Don’t Waste Time Painting Tom Sawyer’s Fence: Proving Someone Wrong Is A Poor Motivator

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy, Startups

Don’t waste time painting Tom Sawyer’s fence: proving someone wrong is actually a poor source of motivation. It’s OK to ignore conventional wisdom, but don’t get trapped into doing someone else’s work (or building their platform) just to prove them wrong. Build something instead of trying to win an argument.

Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticised the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

“No – no – I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence – right here on the street, you know – but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

“No – is that so? Oh come, now – lemme, just try. Only just a little – I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

Mark Twain “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”  Chapter 2

Rand Fishkin: You Can’t Do It Motivated Me

In “You Can’t Do It is a Powerful Motivation” Rand Fishkin recounts accurate advice he receive and ignored:

  • “You can’t build a big company in the SEO space,” said plenty of business people I talked to. “Stick with consulting–it’s what you know and you’ve got a great brand.”
  • “You need to hire a head of product and build a product team.”
  • “You can’t build a search engine sized web index on $1 million.”
  • “Don’t try to raise money now – you won’t get any.”
  • “The self-service / web app model is wrong. You need to build an enterprise sales force / charge more for your product / create embedded software so it’s not so easy to quit.”

Build Something Instead of Trying to Win an Argument

Most of this is implementation advice from folks with considerable implementation experience. No one was arguing about customer need, except perhaps the last one is about value proposition. He needs to turn this into a positive narrative. The Germans have an aphorism: “Stubbornness is the energy of fools.” He should reframe this as a persevering focus on his prospect’s needs.

Sam Walton: Ignore Conventional Wisdom

Sam Walton suggested an approach Rand might consider in his ten rules for building a successful business:

Rule 10: Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom.
If everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction. But be prepared for a lot of folks to wave you down and tell you you’re headed the wrong way. I guess in all my years, what I heard more often than anything was: a town of less than 50,000 population cannot support a discount store for very long.

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