Today I’ll highlight a fundamentally important point that I’ve mentioned a couple times before, but never emphasized as much as it needs to be emphasized.

This point could mean the difference between success and failure in anything you want to achieve. From financial independence to grassroots activism, if you don’t understand this, you will probably fail.

The problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to grok because our brains just aren’t wired for it. I’ll tell you what it is, and more importantly, I’ll tell you how to beat it.

The Problem: Trajectories are Hard

I once told a little story about dogs who don’t have lasers in their brains. We’re good at using the imaginary lasers in our brains to figure out what a pointed finger might refer to, or how exactly we need to throw a spear to kill a boar in underbrush. Those are linear trajectories.

We’re not at all good at figuring out trajectories that aren’t linear. For example, the Richter scale, which is used to describe the power of an earthquake, is logarithmic. Is an earthquake that registers a 4.0 on the Richter scale twice as powerful as one registering 2.0? Four times more powerful? No, not even close! A 4.0 is 100 times more powerful than a 2.0. Your trajectory estimation software is useless for this.

Why the Problem Affects You

The problem affects you because it’s not only about earthquake magnitudes and wheat-related thought experiments.

  • It’s about how the audience for your blog grows.
  • It’s about how word spreads about your software service.
  • It’s about how revenue grows in your business.
  • It’s about how the time you spend learning and practicing doesn’t just make a you a little more competitive: it brings you into a whole different world of opportunities and experiences.

The problem is that our feeble brains have absolutely no sense of what to expect from any of these activities, and the dismal returns of a little effort belie the mind-blowing returns of that little effort continuously compounded.

The Solution: Anchor in Data, not Hope

In my case, I started a business that I wanted to support me passively. If I had relied my faulty trajectory software, I would’ve become discouraged and given up on the third month, when after putting in around 500 combined hours of effort, my wife and I earned a grand total of $130.67, roughly what I would have earned for one hour of software consulting.

I stuck with it because I had a secret weapon.

I was giddy about the $130 because we had calculated, using software designed for such things, how much money we should have been making, and we were way ahead. That it was peanuts didn’t actually matter, because I could see on the spreadsheet that the pile of peanuts would shortly turn into a mountain.

I could see on the spreadsheet that the pile of peanuts would shortly turn into a mountain

You can apply this to whatever you’re working on whether it’s selling books or getting users for your software.

People discourage themselves by generating a “hope” that becomes the anchor by which they judge their progress. They dream of selling thousands of books, or acquiring thousands of users. But they won’t do that right away, and they won’t know how long they should be patient, so they’ll probably just get discouraged and give up.

What you need to do instead is set your own expectations by deciding what a completely achievable first milestone is, then making an educated guess for the ones that follow.

For example, you may decide that this month you’re going to get your first paying customer, which is perfectly possible because if you only need one you can make it your full time job to go talk to people and convince them individually to sign up for your service. That one customer will let you know you’re on track and help you learn about what your market really needs from you.

Next month you decide you can use your knowledge from the first customer to get five new customers perhaps. You’ll have to use different tactics than you used to get your first customer, but five is very doable, and when you get seven instead you’ll be giddy, just like I was giddy with my $130 on month three.

You’ll know you’re ahead of the curve, you’ll know roughly how much revenue you’ll be making on month seven or month nine. And every month you’ll learn new things that put the next month’s goal easily within your grasp.

Generate a plan: I’ll get one customer this month, five the next, 25 the month after, 125 after that, and so on. And that trajectory that you calculate will work for you while you achieve traction.

Quick note about this method: at some point down the line this method will fail. In the example 125 users becomes almost 400,000 users in month nine and 2,000,000 users in month 10. That’s not going to happen because you will eventually find a plateau, probably around month 6 or 7 which have about 3,000 and 15,000 users respectively. But once you have those 3-15 thousand users you’ll also have lots of historical data to build a new and better estimate.

Here’s a graph. Notice it doesn’t even “blip” until month eight:

**Don’t rely on your ill suited trajectory software to figure out how far along you should be. Generate expectations by doing a few simple calculations, and instead of being discouraged that you’re not at the peak of the mountain yet, you’ll be driven by the knowledge that you’re exactly where you should be on the journey to the top. **