Strategy and Work

In life, there are two states. These are the two modes of being, acting, and observing in the world.

The first is called Strategy. This the mode in which you’re thinking about goals, angle of approach, networking, next steps. You’re thinking about your big dreams, ambitions, and you’re thinking about what actions you should take to hit your target fastest and easily. Strategy is sexy, because it’s sort of ambiguous. Strategy is what executives, generals, and leaders do behind closed doors. There is an element of mystery and romance to it. For this reason, everyone is an armchair strategist. Everyone fancies himself a strategist. It’s easy to look at a complicated situation and breezily announce what ought to be done.

Then there’s Work. Work is what happens once you make a decision in the Strategy mode. Strategy makes you say “I want thing A, and I have to do thing B to get it.” But thing B only actually gets done in Work mode. This is far less sexy than Strategy. You will start your project, and almost instantly, you will begin to doubt your decision. You will try to perform Strategy, but you’re not in Strategy mode, and it will fail. Work is hard and painful, and your Strategies will be subject to emotions and irrationality.

You know that saying “There are no atheists in foxholes?” It’s not because people suddenly see the glory of Christ, like most people who quote it intend for it to mean– it’s because you can’t think clearly while you’re hugging your best friend, shrapnel hitting the scrap of wood you’re crouched under, your life flashing before your eyes. It’s the same way, when you’re in the middle of a project. You just can’t think Strategy. You’re too emotional.

So keep your head down until you reach some sort of conclusion. Ideally, it’s the point you told yourself you would stop at in the beginning. Then you can shift back to Strategy mode and make your next decision. It’s like walking across stepping stones. You can’t have your eye on a stone two moves ahead when you’re feet are in the air. Strategy happens in hops and leaps, not in a smooth line. Mathematically, strategy is a discontinuous function. You can only evaluate your progress at the point of discontinuity. To try to evaluate your position  But trying to live in both modes simultaneously is a serious error, and you won’t get a damn thing done.

Emotions have absolutely no place in Work mode. They have no place in Strategy either, but that’s a less common problem. Work is clean, clear, cold, ruthless, efficient, and unemotional. This is a feeling I’ve longed for for years; only now am I finding a way to articulate it.

“She was one of his most ruthlessly competent employees; her manner of performing her duties suggested the kind of rational cleanliness that would consider any element of emotion, while at work, as an unpardonable immorality” – Atlas Shrugged

This is the ideal. Of course, it’s way too easy to shift back to Strategy, to feel self-doubt, impatience, discomfort, uncertainty. It’s so hard to assign yourself a task, and then accept it as if it were assigned to you by another person and hence outside of your control. But that’s the only way to progress. When I’m working on some project and I get stuck with the desire to do Strategy instead of Work, I often try to tell myself to be confident, to try harder. That it’s a matter of having the right emotions. I’m starting to think this is wrong– that instead, when I notice these feelings start to bubble up, I should disregard them entirely because they are emotional, and emotions have no place in work. They can be discarded, ignored.

Strategy is the long-view, the high altitude. Work is tunnel vision. Strategy is head-up, observing the landscape. Work is head-down, obsessive.


One last thing– it’s easy to think that because you’re thinking about Strategy at times, you’re exempt from Work. You look at people who are working hard, who seem to be toiling needlessly or in the wrong areas and you get arrogant. You start to think you’re smarter than them. Know this: Strategy is not a shortcut. You must Work with intensity equal to or greater than those who do not understand Strategy. A worker without Strategy is a drone; a strategist without Work is a man of inaction.