Steps vs. Leaps and Altman’s Definition of Success

Let’s say we’re in Connecticut but we really want fish tacos from Southern California. If we walk, Google says it will take about 800 hours. But, if we fly, we can get there in about 8 hours (ugh, with a layover). Such is the distance between steps and leaps. Each covers the same distance, but time and energy make the difference. We should understand the value of steps and leaps because it determines how we’ll take successive trips with our clients and in our careers.


Steps involve linear or incremental changes. They’re the tasks and basic expectations that school trained us for and (most) jobs perpetually reinforce. “Checking off the boxes” is normal. No job escapes the reality of taking steps. They include checklists and troubleshooting manuals. 


Leaps involve non-linear or exponential changes. They’re the way a whole list gets crossed off all at once, and not because we took a shortcut since the same amount of ground was covered. Leaps require us to break a checklist rule or two to make greater progress. They include anything that compounds – like rolling a snowball or learning about new ideas. 


In the short run, steps and leaps are just two different attitudes for making progress, but in the long run, whether we take steps or leaps will determine how much ground we actually have time to cover. There’s nothing noble about choosing steps over leaps or leaps over steps, but there are limits on what we can accomplish with each. Those fish tacos aren’t going to fetch themselves – do we have a few months or a day?


Professionally, our clients usually hire us to take steps for them. Primarily they’re paying us to manage a predetermined checklist and not miss any details. There is a great deal of value in communicating the painlessness of letting us take the steps for them. People love, and will pay handsomely for convenience. 


In our own careers, we should expect to take both steps and leaps. While a client may just want a box checked, our competitive market will shift over time and change that relationship. Factory workers are safe until the robots show up to take their jobs. Punching out the next part on the assembly line is a good step, but punching formulas into a computer to program the robot is a great leap. No industry is immune from disruption. Sometimes whole businesses leap, and sometimes just the ambitious employees do. 


In all cases, our internal motivation is going to drive how many steps or leaps we ultimately take. Sam Altman (who inspired this post) said,* “Eventually, you will define your success by performing excellent work in areas that are important to you. The sooner you can start off in that direction, the further you will be able to go.” Simple, but true. If we want to get those fish tacos today, a long walk probably isn’t going to cut it. We have to know what we want and move intentionally.

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