Let's say you have a goal in life, but you don't know what steps will be required to get there. The only step you are sure you can accomplish is the very first one. Maybe that first step involves quitting your job, or moving, or doing something else that is hard to reverse.

Do you take the first step and hope you can figure out the rest later? Or do you try to figure out all of the steps, at least in a general way, before you take the first step?

Every situation is different, so generalizing is risky. I'm a big proponent of keeping your day job while you try to get something else going on the side. But when the risk of taking the first step is relatively small, I say take it and then figure out how to do the next step later.

In my experience, you rarely see the second step clearly until you take the first. Taking the first step causes knowledge to come to you. For example, prior to launching Dilbert I didn't know how to be a professional cartoonist, but I did know how to submit my samples for syndication, having read a book that described that process. It was as simple as sending copies of my comics to a half-dozen addresses. Once United Media became interested in my work, they essentially taught me the rest of the steps required. The rest of my job I learned by trial and error and observation.

How about you? Do you take the first step if you don't know where the second will be?
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +17
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 23, 2009
look up what a pols blind trust buys, then buy it. back in the 70's (when people still cared) it was shown that right before a pol voted for the gov. to buuy something, his blind trust would buy its stock. back then thats how pols got rich in a few years time. is it still going on. what do you think. my towns paper whent ape on me when i showed them how our man tin wash. blind trust made a lot of money, fast. i hope somebody take a look now. if they do it will not be in the courp. news.
Aug 10, 2009
I use a technique something like this when I have something that I'm sort of "stuck" on. For instance, typically when there is some problem that has been sitting around for a month or so and every time I see it I think, man I wish I would deal with that but for some reason I can't seem to do it. So, I sit down and imagine the problem getting solved, what that would entail, what tools are needed, what supplies I have or don't have and what are the first steps to doing it. This exercise usually sets the energy flowing enough that I find the motivons for getting it done.
Aug 7, 2009
I think your strategy is sound. The decision on whether to take the first step in the absence of further knowledge or not has to depend on risk assessment - what is at stake?

If the first step (for the sake of example) closes a lot of doors and puts you at risk of imminent penury (quit your day job, for instance), then that's a big and immediate issue if you don't know clearly where to go next to complete your big change.

If the first step might cost you $20 and an hours time and if you blow it, no big deal, then why not try? You may find the second step or not and if not, you haven't lost much.

I'm kind of dabbling with the idea of writing professionally. I know what some of my weaknesses are when it comes to language use and grammar. I also know that Arthur C. Clarke said the way to become a good writer is to write a million words and by then you might be okay. I figure that any path to writing success should probably start with that. So I'm working on that. I figure it's a three year dedicated effort plan that I should be able to carry out while still working a day job. I have a vague feeling that subsequent steps involve writing workshops, critical analysis training, netorking with publishers and other authors, learning more about self-promotion, and stumping around to all the local bookstores. Self-publishing may even be some form of option to get me started.

All of that said, to do this full time would be a huge risk. Taking at least 12 months off work to do this would run the risk of killing my professional credentials (stale) and losing me a variety of contacts. Plus, of course, the risk of not having a place to sleep when the money runs out. And the odds, I'm told, of getting published as a writer are not terribly high.

So, high risk if taken as a full-time strategy and with low odds of success. Low risk but slower if taken as a background activity and the low odds of success become less of a significant concern.

On the other hand, I'm signing up for a woodworking course (furniture making) shortly. I don't know if I have the talent or will really enjoy it, but I think I might (all engineering types want to produce things that have quality and make the world better) and even if I don't, I'll have learned if this path is for me. Worst case, I'm out about a week's pay (significant, but not crippling) and a week of time (so probably two week's pay in aggregate). Best case, I find I like it and follow through on more courses, eventually being able to make furniture for self and friends and gaining high satisfaction from producing tangible quality goods. I have no idea if this will pan out, but the risk is low enough to make it worth the effort.

It's all about your ability to assess the risk, tolerate the downsides, and have a backup plan in place. If you are put into a leap-before-looking situation with high downside risk and no backup plan, you really are gambling with your future. In those cases, probably better to learn more first.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 7, 2009
I have always been fairly analytical, and there is a kind of inertia from over-analysis that I get into.

Right now life is more confusing than it has been. I am an engineer and I live in cube-land not too unlike Dilbert. This is not what I had imagined from life. When I started out in high school I meant to become a researcher of some sort, dealing with complex problems, thinking hard and publishing papers, etc. Product engineering is really the complete opposite of that.... mostly just drudgery... you fix one small issue, you fix another small issue and repeat ad nauseum. You do get recognized within the company as the guy who knows how to fix things, but the fame is limited to 5 people... In short I don't really enjoy making computer chips for a living. Creating a product means that you have to make sure it is perfect before it is shipped out and apart from imagining how the chip works right at the start of a project, the other 90% of it is just grunt work. I'd like to think I am intelligent, but the sad truth is that there is no dearth of smart people in the world.

So I do know the end in mind. I do know that probably getting a PhD is the next right step towards this goal. Problem is like you said the risk in taking the first step is a little too high. I am on an H1B visa, and if i were to go back to school, my wife would be on an F2 visa, with no right to work. Planning to have kids in the recent future makes that choice even harder. How do you raise on a graduate student's salary. Another problem is the field of study... There is a lot of talk out there about the end of Moore's law... Now I only know what I hear but there are a lot of challenges. In some sense news is always pessimistic but it is hard to leave a job paying 100k a year and go after something whose returns you are not sure of. Most of my PhD friends are unhappy with it, and don't recommend getting into it in hindsight. Okay I shall end my rant. ;)
Aug 7, 2009
I became a teacher because I wanted to become a teacher and because the first step was simple and attractive. Teachers are in demand so the UK government made it easier to get into teaching. If you have a degree in any subject and pass a knowledge test you can do a paid 3-month enhancement course. This course gives you enough subject knowledge as is in the curriculum. If this course was not paid, if I needed a degree in the subject I wished to teach, and if teachers did not make the same as my (at the time) current salary, then I couldn't have become a teacher.
If you want people to go from A to B, make the route easy and attractive.
Aug 6, 2009
If you're spending other peoples money, knowing what done looks like helps you recognize it when it arrives.
If it's you own life and your own money, go for it. Let it emerge. It's a wonderful approach.
But once there are "dependents" - college 529 plans, 401(k)'s, projects to deliver on time using other peoples money, the urge to "let it happen," is diminished.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 6, 2009
Scott, you've done it again - "visualizing the entire path" - I've been struggling with my weight in this heat..and I didn't know what todo about it..don't know if it was a coincidence or not, but I read your blog during lunch yesterday, and by coincidence, I signed up for a personal trainer last night! its something I've been planning todo for months but for some reason didn't get to it. hope this works out, Thanks!! =)
Aug 6, 2009
I think, talk and read...a lot. So whenever things come up, I usually already have many ideas. Ergo, I don't really plan, I generally know "enough" to get started and then I keep talking/thinking/reading and figuring as I go. I've lived in a number of cities and travelled a bit (not as much as I'd like) mainly on a wing and a prayer. It doesn't always go smoothly, but you learn (hopefully) and keep going. My mom always says I go where angels dare not tread, my friends think I feel no fear. But in truth, I get just as scared as the next person, I just hate to miss a good opportunity (which is kinda how I met my fiance, but that's another story).

When really setting out to do something, I like a general list, but then I just go from there. If things work out differently than envisioned, they might just work out better. I pick 3 or 4 things I want to do on a vacation, for example, and the rest I leave to chance or whim. However, for big things, I find I have a hard time with step 1, I have to really believe in it, and until I do, I won't move. Once I decide though, then I just plunge in with only the same vague ideas of what it will take to accomplish the end goal as I have when I take a holiday. (My personality "colour" is orange for anyone familiar with True Colors [US] or Personality Dimensions[Can].) This can be disconcerting for people around me, but it keeps life interesting. The idea of really planning out all the details is practically anathema for me. In an ever-changing world, it just seems like a waste of time.
Aug 6, 2009
The problem one might face more than taking steps, is of shifting-goals.
I always wanted to become a great programmer, when I left my college. However, listening to business always, for the next 3 years has mandatory for me to go for an MBA. And so shifts my goal...

Knowing I need to enter into the business world, I don't know if I should take a specific step. This is because, hooking to an MBA degree has 99% chances, that I might excel (wherein I could be the 1% lot); whereas pursuing my current role has 1% chance (which might be mine) to get there! I really need some help!

Scott, can you help?
Aug 5, 2009
To move the world you must move yourself first. Go big or go home.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 5, 2009
It depends. If it is a well known and travelled path (buying into a franchise or setting up an antenna) then there are lots of people around who have done the same thing and can give you advice: pros, cons, pitfalls and power-ups. On the other hand ask any general and you will learn that the Plan never survives first contact with reality.

But if you are doing something new, then the best you can do is look at what the other pioneers did to be successful but no guarantees if it will actually help.

And sometimes you just need to take that step to find out what you really want, even if it is just to know that that was not the way to go. Thomas Edison found a lot of different way not to make a lightbulb before he found one that worked. I found that doing data entry was something that would melt my brain and I needed to go somewhere else.
Aug 5, 2009
I would take the first step first, but my wife won't lt me quit my job. Something about feeding the kids, or not being able to...
Aug 5, 2009
I coach businesses on a number of areas, including vision and goal-setting, and the example I always use is JFK talking about going to the moon. At the time he declared his vision of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth" (May 1961) I think American astronauts had spent about 20 minutes total in space.

Set the Vision first. If you're limited by what you know today, you will only limit what you achieve in the future.

(And, as a side note, be clear about your vision. If Kennedy hadn't specified the "return him safely" part it might have been a very different project, with some very different recruitment strategies.)
Aug 5, 2009
Taking the first step before thinking through the rest is often forced on us. And, for me at least, it has often been a good thing,

A month ago I found out I was being laid off -- my last day is Sept 25. I chose to call that the first step in finding a better job. Your recent comments on positive thinking helped. I also believe that God loves me and takes good care of me. He has many times before and I trust he'll do it again. (You, of course, can re-interpret using a view of the universe that includes moist robots and the idea that we're all a computer construct, but I'll tell the story my way.) So far I have some promising contacts, mostly due to some very good and helpful friends and family. I'm working on stuff, but a lot has happened over which I have no control.

I haven't found a new job yet. Maybe I won't for a long time and I'll end up homeless and broke. But I prefer to trust God's love and think positively and work toward finding the better life he has for me.

I got to rambling. I guess my main point is that this is almost like voluntarily starting something new and taking the first step without knowing the whole path. The only difference is that someone else made the decision for me. If I'm really a moist robot maybe there's no difference at all.
Aug 5, 2009
Depends on the goal. Two examples: when I was a young lad, I was a radio amateur (ham radio). I wanted to put up a ham radio antenna called an "Inverted 'L'," which was basically a great big long piece of insulated copper wire, bent in the middle into the shape of an upside-down 'L'. I had to plan the whole installation out because the front of the 'L' had to be anchored to near the top of a tall tree, while the middle had to be supported by a wire that caused it to bend into the 'L' shape, which in turn had to be anchored at the back end.

I had to first determine all the problems I'd run into. For example, how to get the front of the antenna anchored up at the top of a tree I couldn't climb. Then, how to keep the anchor wire in the middle from pulling out from its support every time the wind blew the tree and pulled the antenna.

Working through it all, and solving the problems, taught me a lot about proper planning and problem solving, as well as anticipating the challenges that had to be overcome.

The US Navy did something similar when they began to plan the Polaris missile submarine fleet. Their methodology led to what we now call PERT charts; project management methodology that builds a project's critical path.

Now, I'm looking at launching a business that is essentially a franchise of an existing sole proprietorship. I knew nothing about franchising when I started, but took the first step of getting a registered trade mark for the business. I did it all myself without the help (?) of an attorney. It cost me about $500 all in, versus about $3,000 if I had used an attorney. Along the way, I began to research the franchising business. I learned a lot, and am working through the process. I have the business plan written, and am working on the FDD (Franchise Disclosure Document). Trust me on this, the government makes it expensive and time-consuming to start any business. They're like leaches, !$%*!$% your time and money. But you all know that.

So again, it depends on what the goal is. For projects and problem-solving goals, working through the steps first is essential to having the best result, along with the fewest mistakes, in the shortest reasonable time. For goals that are more long-term and vaguely defined, the best idea is to get started and learn along the way. You also don't have to give up your day job to start on something new; you only need to determine that you will press forward and make it work.
Aug 5, 2009
1. identifying Purpose
2. realizing purpose can be "dyanamic", variable being time
3. identifying resources to acheive purpose (resources dyanamic too)
4. measuring probability -- probability is a function of time
5. identifying unknowns - not necessarily knowing them - if knowing them is a possibility is it not unknown
6. Know darn sure that nothing can stop you from acheiving the purpose....really knowing it...every part of the brain inside your head being awfully sure that the purpose is worth acheiving and your reason of existance is achiveing it.
7. till purpose is achived loop from 2 to 6
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 5, 2009
I know people hate this response to any question, but it really depends. Would you take the first step blindly if you wanted to start a flower garden (buy flowers you like). Maybe. Would you imediately have your house demolished if you wanted a radical redecoration of your property? Not unless you're Donald Trump or absolutely drunk (or both).

But in all changes that have a major impact on your lifestyle, you have to consider if there's a window of opportunity. You probably wouldn't buy a car by goint to the nearest lot and buying the first one you see. You would buy one if that dealer was offering a discount or rebate that week, had an idea of how you would pay for it, either with your savings or a loan, and had an idea of which insurance issues you'd have and how you could deal with them.
Aug 5, 2009
Probably not in my case, but then again, I tend not to even be able to see step #1 these days.
Aug 5, 2009
I've been an international entrepreneur for 20 years now, starting no fewer than 6 companies in 3 different countries. I've occasionally hired an MBA to help me. Without fail, the question comes up, "What? You didn't plan for this? You didn't do a ... (fill in the blank, marketing survey being most common)?"

My answer is to shrug my shoulders and say, "Hey, I hired a smart person like you to figure this out. So, what are we gonna do?" And smile.

You can't plan out all of the steps. At some point, you have to dive in.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 5, 2009
When doing rock climbing, we must "always" keep 3 solid grip. We know where we will put our hand or foot next, but often, we can't see the best grip before getting there. How this apply for my life? I keep the best thing in my life as stable as I can, and let loose the least fulfilling to try new thing. I don't always know what will happen as I start the process, but knowing that the most important things in my life are safe, I can take risks without fear.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog