What I learned about momentum from Will Smith and the wall metaphor

This week I reflected on a powerful metaphor told by actor Will Smith. I found this years ago, and I occasionally come back to it. It helps me avoid losing momentum. For convenience, I’ve transcribed his monologue here.

“You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say I’m gonna build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s even been built. You don’t start there. You say ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. There will not be one brick on the face of the earth that’s gonna be laid better than this brick that I’m gonna lay in this next 10 minutes’. And you do that every single day and soon you have a wall.”

During childhood, Smith and his brother built a brick wall. The task was done in after-school hours and took weeks if not months.

The wall metaphor is powerful for a few reasons:

• Breaking down impossible goals into manageable pieces.

• Building habits and creating momentum.

Breaking down impossible goals into manageable pieces

When you set out to achieve something great, the first reaction is ‘stop, that’s impossible’. You want to build a wall but you’ve never touched a brick in your life.

For you, in that moment, it is impossible. There’s no proof you can do it because you’ve never done it before. Breaking down challenges into small pieces helps overcome this. Which brick will you lay today?

The project starts at 0. No forward movement. Through sheer will you push it forward. You get the ball rolling. You lay the first brick.

Building habits and creating momentum

When you first start a new craft or hobby, it sucks. The first few reps go in the trash. You don’t have much to show for the effort. But, you do have something. You have momentum. And if you stop, you do lose something. You lose momentum.

Momentum is subtle. It’s hard to see it when you have it and when you don’t. To see it you have to look into the past and measure your performance. You have to look at your half-finished brick wall and admire the straight lines, the consistency.

I’ve experienced this first hand with writing and with running. I hit a stride and I’m raising the bar week after week. Then some curveball flies and knocks me off course. I stop writing/running.

Weeks go by. I come back and look at what I did just before stopping. I am amazed by what I had done. And I ask myself: why did I stop? Then I start the cycle again, regaining momentum. After taking a long break, the next brick is never laid to the previous standard.

My high school band teacher used to say: “skipping a day of practice is like losing a week of practice.” He understood momentum.

What I learned from wanting lifestyle changes but failing to commit

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Image from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/en/turtle-tortoise-swim-sea-turtle-863336/

A long time back I read a piece by Derek Sivers called “No Yes. Either HELL YEAH or No“. I never really applied it. The main idea is to say ‘no’ to more requests, and to sign up for exciting things. Things that excite you.

I haven’t applied the ‘HELL YEAH’ or ‘no’ strategy. I’m not quite ready for that. I have to deal with some ‘maybe’s first. I have applied a say ‘maybe’ less strategy. This has changed my lifestyle in positive ways.

It begins like this. While I get ready for bed, wife asks: ‘are you going running or going to the gym tomorrow?’. The best answer is ‘yes’. The second best answer is ‘no because [completely valid reason i.e. an early morning appointment]’.

The weak answers are ‘maybe’ or ‘we’ll see, ask me again in the morning’. These answers reek of procrastination.

Why is ‘maybe’ a weak response?

‘Maybe’ is uncertainty. You can’t effectively plan ahead because you’re not certain about what to plan for. Uncertainty is the enemy of confidence.

‘Maybe’ is commitment avoidance. The decision is deferred. You shrink a little bit inside and lose some confidence.

‘Maybe’ is confrontation avoidance. You don’t want to offend him by saying ‘no’. So you inflict him with uncertainty.

‘Maybe’ shows a lack of direction. Unclear goals and priorities. If you know your priorities you can more easily decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You become more decisive. And more confident.

It Works

It works. After I replaced ‘Maybe’ with ‘Yes’ I showed up at the gym more.


We haven’t gotten to the power of ‘no’ yet. Save that for next time..

What I learned from having too many ideas and too little time

Just before the twins were born I realized my time was more valuable than ever before. I shifted from adding to subtracting things to\from my life. Choosing what to add is hard enough, how do you choose what to subtract? At some point you find you can do everything you want at the same time, but you cannot do all of it well, and definitely not by yourself.

James Clear recently shared a powerful mental model with his email list. It’s a strategy for solving this same problem of choosing what to subtract. For helping you prioritize life and business. I personally struggle with prioritizing between ideas and activities, so James’ piece resonated. I re-read it several times and I think about it daily.

Photo of roses from our front yard.

In our front yard we have 4 waist high rose bushes. My favorite is the white one nearest the side-walk. If left on its own it grows into a leafy, thorny mess. Without pruning the branches choke each other out, wasting valuable resources like sunlight and water. And then as a result it’s flowers fail to bloom to their potential. Pruning is essential for beautiful, thriving roses.

The strategy shared by James calls for you to think of your life as a rose bush. Roses need to be pruned once a year, every year. Subtracting things from your life is like pruning branches. What do you prune? How much do you prune?

Pruning is uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to prune a perfectly healthy branch. The branch goes the wrong direction, competes with, or conflicts with another nearby branch. Similarly in life you might have to prune things you like but aren’t going the right direction. Pruning is necessary in order to make space for something with more growth potential.

I am seemingly always out of time for hobbies and pursuing ideas. Writing, running, reading, etc all compete for limited time. And there’s not much time left after factoring in a career and other important things like family, relationships. Making space for ideas to really blossom requires pruning away some good branches.

You can have anything you want, but most things worth having require some kind of sacrifice.

What I learned from mediocrity

How to Stand Out

Do you hope to be outstanding? Do you hope to stand out? Hope is not enough. Hope will not cause a sack of outstanding to land in your lap. Hope is not a strategy.

To stand out you must craft, do work, create. Artists and entrepreneurs. Hackers and painters. Creators reshape their world to match their dreams. The rest of us let the world reshape our dreams.

Lots of people have ideas. Ideas are cheap. Few people execute on ideas. The graveyard is the richest place on earth. It’s filled with unwritten books, unbuilt companies, unsong songs, unshipped products.

Many conversations go like this:

“I had an idea and I worked on an app.”

“Is it on the App Store? Can I use it?”

“No, I never took it that far”

No excuses. Ship it. Publishit. Build a portfolio of work. Take a risk to put your imperfect creation out there. You will experience a fear of criticism. There is a tiny group of fans to cheer you on. To overcome this fear realize almost no one knows who you are and even fewer know about your work.

Become a creator now, and thousands of hours later you will find acclaim. Until then you will crave real feedback. There is no overnight success. People are rewarded in public for what they’ve practiced for years in private.

Creators are stand out. Outstanding creators crave feedback. Document what you’re doing. Ask for comments. Appreciate every bit of feedback. And engage with anyone who generously gives you their attention.

Do deep work. Create work that evokes emotions. If no one feels emotional connection to your work, no one cares that it exists (besides you). Experience the joy of human connection, connect with people through your work. What makes it all worth it? The joy of human connection.

Then you will stand out…

“I do not choose to be a common man.
It is my right to be uncommon … if I can.
I seek opportunity … not security.
I do not wish to be a kept citizen,
Humbled and dulled by having the State look after me.
I want to take the calculated risk,
To dream and to build. To fail and to succeed.
I refuse to barter incentive for a dole;
I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence;
The thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of Utopia.
I will not trade freedom for beneficence
Nor my dignity for a handout
I will never cower before any master
Nor bend to any threat.
It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid;
To think and act for myself,
To enjoy the benefit of my creations
And to face the world boldly and say:
This, I have done.”

Dean Alfange (1952)

What I learned from struggling to make an impact

Looking for a new challenge, project responsibilities? Look inward to yourself. Strive to become a jack of all trades, and a master of one. Be responsible, manage yourself. YOU are the project.

Want to have more impact? What you do at night after work is even more important than what you did all day. Give up one hour of television in exchange for 1 hour of reading. Stop complaining about your commute and fill the time with audiobooks. Read. Drink deeply from good books. Lead and have impact. Readers are leaders.

Identity precedes action precedes reward. First be a reader. Second do reading. Third have the rewards of reading. First be a leader, second do lead, third have the rewards of leadership. Be, do, have.

Books hold lifetimes of mistakes, struggles, and triumph. Centuries of human experience stacked together to make giants. Grow. Climb. Stand on the shoulders of giants.

Knowledge is the antidote to fear. Choose knowledge. Reject fear. You decide every morning when you wake up. Fear is a choice.

Fear gets in the way of action. Perfectionism is just another form of fear. Most people go through life with the brakes on, holding back. Take imperfect action. What would you do if you were not afraid?

Build a world free of fear, full of knowledge. Read and lead. Spread the word.

What I Learned from feeling STUCK

Sometimes you feel like you aren’t moving toward your goals. You’re either moving in the wrong direction or you have no velocity. You aren’t moving. You are stuck.

Remember that the outcomes are what matter most. Small results are better than no results. Celebrate small wins, because they add up to big wins. Results rule.

20% of what you do generates 80% of your results. Whats in that 20% and how can you do more of that? What’s the other 80% of activity that’s not helping and how can you do less of that? Remember the 80/20 rule.

All the routines, habits, knowledge you have now may have brought you lots of past success. They got you to here. But they may not be the right stuff to get you to your destination. You’ll need to keep learning, adapting. What got you here won’t got you there.

No one’s going to come save you. You have to save yourself. No one understands the problem better than you do. Survive! Thrive! If not me, then who?

There’s no time like the present. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The 2nd best time is right now. Take massive action. If not now, then when?

Get moving!

What I learned about Happiness from Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

Tony Hsieh tells the riveting story of his business life and the story of building Zappos in Delivering Happiness.

The book dives into the philosophical, defining the root of happiness. And from there it explains how these things drive Hsieh to make life and business decisions.

Happiness comes from four things:

  1. Perceived control

  2. Perceived progress

  3. Human connection

  4. Being part of something bigger than yourself

Perceived Control

Work happiness level correlates to how much control you feel you have over your work. For example, Zappos empowers employees to use their own judgment to best serve customers. There is no call center script. The folks answering the phones are happier because they have control over what they say and how they best serve you.

Perceived Progress

Work happiness level correlates to how much progress you feel you are making at work. For example, Zappos has developed a system for training employees. Mastering new skills earns badges. Employees who invest more time in learning earn more badges, their progress is measured and visible. They are happier as a result because they feel they are moving forward. Are you going in circles, backwards, or forward? Having clarity, competence, and confidence feels good.

Human Connection

Happiness correlates to the number of relationships and depth of relationships. One of the more controversial questions from the Gallup Q12 asks “do you have a best friend at work?”. Gallup found that answering ‘yes’ to this question correlates to higher performance, engagement, and work satisfaction. Having a best friend at work is surprisingly important for being happy at work.

Being Part of Something Bigger than Yourself

Happiness correlates to being a part of a movement or a mission. If you do something for the sole reason of collecting a paycheck you will be miserable and eventually you will quit. What is your “why”? You are a tiny spec of dust on one tiny blue planet in the grand, wide universe.

How to Apply All of This

  • Build career capital for later investment. Invest your capital to gain more control of your work and your life. Read more about this in my So Good They Can’t Ignore You post.
  • Set incremental SMART goals to progress on. Write down your goals. On paper! Amazingly, data shows that people who write down their goals are measurably more successful than people who do not write them down.
  • Make time to reconnect with friends and family.
  • Seek to understand why you are here. What is your mission?
  • Remember how large the universe is compared to you.

What I learned about Urgency from Les Brown (motivational speaker)

Develop a sense of urgency. You will die someday.

“The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry our their dream.”

Les Brown, motivational speaker

Les Brown is the whole reason I started writing seriously in 2015 and why I write today. I could die at any moment, and every word I publish will be something to remember me by. Or, I could do nothing and take my every thought to the grave. I choose sharing. I chose to get started.

Gary Vee echoes this thought. He says if you spend time in an old folks home, listening to resident’s advice, you will find that end of life has in store for most of us a boat-load of regret.

The lesson is:

Avoid regret. Start on your dream now.

What I learned about Time Management from James Altucher and Ghandi

One story about Mahatma Ghandi sticks in mind after hearing it from James Altucher.

The story goes like this:

Ghandi, becoming busy with his work and a full meeting schedule, decides he is not spending enough time meditating. He asks his assistant, “Please make time in my schedule each day for one hour of meditation.”

His assistant replies, “Ghandi, your request is impossible, your schedule is too full to dedicate one full hour to meditation each day.”

Ghandi contemplates this answer before quipping, “In that case, please schedule two hours every day for meditation.”

Replace meditation with any activity important to you. Distractions and busy-ness get in the way of spending time doing what we love. When the assistant rejected his request, Ghandi realized it was worse than he thought. He needed even more time dedicated to cultivating himself.

Your activity might be:

  • Hiking
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Calling an old friend
  • Exercise

If one of these activities matters to you, you need to work extra hard to carve out time for it. This might mean waking up an hour earlier every day; sometimes sacrifice is the only way.

The lesson I learned is:

Life is too short to let busy-ness get in the way of living.

What Ive learned about Success from social media mogul Gary Vaynerchuk

After immigrating to America, Gary built a million dollar wine business, took that business online. Now he runs Vayner Media. Watching hours and hours of keynotes and other content from Gary Vaynerchuk (YouTube) left me with a few key lessons.

Gary says (paraphrasing) “don’t create, document.” What he means is that you don’t need to bother trying to be clever, to be creative. Just document your work, your successes and failures, what you learned. Doing this creates value for people who follow, and anyone else following your journey.

Gary also taught me many other things. Here is a short list.

  • Self-awareness is extremely valuable and unteachable. Know you are, aren’t and be aware of your biases, blind spots.
  • Know your strengths and triple down on them. Don’t chase what other people tell you you should do.
  • Regret is the most painful. Spending time with retirement home residents to reveals this truth. People regret what they do not do.
  • Immigrants have an unfair advantage because they recognize the opportunity that others don’t. Native-born Americans take things for granted.
  • Those who work the hardest create the most luck. Impact Theory host Tom Bilyeu takes this to an extreme: “I will die before I quit. I will outwork you.”
  • Don’t pay attention to people who complain. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos: “complaining is not a strategy.”
  • Don’t use age (or anything else) as an excuse to not learn new technology.
  • Pursue unreasonable goals. Gary will buy the New York Jets when the time is right.