Don’t Forget Step Zero

I’m a physicist who works at a YC startup. The biggest mistake I’ve ever made is that I spent too much time as a physicist. The second biggest mistake I’ve ever made is that I spent too much time working on the wrong startup idea.

After I stopped being a physicist and started a startup, I realized I could get more done faster through a startup. After I stopped working on the first startup idea and started working on the second one, I realized I could get more done faster through the second idea.

Over the years, I’ve bumped into this pattern a lot. So much so that I gave it a name: I call it forgetting Step Zero.

Step Zero

Here’s what I mean by Step Zero. When you have a task, the first thing you do to start working on it what you’d call Step One. But there’s a step before Step One, and it’s more important: the step where you decide which task you should work on in the first place. That’s what I mean by Step Zero: it’s the step where you decide what to do.

You might think Step Zero isn’t worth naming. It feels too obvious: of course you need to decide what to do before you do it. But I’ve accidentally skipped this step enough times that I think it’s important to name it. If you don’t make a conscious effort to notice it, you’ll find yourself skipping over it, no matter how obvious you think it should be. Step Zero is obvious the same way your blind spot is obvious: always front and center, but never quite in focus.

Step Zero seems to live in a lot of people’s blind spots. Step Zero Blindness probably starts in school, because school does Step Zero for you. When you don’t know what you should do next, school tells you to ask your teachers, instead of asking yourself. What should you work on next? Whatever the teacher tells you.

When a question is always answered for you, you eventually forget to ask it.

Your comfort zone is a dangerous place

When I chose to do my undergrad in physics, I was going against the grain of my peer group at the time. That decision worked out well.

But when I went to grad school in physics a few years later, I did the opposite: I followed the default path. I skipped Step Zero, and just went with the flow. But Step Zero was an expensive step to skip here, and my laziness cost me several years in lost opportunities.

It took a long time for me to learn the lesson. I kept working on my first startup idea for a while after it was obvious that it wasn’t going to work. I went with the flow again: when you’re working on something today, the default path is to work on the same thing tomorrow. But that cost us several months’ worth of growth that we would have gotten from our second idea, which is turning out to be much better.

When you skip Step Zero, you end up on whatever default path is for people in your situation. You become a doctor because that’s what people in your family, ethnicity, or in-group do. You go to grad school because that’s what people with your academic background do.

You might work hard in medical school or in grad school, but all that work goes into Steps One through Infinity. If you’ve already skipped Step Zero, the value of all that work (compare to the opportunity cost if you’d made a better choice) might round down to nearly nothing.

The default option isn’t always the wrong one, but it’s always riskier than it looks. A default option tricks you into thinking it’s okay not to carefully consider your decision. After all, how could a bad idea become the default option for anything? But thinking this way is a mistake.

The truth is you leave a lot on the table when you forget Step Zero. Your comfort zone is a dangerous place.

Is it really that bad?

You might wonder how forgetting Step Zero can be as bad as I’m saying it is. After all, plenty of people choose a career or a major more or less at random, and they seem to turn out just fine. [1]

One way to understand the cost of skipping Step Zero is to pretend you’re a venture capitalist. Only unlike most venture capitalists, who invest money into startups, you’re investing time into the activities you could be doing.

If you were a real VC, most of your returns would come from a tiny fraction of the startups you’ve invested in. For every Airbnb that succeeds, a thousand other startups fail.

But that principle applies when you invest your time, too. There’s usually one thing you could be doing, right now, that will move the needle most on what you want. And that one thing will probably move the needle far more than the next best thing you could be doing. You won’t always be able to work out what that one thing is, but if you want a fighting chance — then don’t forget Step Zero.

When you pick the right thing to work on, the benefits of that choice compound over time. Which means the opportunity costs you suffer if you don’t pick the right thing must compound too.

Successful people remember Step Zero

I’ve noticed that successful people are unusually good at Step Zero, even though not many of them start out that way. Most of us understand that you’re supposed to work hard to be successful. That makes sense: successful people work hard. But how did those successful people decide what they should be working on?

We rarely see that part of their process, because it happened before we noticed their success. And because we don’t notice it, we rarely think about it.

Someone once said that a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. But in reality, a thousand-mile journey begins when you decide on where you’re going. Before Step One, there’s always Step Zero — and it’s worth remembering.

If you’ve got your own stories about forgetting Step Zero, let me know on Twitter: I’m @neutronsNeurons

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