I recently listened to a podcast with authors Kamal Ravikant and James Altucher. In it, Ravikant told the story of his pilgrimage walking the 550-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain. He talked about his journey and all the sights and experiences that taught him lessons along the way.

 
Photo from the Camino de Santiago (Credit: swkeese.com/blog)

During the interview, Altucher made an interesting comment on the concept of taking a pilgrimage. He said that in today’s world, amazing travel experiences can simply be purchased. His example was that someone could hop in a plane and go see the Maldives — one of the most beautiful island chains in the world.

 
The Maldives (Credit: virginholidays.co.uk)

But a pilgrimage can’t be shortcutted, because it’s about a journey not a destination. Hopping on a plane to the end of the Camino de Santiago would simply be visiting a destination. To reap all the benefits you have to experience the journey of getting there.

While listening to this, it got me thinking about the similarities between following a long, difficult physical path like the Camino de Santiago and the long, difficult path of defining and running a business.

In both cases there’s of course a level of personal meaning and growth that can be attained, but there’s also a very practical understanding to be gained as well. An accumulation of knowledge about the areas along the path and how they all connect to one another.

Also in both cases, there is a natural desire to speed up the process — to “hack” our way to the finish line before our energy, money…and patience run out. But if we do this, we may lose out on critical insights of the journey itself.

How do we as entrepreneurs and business leaders reconcile this struggle between the long path and the desire for shortcuts?

The Long Journey of Running a Business

It’s easy to see the comparisons of running a business with going on a long, physical trek.

It requires an incredible amount of mental toughness to keep putting one foot in front of the other every single day — often not even knowing just how far you have left to go.

Nothing is handed to you. Everything you get has to be earned.

Along the way there are milestones, landmarks, and lessons to experience that you simply can’t get through any other means than the journey itself.

Sometimes there are spectacular views, and other times there’s simply more path.

If you stick to it though, you will ultimately get to see all the areas that make up that path.

Sometimes you’ll be paying close attention to what’s around you — in fact you often need to force yourself to pay close attention, otherwise you may walk by something interesting without even realizing it.

But, because you followed a path, you can always circle back if necessary.

You also start to see the connections between the areas you’ve seen and understand how they relate to one another. You see the journey as an interconnected whole, rather than a series of independent moments or locations.

Sometimes you’ll want to forget certain experiences. Other times, you’ll want to pause and really dissect something that catches your eye.

Throughout all of it, you’re driven by an envisioned future of what could be achieved — not just at the end, but through the journey itself. That the experience will pay off in some significant way. In the case of a business, that your journey could have a huge impact on lots of people — and almost certainly yourself.

But these benefits don’t come easy, and after a while on the path, shortcuts can start to look pretty attractive.

The Desire for Hacks and Shortcuts

So, as we move along that long, slow path of running a business, we can’t help but feel triggers to skip some of the struggle and find “hacks” to bypass certain sections. You might be tired of the grind, you might be running low on resources, or you might see rocky terrain on the horizon that you’d rather not deal with.

Some of that desire is simply practical. Whether you’re bootstrapping or have investor money, resources are almost always tight. Your bankroll is your canteen, and time is of the essence. You only have a certain amount of “water”, and when it runs out, your journey is over.

 

This pressure can leave you looking for any sort of advantage that can ease the burden of the journey.

We also have unprecedented levels of access to tools and shared knowledge from others via books, articles, podcasts, videos — all to help us bypass common pitfalls. They allow us to learn from the history of others to avoid making mistakes ourselves.

All of them are meant to help us “hack” our way through, over, and around the struggles of the long path — and keep from reinventing the wheel.

As part of this evolution of shared information though, we start to see not just “wheels” being shared, but scooters, skateboards, bikes…even jetpacks (or so they say).

So, what’s the harm in tapping into the benefits of these tools and shared knowledge? Aren’t they a natural benefit of the times we live in?

The Dark Side of Hacks

The problem with taking big leaps along our path is that we can end up missing out on critical learnings. You start thinking about a great place to land without knowing the direction you’re jumping.

Hacks and shortcuts are typically presented by subject matter experts. These are folks that have put in years of their own work and therefore should be worthy of our trust. They’ve already walked their path. That’s what makes them an expert.

And these experts aren’t (for the most part) looking to deceive you or act maliciously. Most of them are trying to provide genuine value.

However, hacks by nature rely on simplification or conflation of complex concepts. The inner details of the concepts may be extremely well understood by the expert presenting it, but those experts then have to make decisions around which parts of the concept they’re actually going to share. If they included everything it would cease to become a hack at all.

These hacks are also presented from a very specific point of view — namely from someone seeking to sell you on their way of thinking, or maybe selling you on an actual product.

(NOTE: Yes, writing an article that shares advice around the possible issues of sharing advice is extremely meta. Thank you for noticing! :D)

The real danger is when someone consumes a hack strictly on face value and is never fully aware of the details that helped fuel it. So, if the hack works as expected, great! But if it doesn’t work perfectly, they’re left without the understanding to retrace their steps or look deeper into the problem — and may feel compelled to run off in search of the next “hack” or tactic that promises to get them quick results.

This process can end up leaving you on a path without knowing quite how you got there and which way to go next. And a path of shortcut after shortcut might end up just circling you back over the same territory again and again without making any real progress.

In other words, a shortcut, once intended to save time, could end up costing much more than sticking to the original, “slower” path.

A Balanced Path

So, what’s the sweet spot between the slow, challenging trek of building a strong business — and the smart use of tools and knowledge to increase the odds of success before your runway runs out?

There’s no perfect answer to this as its dependent both on the particular experience of the individual consuming the hack as well as the quality of the hack itself.

That being said, here are a 5 ideas to consider when evaluating your own business journey and whether a potential hack might be helpful:

  • How far along are you on your journey? Advice on growth, for example, won’t be useful if you haven’t solidified your product/market fit.
  • Have you documented the direction of your business? It’ll be extremely difficult to apply a hack if you don’t have the ingredients required by the hack clearly defined in some format. This is also important for tracking change and improvements over time.
  • What’s the context of the hack? Hopefully the author specifies the audience they’re aiming to reach. Certain types of hacks might work great for a digital product but not so much for a service industry or brick and mortar business.
  • Is the hack based on strong fundamentals? A shortcut that enhances or makes better use of fundamental business elements is much different than one that claims you can skip defining that stuff completely. For example, there’s no point optimizing a website landing page if you don’t really know the need you’re fulfilling for your customers.
  • Do you understand all the elements within the hack? If the author is using terminology or language you’re unfamiliar with, take the time to dig in and learn about those elements before you attempt to implement it. Again, if you don’t, whether it succeeds or fails you’re unlikely to ever know why, and that significantly limits its use in the long run.

There’s certainly more that could be added to this list (leave a comment if you have an idea for another hack guideline!). But the theme is about knowing not just how to do something, but understanding why it may or may not work.

Embracing the Journey

When it comes to running a business, we all have visions of some day swimming in those crystal blue waters of the Maldives (at least figuratively, if not literally).

It’s important to know, though, that even if you somehow managed to skip most of your trek and simply landed at that destination it’s likely to be a brief vacation…possibly with a brutal hangover.

We can and should use tools and knowledge to help us along the way, but real business success still requires embracing that long, often difficult path.

The experience you gain by taking the time to understand the core elements of your business and how they all fit together are what make your business strong and provide lasting value.

A Tool to Help You Get Started

If you do want some help with the direction of your business or are just curious, we have a free worksheet for defining your company’s Purpose. Please note, this is not a hack or a shortcut — it’s a structure that’s designed to help you outline the Core Purpose, Values, Vision, and Big Goals for your business without wasting time or going in circles along the way.

Taking the time to write those things down is great step toward a stronger understanding of where your business is headed and how you’ll get there.

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