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In 1988, Dan Wieden was struggling with his latest project. Wieden was hired by Portland-based Nike to lead a sweeping television campaign, and his team had developed advertisements for running, walking, cross-training, basketball, and women’s fitness. Wieden wanted a tagline to tie the entire project together. Wieden had a meeting with Nike founder Phil Knight in the morning, and he wracked his brain for hours looking for inspiration. Suddenly, the marketer had his eureka moment: the last words of an infamous Portland criminal.
In July 1976, Gary Gilmore, a Portland native, robbed and murdered a gas station attendant and motel clerk in Provo, Utah. After a lengthy trial, Gilmore was found guilty, and he became the first Utah prisoner on death row in nearly a decade. Gilmore chose death by firing squad over the electric chair. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was led to the prison’s death house and tied to a seat. After the prison chaplain administered the last rites, Gilmore was asked if he had any final words.
“Let’s do it.”
The physician then pulled a cloak over Gilmore’s head, and five rifle rounds were fired through the criminal’s heart.
Back in his hotel room, Wieden tweaked the quote slightly, switching out “Let’s” with “Just”. The next morning, Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was born. The tagline resonated with professional athletes and weekend warriors alike. Its reach quickly eclipsed the sports world, as this call to action appealed to people from all walks of life. Public reception was phenomenal, and Nike’s US market share for athletic shoes jumped from 18% to 43% over the next 10 years.
So what does Dan Wieden’s campaign have to do with you? Life is inherently risky. Ironically, the biggest risk is never taking a risk at all. In my previous post about home ownership, I mentioned our cookie-cutter version of the American Dream. There is this expectation that you need to graduate college, land a stable job with a good company, and grind your way up through your career. Don’t deviate from this path, lest you risk failure and setbacks. We talk ourselves out of countless things because we find them too risky. We are scared to learn new skills because we don’t want to fail. We convince ourselves the timing isn’t right to go do something new. Think about your own life. What is that business idea that you had, but you never pursued because it would never go anywhere? That graduate program that you didn’t apply to because they would never accept you? That company that you wanted to work for but they would never hire you? That language that would be too hard to learn. That instrument that would be too time-consuming to master? That trip that you wanted to take but the timing wasn’t right?
The most dangerous mistake that you can make is spending your life playing it safe. If you’re not careful, you just might rationalize your way out of trying anything meaningful.
If you’re reading this right now, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re around my age. You are probably early in your career, and you don’t have any kids yet. The stakes really couldn’t be lower right now. Say you’re 25, and you’ve been working for an insurance company for a couple of years. You’re single, you have saved up enough money to cover a year’s expenses, and you don’t have any long-term debt. One day you have an intriguing idea: there is a massive audience of animal lovers who don’t have time to take care of pets 24/7, and there are thousands of animal shelters who are strapped for cash. You devise a marketplace application called “Fetch,” where individuals can pay a fee to check animals out from a shelter for an hour, day, weekend, etc. Pet lovers get to play with a puppy on a Sunday afternoon, shelter animals get exercise and human interaction, and shelters make more money.
“That’ll never work,” you tell yourself. “I have a good gig going, and I can’t afford to pursue this right now.” You decide to push this idea back to a later date. You don’t really like your job, but it’s safe. Next thing you know, you’re 30 and you have to provide for your spouse. Then you have children. Then you have to pay for their college. You thought you couldn’t afford to take that shot early on, but you physically can’t afford it now.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. There will never, ever be a convenient time to do anything that breaks your regular routine. When that idea, that new job, that opportunity appears, you have two options: rationalize why it won’t work right now or Just Do It.
Now you make up your mind, and you decide to go after that new opportunity. That’s a great start, but you aren’t there yet. Convincing ourselves is an important first step, but we still have to actually do it. We like planning every aspect of our moves because we are terrified of failure. We want to theorize perfection. We are willing to try this new task, but we can’t mess up. So we play out the whole situation in our heads. How will we handle A, B, and C. What will we do if this occurs. What’s the perfect timing for us to start? Blah blah blah. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it.
I played football at Mercer University, and I sucked during my first season. I was the 228 pound, seventh-string defensive end going against grown-ass men. Every day, we would do one on one pass rush drills against the offensive line. In these drills, the defensive player (me) would try to get past the offensive player to the “quarterback”. I spent weeks standing in the back of the line watching everyone. “Maybe I should try a swim move or a spin move,” I would think to myself. “I’m probably faster than that guy, but if he gets his hands on me I’m toast.” My brain was on overload analyzing the situation, because I was terrified of losing a rep. I refused to jump in and try it live. Well one day Coach Baker yelled, “Raines, hop up front!”
My heart was beating out of my chest. All of that analyzing didn’t mean anything when it was go time. I lined up against our starting right guard, the ball was snapped… and I got wrecked. At first I was devastated. Then a second later the whistle blew, the next guy was up, and that was it. Pretty anti-climatic. We watched film from practice that afternoon, and Coach Baker said, “You’re fast, man. Just get a little wider in your stance, fire off the ball quicker, and swat his hands.”
At practice the next morning, Coach called me up front again. I got a little wider in my stance, fired off the ball faster, swatted the other guy’s hands, and to my surprise, I won. Now probably 4 out of the next 5 times I got killed, but I started to win some of my matchups. Those few wins instilled confidence, and they compounded. I was getting better at reading the other guy, developing my skillset, and winning my matchups. By the next season, I could hold my own against our offensive back ups. By my senior year, I was confident that I would beat most anyone lined up across from me.
You can “prepare” all you want in your head, but the only way to accomplish anything is by failing forward. You screw up and try again. Eventually something small clicks. That small change forms a new foundation, and then you fail at something else. You continue to fail forward over and over again, and you finally fail your way into accomplishing something special. This applies to jobs, skills, relationships, and everything else in life. If you can’t cook, go make awful food. If you can’t dance, sign up for some lessons and go trip over yourself. If you can’t code, build a corrupt Python script. If you can’t write, start a mediocre newsletter (Hello!) If you can’t speak Spanish, find a language partner and accidentally tell them that you want to eat the Pope for dinner (potatoes, father, and Pope unfortunately all translate to “papa”). Accepting failure is a super power, because so few people are willing to take that chance. Go out there and screw up more than anyone else. I promise it’ll be more rewarding than the alternative.
If this kid can go from this…
then what is holding you back? Just Do It.
When you try new stuff, you’re going to fail a lot. Your business idea will collapse. You might not get that new job. You’ll have some embarrassing moments. Yet over time, you will start to see some of these failures turn into new opportunities. That failed startup six months ago becomes the perfect talking point for your next job interview. The hiring manager who chose another applicant recommends you for an even better fit with her friend’s company. You can’t predict when these chance breakthroughs will present themselves, but they happen all the time. Sooner or later, one of your failures will spark a massive success.
The purpose of this article isn’t to convince you to quit your job on a whim, pursue a reckless endeavor, and risk financial ruin. However, I hope it encourages you to pursue those bold opportunities when they appear. The timing won’t be right, the risk of failure will probably be high, and you will conjure a million excuses why you should wait til later. But that is the very time to shoot your shot. Your fear of failure will always be worse than reality. The stakes will never be lower, you are guaranteed to learn something, and at worst you’ll have a great story to share. Just Do It.
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