False Prophets

On Friday, I ended up having a long-winded conversation with a friend who is preparing to move across country. It’s safe to say we both went in expecting to spend an hour or two together (our original plan was to get a cup of coffee) but soon found ourselves in a four hour chat. We covered a wide gamut: business, kids, race, music. It was one of those rare things that you can’t see coming but walk away from feeling great.

One part of our conversation that stood out was discussing the overwhelming number of “talkers” floating around these days. People who can talk ad nauseam about what they do, but fail to produce any meaningful results. Those folks who attain a weird subset of fame by appearing as though they know something, but lack any real substance in their portfolio. What collectively irked us about this was the false image it paints for people just getting started in business. That to get ahead, you don’t need to do any work, just seem like you’re doing work. As my friend put it, “painting a facade.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, I scribbled the title of this post in my notebook “false prophets.” Our talk got me thinking about these sorts of people and how it’s easy to be misled by their glowy appearances when you’re just starting out. They make this stuff sound so easy that you second guess yourself. You think, “I must be doing something wrong.” In reality, though, you’re not. If you look into these people, really examine what they’ve done, most of it is fluff.

It’s hard to not be discouraged by these sorts of people. They seem to move so fast, snatching the acclaim you dream of so quickly. You, however, show up every day and only see incremental progress. You get better and things grow, but your rise is far from meteoric. Because the internet has become a printing press for these types of personalities, it’s tough to not feel like you’re missing something.

This is where you need to pause. Think about the people you really look up to. Not the talkers, but the people whose work really affects you. The stuff that inspired you to do what you do because it was so good. Look into the people behind that work. How long did their success take to build? How many years (or decades) have they invested? Chances are high that it took a long time. There was a lot of struggling, a lot of slow and seemingly insignificant maneuvers crescendoing to where they are now.

Earlier this week I stumbled across a set of books titled A Work in Progress portraying the work of chef René Redzepi and his team at Noma in Denmark. As part of the set, a journal by René was included outlining a year at the restaurant circa (I think, it wasn’t mentioned) 2012-2013. In addition to discussing the work taking place with his team, he also talked about their struggles early on.

How people would refer to the restaurant as “seal fucker,” mocking the restaurant’s use of unorthodox ingredients. Despite the mockery, the team carried on to win the title of the #1 restaurant in the world three times in a row from 2010-2012. Reading his journal, it was immediately clear that the success of Noma took a lot of time and effort up front. A lot of false starts and rough patches to get through before their ideas “worked.” They rejected the standard trimmings of a fine dining restaurant in favor of focusing on what mattered: the food. As their ideas took shape, people took notice.

What this all reminded me—both the conversation and reading about René—was that building a meaningful business takes awhile. That, no matter how treacherous the road ahead looks, you have to keep going. Keep trying. Keep evolving. You have to ignore those false prophets who make it look easy and trust in those who have spent decades honing their craft and earning the stardom that put them on your radar.

You can’t take the bait of short-term success in looking like the thing you want to be. Trust in the work and accept that obscurity in the short-term is part of prolonged success in the long-term. Show up, do the work, and let your progress speak for itself. The payoff will be much sweeter—and prolonged—in the end.