in showing the real me, the horse.
Do Business With Horses
My entire professional career has been in Silicon Valley, a notoriously superficial place. I love the energy though, and that’s why I'm here, but it’s important to discern the crap from what’s really relevant.
I used to go to as many conferences as I could. If I wasn’t there, I felt like I was missing out on all of the industry’s best-kept secrets. I still attend the occasional meetup or lecture, but panel after panel, I'd walk away from a conference with an empty feeling. "Maybe it's just me," I thought. I must be missing something. But conferences are a celebration of carts.
Real work gets done in the shed behind the shop. As soon as I see big stages, fancy production, and highly-sought-after speakers, I feel like a bug being lured towards a bright light. Is my presence at such an event really helping the people I want to serve? As a business, how will my participation help my customers?
Here’s a fun fact: “According to US Department of Labor figures, only 44 percent of newly-opened firms will last four years. Amish firms, on the other hand, have registered a 95% survival rate over a five-year period.” That’s a stat from Erik Wesner’s 2010 book, Success Made Simple. I'm not pointing fingers or naming names. I only want to illustrate that there’s tremendous power when you focus on the things that matter.
What are the real sources of value in your life? Who are the people, where are the places, and what are your most valued possessions? They’re hard questions only because there’s so much extra noise to filter through. Yet, they can be life-changing questions, because careful attention to even the smallest things of value can bring you immense joy.
I usually see through rose-colored glasses. In other words, I let my imagination get the best of me and listen to the wrong signals. My exploration in writing this essay is to show that what we think we see, might not always be true, and what we might be looking at instead, is the cart. Lately, I’ve been trying to find the humility and courage to see and nourish the horses. But again, I could be wrong, which is why I’ll leave it to you. What moves you?