The dirt

In Clear Thinking, Shane Parrish writes:

Too often decision-makers get their information and observations from sources that are multiple degrees removed from the problem….You can’t make good decisions with bad information. In fact, when you see people making decisions that don’t make sense to you, chances are they’re based on different information than you’ve consumed.

During the second world war, U.S. General George Marshall and his department received reports that pilots in the Pacific were refusing to fly. They were getting the equipment they needed, so that wasn’t the problem. Shane writes:

Marshall struggled to understand what was going on. Talking to the commander gave him no insight, so he did what he often would: he sent someone “to look around and see things that weren’t being reported—not just what they were yelling about.” No one likes the person sent from the head office to check on things—neither the commander nor the line cook. Everyone is suspicious. But Marshall needed eyes and ears on the ground to get to the heart of the matter. He knew he’d only get answers by going directly to the source.

What Marshall’s direct report uncovered was that the Air Force ground crews didn’t have any protection from mosquitoes. They had to work on the planes at night under electric lights, which attracted insects, and those mosquitoes were feasting on them. The mechanics had gotten so full of malaria or antimalarial medication that the pilots didn’t trust their work and refused to fly. 

The people back at headquarters, in mosquito-protected areas, had no idea what was really going on in the field. They were focused on combat supplies—ammunition, parts, food—but not mosquito netting. With his HiFi information, though, Marshall decided to override a portion of the tonnage they’d allocated for combat supplies and get those nets. Problem solved! Marshall recognized that the only way to understand a problem and solve it was by going to the source.

Marshall recognized that the only way to understand a problem and solve it was by going to the source. He constantly either went to the front lines himself or sent people he trusted to find out what was really going on.

Gathering this high quality information takes hard work, a spirit that bears closer resemblance to manual labor than inspiration from a muse. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk describes this groundwork as the dirt. 50 Cent writes in Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter, “A lot of artists want to stay away from the clubs once they get famous.That world begins to feel too chaotic, too dangerous, to them.” By contrast, the people who excel are the ones who spend time in this groundwork.

  • Robert Greene reads hundreds of books, writing thousands of index cards, before considering starting the writing process for one of his books. Arlan Hamilton similarly used index cards, as she was reading, to learn the process of venture capital.
  • When she was practicing, Sarah Cooper tested her jokes with a small group of family and friends and on Twitter. Mike Reiss writes in Springfield Confidential, “[Twitter is] also a great training tool for aspiring writers—the 280-character limit enforces brevity, a comic necessity, and the number of likes and retweets provides instant feedback on how funny the jokes is. And so, at the age of fifty-seven, I started tweeting, and even after thirty-five years as a professional, it’s making me a better comedy writer.” These are variations of the tradition of comedians going on stage and testing jokes with live audiences, often multiple times a night.
  • Jeff Bezos makes his email public to customers and reads inquiries, triaging them to his team. 

It’s hard work. It’s messy. It’s tiring. It’s uncomfortable. It’s chaotic. It’s the dirt. It’s doing the real thing.

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