PRE-S: The popularity of this blog post led to the creation of my new eBook, which expands on the below topics and provides practical, actionable advice for combating the False First Step. Check it out!
I still remember getting the package.
It was a nondescript brown box, just like one that might show up on any other day. After sliding my fingers through the opening in the side, the packing tape popped apart, and the box opened to reveal my new sports watch and heart rate monitor band. My heart rate sped up a bit just from the excitement of the new purchase.
As a part of my recent fitness aspirations, I had decided to start running. To be honest, I hated running—always had—but those extra 20 pounds definitely needed to come off. And this time, I was serious. I just needed the right gear to get me started.
That’s why I was particularly excited about this delivery. The watch and monitor were all I needed to be accountable to myself and finally help me reach my health goals. I felt like I was already a runner now that I had the gear.
A Poorly Kept Secret
There is a poorly kept secret out there with a multi-billion dollar industry built around it. It’s the marketing industry—one whose sole purpose is to convince us we can have everything we’ve ever wanted by making a purchase. It sells us on better versions of ourselves but delivers only short-term satisfaction.
From 2010 until early 2014, I spent over $12,000 on Amazon.com, buying more than 350 items. It started after Amazon Prime was introduced, when suddenly Earth’s Largest Selection was just one click away. Remember those early days? One click of the Buy button was all it took to have something magically delivered to the front door in just 48 hours.
You’d think that $12,000 would buy some really high-quality, expensive stuff and experiences. I could’ve spent three or four months traveling the world, bought an old RV and toured the U.S. National Parks, or even provided funding to build part of a new home for orphans. But that wasn’t the case.
With the exception of my MacBook Air for $950, and the $2,500 I spent for a camera, lenses, and accessories, most of my purchases were under $50.
That heart rate monitor? $50
A book on photography to go with my fancy new camera? $28
A calligraphy pen? $19
It was all just a click and two days away.
For four years, I impulsively chased the books, gadgets, and products that I thought would help me reach my goals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was trying to become a better version of myself without doing any real work. I thought I was taking action when all I was really doing was taking out my credit card.
The marketing industry had convinced me that making a purchase was a valid action step. If I want to be a runner, buying a heart rate monitor is a step in the right direction, isn’t it? It was exciting because I truly believed that I had taken a step towards a better, healthier me. I’d get a burst of dopamine, which felt good.
Then, two days later, the excitement would return as I opened the box to find my brand new identity staring up at me. Owning a heart rate monitor definitely made me a real runner. Another rush of dopamine and a feeling of accomplishment would come over me as I examined my purchase, tried it on, and flipped through the manual. The new me was going to be so fit.
The False First Step
This is the false first step: believing we’ve made a meaningful step toward a goal when all we’ve actually done is spent money or not done the thing we actually need to do. We’ve actually lost something (money and time) rather than attained something (meaningful progress).
Over the next few days, I went on a couple runs with my new gear. I eyed my distance, kept my heart at a healthy 160 beats per minute, and tracked my pace per mile. I would deliberately check my heart rate at red lights so that the passing cars would notice me being a real, serious runner. Only serious runners had this kind of equipment, right?
A few days later, I was sore. It was raining. I didn’t want to get my new gear wet (even though it was waterproof), so I took a day off. Then I took another day. And then, I never really wore that heart rate monitor again.
But then, I did something even worse. I realized that if I only had a new pair of running shoes, I’d be even better at running, and I’d get out there again and hit the pavement. So I ordered a pair of shoes—Nike, (on sale!) of course. This would definitely be the thing that got me out there running again. After all, Nike’s slogan is, “Just do it.”
I decided to take a couple more days off running while I waited for them to arrive, which sounded logical because I was basically risking injury by running in my old pair. Forty-eight hours later, when my new shoes arrived, however, I didn’t really feel like running then, either.
I’m still not a runner, six years after those purchases. But while browsing Amazon shortly after the shoes arrived, I found a book on photography that I got really excited about.
Perhaps you can see where this is going.
What You’re Actually Buying
On January 2nd of 2014, everything changed.
I was browsing Amazon to look for some lightning deals after the new year holiday, and I came across the advertisement you see below. In that moment, the real reason I was purchasing all of this stuff was suddenly right in front of me.
I hadn’t been buying things – I had been trying to buy a better version of myself.
If you want to be healthier and happier, this Kindle Fire seems like a great way to get there, right? It’s offering you a fresh start, with endless ways to get healthy and happy. Endless!
For just $99, we can click a single button, get a fresh start in life, and discover innumerable ways to get healthy and happy. It’s clear that a fresh start, good health, and happiness are things that we all want. For the 2016 New Year, the number one resolution was to “lose weight,” followed closely by “getting organized.” And here was the Kindle Fire, promising to help us reach those goals.
Maybe it comes as no surprise that the healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss industries amassed revenues of $574 billion in 2013 alone. And that number continues to rise. Whether it’s a yoga video on a Kindle or a heart rate monitor on our wrists, we’re spending a lot of money on things that are supposed to help us be healthier and happier. But is any of it working? Let’s take a moment to consider it.
Is it realistic to imply that an Amazon Kindle is the first step to getting healthy and happy? Sure, you can look up recipes and yoga videos on a Kindle, but you can watch Netflix and browse Facebook, too.
Buying a Kindle Fire to get healthy and happy is like saying that the only thing keeping you from your goals is that you don’t have a portable electronic device with a seven-inch screen.
We take a false first step when we have an aspiration and then take an action that isn’t actually doing something. The false first step is an outsourcing of effort, a delay of progress, and likely, a loss of money.
We all know how to be healthy. Go outside, walk, stretch, or move in some way every day. Eat fruits and vegetables, and avoid high-sugar foods. We all know how to do this, and there is nothing on the Kindle Fire that will make us more likely to do these things. But we buy it, anyway.
What Was Your False First Step?
- Buying yoga pants instead of doing yoga
- Writing 10 blog posts before you publish your first one
- Buying a laptop instead of writing on whatever you have available
- Getting stuck on a project and starting a new one instead
- Researching new cameras when you don’t use the one you have
Using the Kindle as an example, here’s why we False First Step:
- You want to lose 10 pounds
- You see an ad for Kindle Fire featuring yoga videos, with the promise of getting healthy, happy, and a new start
- Cue emotional discomfort, resulting in what I call the Twitch—an impulsive, unproductive response to discomfort
- You click to purchase the Kindle Fire, believing that it is the solution to your problem.
- Your brain releases dopamine, and you feel happy and proud, as though you have taken a meaningful step towards losing 10 pounds
- Money leaves your bank account, and a physical item is shipped your way
- Kindle arrives in the mail, and you open the package
- The excitement of an apparent step forward causes another dopamine hit, triggering more self-satisfaction and accomplishment
- You feel better—receiving the product temporarily solves the discomfort you felt
- It goes into a drawer and doesn’t see the light of day, possibly ever again
- You focus on another goal or another solution to the same goal, and the cycle begins again
So, what happened exactly?
Buying that Kindle Fire convinced your brain that you actually managed to do something meaningful towards becoming that person you want to be. Enough so that, for a while, it satisfies your desire to progress and grow, and it makes you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something. Since you’re convinced that you’ve made progress, you move on, and the action never actually happens. Until that uncomfortable feeling comes up again, that is.
Since taking a false first step eased that discomfort last time, the cycle repeats. Perhaps this time, it will be yoga pants or a new pair of running shoes. Maybe it’s a Fitbit that will finally get us outside. Perhaps.
I thought all these things, too, over and over again until after four years, I’d spent over $12,000 and was in just about the same place with my running, photography, and calligraphy skills that I’d been before buying a damn thing. It took seeing that collective financial damage for me to realize the true nature of my buying habits.
How to Conquer the False First Step
1. Do the difficult thing.
Deep down, you know what decision you’re avoiding. It is often the thing you most want to avoid doing that is, indeed, the most important. There are a million ways to avoid it, to distract ourselves and take false first steps until the end of time. But the only way to move forward is to do the difficult thing, do the work, make the call, do the stretches, or hit the publish button. The difficult thing might give you anxiety. It might make you uncomfortable or nervous, but it is on the other side of that thing that the real magic happens.
2. Think like an entrepreneur.
Instead of investing thousands of dollars in an untested, unproven idea, (good) entrepreneurs are taught to build a minimally viable solution and test it. They see if it works, find out if people are actually interested in it, and find the flaws early on.
If you haven’t spent a great deal of time shooting photos with the camera you already have, you don’t need to buy a $1,500 camera to get better. You need to take more pictures. You might not even know what features you should be looking for that you don’t already have, which makes any purchase at this stage premature.
The minimally viable solution is doing what you can with what you have. Instead of buying new running shoes, go for a walk around the block. Instead of buying a new laptop, write your short story on a piece of paper or on whatever you have available to you.
J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book on pieces of scrap paper. Let’s be okay with writing a blog post on our slightly older PC.
3. Build a habit before spending money.
It should be obvious by now that we can’t buy better versions of ourselves. The only way to become better is to spend time working towards what we value most in life.
If your first instinct is to buy something in order to accomplish one of your goals, realize that this is likely a false first step. If you haven’t even tried to accomplish something using the resources you already have, slow down and assess the situation. That discomfort you feel is your opportunity to stop the cycle of consumption dead in its tracks.
Start first by establishing a small action to complete every day—something that, over the course of a few weeks, has the potential to become a strong habit. How amazing will those new running shoes be once you’ve been walking every day for a month? Once the habit is established, those shoes really can enhance your experience and help you continue your fitness journey. But they’re not going to do the work for you.
At the age of 23, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez directed his first feature film on a budget of $7,000–a small fraction of the multi-million-dollar budgets of most Hollywood films. He promoted his film at festivals, eventually sold it and went on to direct major motion pictures in Hollywood. Do the work first, and buy new gear only after you’ve demonstrated a commitment to yourself and others.
4. Rent or borrow the things you might need before buying.
To avoid having more clutter in your home and potentially wasting more money on a false first step, borrow or rent the equipment that you think will help you accomplish your goals. This will help establish a sense of urgency, as the equipment will need to be returned. You can focus on using it, and see if it actually does everything you need it to. You can always buy it later down the road if it helps you accomplish what you need.
While it may seem like you’re wasting money on a rental that you might just end up buying, in most cases it works out in your favor. Consider the expense of buying a brand new item that eventually goes unused, or the hassle of having to resell something that didn’t work as you wished. Renting first will save you time and money overall.
5. Learn what you don’t know by failing and failing again.
The best way to figure out what you actually need is to make a solid go of it and probably fail. You don’t yet know what you don’t know. By making a solid attempt at achieving your goal, you will ask better questions, be able to find better answers, and fail a little better next time. You can figure out exactly what you actually need to get to the next step once you know more about what you don’t know.
The fear of failure is something that plagues us all, but owning that fear and embracing failure as a step along the path is the best thing you can do. Instead of purchasing a new diet plan or perhaps a new camera and placing the blame for failure on those things, own up to your personal growth process.
Embrace failure, and allow yourself to recognize each one as you learn what you actually need to succeed. It took the inventor of the Super Soaker water gun over seven years to get his invention accepted by a distribution company. James Dyson failed 5,126 times on his way to designing a vacuum that worked the way he wanted it to. Don’t give up.
The last two years of my life have been very different from the years that preceded them. They have been more enjoyable, more fulfilling, and more aligned with my actual values than ever before. In 2015, I had the resources to volunteer my time in Honduras to help raise money for a new nonprofit my friend started. So far this year, I’ve lost almost 20 pounds by doing two sets of push-ups every day and finally avoiding high-sugar foods. No product has helped me do it—no tracker, no push-up accessories, or new gym shorts. The results simply came from aligning my actions with my actual values and desired outcome.
But none of that change could happen until I identified the false first step in my life. I had been making it time and time again to the detriment of my marriage, our finances, and the path to a life of experiences that I truly wanted.
I wasn’t making this choice knowingly. Instead, I was subconsciously pursuing things that made me feel as though I was making significant progress towards what I really cared about.
Remember that once you spend money for a product, the advertiser’s commitment to you is done. They’ve done the work to convince you to buy the thing, but the challenge is still yours to put that thing to work. Many times, you’ll find that you didn’t actually need the thing at all. You just need yourself.
I’m still not perfect at this. In fact, this very post has undergone a number of false first steps over the last year. It’s one of my big ideas that I wanted to share in an epic way. I’ve been so intimidated by it that I’ve come up with a million reasons why it wasn’t ready to be put out into the world. I convinced myself that I needed more data, more research to back up the idea and validate this feeling that I’ve had for so long.
You know what the REAL first step was to getting this post written? It wasn’t tweaking the outline for months. It wasn’t talking with countless friends about the idea and looking for validation from yet another person. It wasn’t even paying an editor to help me polish it.
It was hitting publish.
I took the real first step almost two years after this idea first hit me.
Hitting publish is the only action that matters because it’s the only action that gets me the result I want. I want you to read this, identify the false first steps in your own life, and be changed. There was no way to do that without actually putting this post into the world and seeing what the world does with it.
The real first step is hard. It’s hard because it should be. Because it means we’re doing something that matters. If achieving our goals was as easy as buying something, I’d be a world-class Olympic runner/Nat Geo photographer/calligraphy artist by now. Maybe you’d be a writer or a dancer or a millionaire entrepreneur. Whatever you aspire to, there are a million false steps to get there, but only one real way:
Break the twitch. Stop taking the false first step, and do the work that counts.
I invite you to join me on the journey toward becoming, rather than buying, better versions of ourselves.
Your turn: What false first step have you taken? Feel free to share in the comments below.