Process vs outcome

If you’re stuck on a project and not making progress, ask yourself whether you’re focused on the process – or the outcome.

During any interview with someone who’s accomplished something impressive – published a book, won a major sports competition, started a company, and so on – someone always asks about process. “What’s a typical day like for you?” “How often do you practice? When?” “Do you write/paint/design on a computer, or on paper?”

It’s always interesting to glimpse into someone else’s life, especially a life that is just familiar enough to imagine, but not quite familiar enough to imagine accurately, but I think there’s more to this question. This question is also about success. If I, sitting in the audience or listening to the interview, can figure out how you, a successful person in an industry I’m interested in, achieved success, then maybe by replicating your process I can succeed as well.

I often work with new college graduates, just beginning professional careers, and this idea shows up there too. “What’s the right way to write this document?” someone might ask, or, “How much time do you spend on email?” Learning to work effectively is a key skill, and yet – embedded in this is that same assumption that identifying and replicating process will lead ultimately to success.

But what if it won’t?

Of course, in many contexts process is necessary. If you want to become an outstanding baker, you need to learn what’s involved in creating that perfect loaf of bread. If you want to sing opera, voice exercises can improve your technique. Success in many fields requires expertise; expertise requires practice; figuring out what to practice and how to do so makes sense.

And yet.

Process can also be a distraction.

Going back to the published author example: one person’s process might include writing for 45 minutes, every day, first thing in the morning. But if the outcome you’re looking for is to get published, writing daily won’t get you there unless you also write things a publisher might want, figure out who those publishers are, and send your work to them. In terms of getting published, it doesn’t matter how much or how perfectly you write if that’s all you do.

Similarly, if as a new hire you create a perfect document, but the team you’re working with prefers collaborative whiteboard sketching – well, whatever your perfect document was intended to achieve it likely didn’t.

And for one more example: if you want better physical fitness, and you go to the gym three times each week, and while you’re there you take a lot of stretching classes… you’ll likely get more flexible, but not stronger, or less out of breath when walking up large hills.

Process can help you achieve an outcome – but it’s rarely an outcome in itself. It may even get in your way, either by giving you a false sense of progress (“I’m writing every day, this is totally going to work!”), or by obscuring shortcuts that could lead to faster success (if your goal is “be able to do 20 pushups,” you probably don’t need to drive to the gym).

When a project is challenging, it can be tempting to think, “If I figure out how to work on this, everything will all work out!” But that’s often not the case.

Better to pause, take a step back, and ask: “Wait, what am I aiming at?”

And go from there.

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