I grew up in Indiana where corn, cows, and basketball dominate the talk around town, but usually not in that order. Larry Bird is Indiana’s best basketball player of all time. As a kid, he decided he wanted to be a basketball player, so he did something about it. He went out and shot a basketball. He broke his ankle his sophomore year of high school. Each day, he continued to go to the court to take 500 shots propping himself up with crutches.
Larry Bird wasn’t born a great basketball player. He was slow. His vertical jump was a full 20” lower than Michael Jordan’s vertical jump. He was criticized early in his career for being a poor defender. Later, he was named to the All-Defensive team and even won the MVP award three times. He became a great basketball player because he repeatedly took actions that made him a basketball player.
The same pattern holds true if we look around a bit. My wife is an amazing pianist. Why? Because for years and years she played piano each day. Not every song was played perfectly. In fact, few were. Yet she played. A friend of mine, Ivan Makarov, has become an excellent photographer. I remember years ago when he told me he had started taking some pictures to get some relief from college. Now, he is well known among the photography community. Why? Because he has taken thousands of pictures. Most of those pictures are never seen by anyone but him. Few are masterpieces. Yet they were necessary for him to become an expert photographer.
Mark Cuban is one of the most popular entrepreneurs today. Does the same pattern hold true for him? Certainly. Before he became a billionaire, he sold garbage bags door-to-door, taught disco, started a pub, and sold software, among other things. He chose to become an entrepreneur by doing what entrepreneurs do–start businesses.
As I child, I remember looking at a rope under a microscope and being absolutely amazed. The rope consisted of millions of little strings and fibers woven together. Each one was short and weak, but they combined together to make the rope strong. Our small, repeated, and seemingly inadequate actions are a lot like those fibers of the rope. Together, they allow us to become something more.
It is commonly said that, “Those who can, do,” but that phrase just doesn’t tell the whole story. “Can” rarely happens on its own. “Can” stems from doing. The statement “Those who want to be, do” seems much more practical and powerful in my experience.
If you know what you want to be, then knowing what to do comes into focus. If you want to be a writer, write something. If you want to be an engineer, build something. If you want to be a programmer, code something. If you want to be an entrepreneur, start a business. For now, it doesn’t matter what you write, build, code, or start. It matters that you do it. Practice the pattern. And you know what else? Whatever you write, build, code, or start doesn’t need to be great right now. It probably won’t be. You need to do it though because that is how you’ll get better at it. That’s how you’ll become what you want.
I teach some entrepreneurship courses at the University of Michigan. As part of those courses, our students get to build small ventures with real customers. They make things. They sell things. They work to figure out business models by trying them. In some cases, they make a few dollars. After working through a few different small ventures, we recently had several groups of students take $50 and turn it into $500 profit in a matter of weeks. They are becoming entrepreneurs because they are doing entrepreneurship.
I admit that not just anyone can become Larry Bird or Mark Cuban or a world-class expert. That’s not the point. The point is that you can become whatever you want if you start doing it. You can become an athlete, entrepreneur, musician, or artist by doing what athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians, or artists do. You can even become a great one. It’s not instant. It takes time.
We progress towards success by taking regular actions that align with who we want to become. In short, we become by doing.
Try it on for size by asking yourself these four questions:
- What is it that you really want to become?
- What does that type of person do?
- What can you do today?
- Will you do it today?
Those who want to be, do. And doing is something you can do.