I’m not the first person to refer to this idea of the Beast and certainly won’t be the last. The Beast represents some entity that must continue to be cared for and tended to, ultimately consuming a disproportionate amount of time and resources.
In his book Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull discusses how Pixar studios consistently creates amazing, award-winning movies. This unavoidably leads to a feeling that future teams have to create better movies and continue the success. He further elaborates on how Disney, a close partner of Pixar, feels the same pressure, and sometimes produces movies that are less than stellar in trying to feed the Beast (see The Lion King 1 ½).
Tim Ferris, while discussing his advice on starting a business, refers to this Beast (calling it a “monster”) as being a prison that achieves the opposite of the business’ intention of providing freedom. If you don’t “measure twice and cut once”, you could end up putting all your time into something that you aren’t getting positive results from. You get all the work with none of the reward.
We can’t simply put out work for the sake of work. Whether we built the machine or not, we should be mindful of the amount of time not just from ourselves, but from our teams, that is put into it.
On a deeper level, looking at the examples above, we see that success is really not a factor. It’s an excuse in either scenario for why we must continue. It’s either, “I haven’t hit my goal yet, I have to keep going” or “I have to do better than last time”.
Let’s slow down the machine and look back at how we arrived at feeding this insatiable Beast.
How we come to take care of it
First, let’s discuss who we are as humans. We operate, on a fundamental level, pretty simply. When solving a problem, we look for the least common denominator on how to solve it. Thomas Edison didn’t start with advanced electrical grids and trim off the excess to create a light bulb. He worked his way up to it, using previously existing technology of his time and innovation. Henry Ford didn’t create the Mustang first and say, “This is unnecessary, let’s throw some of this out”. His Model T wasn’t the first automobile in the Ford series, let alone the first gas-powered vehicle.
This is all to say that on our journey to create something complicated, we are focused. But unlike Edison and Ford, some of us take a wrong turn somewhere with our mindset. We begin with our idea and it either flourishes or it doesn’t. Then we react accordingly, which is where our mindset can go a little astray.
In the failure scenario, we look at the end goal and say, “I have to get there.” So we adjust and rehash and try again, only to misuse our time and fail again. Failure by no means is a bad thing so long as we’re learning from it. Without the learning, we just keep spending resources incorrectly. Unfortunately, we also remember our past failures, so if we keep racking up tally marks in the Losses column, we become fixated on the Wins column. Here, even if we see some amount of success, we are spending so much time trying to get there that we’re too resource-fried to push ourselves to the finish line. We can miss out on strengths and opportunities and be blind to weaknesses and threats.
In the success scenario, we are still focused on the end goal once we’re there. Now we’re saying, “I have to get there again, but faster this time.” Or we say, “I have to build the end goal bigger, so when I get there it’s better!” In any case, we can eventually lose sight of why we started because we have set the bar for ourselves. Same with the failure scenario, we remember what we have done. We can’t fall below that mark because we think the rest of the world now expects success with each generation of output.
How to stop feeding it
Run on your own stopwatch. It’s easy to look at what other people are doing and criticize yourself for not accomplishing the same thing. You need to look at how you, your team, or your organization are progressing. This isn’t ignoring your competitive edge, it’s taking care of it by focusing on what gave you the competitive edge. I’m going to mix metaphors here but stay with me. Constructing the tallest building in the city doesn’t happen just because you want it to; it happens because you communicate your vision effectively, resource the right tools, hire the right people, take risks with opportunities, and provide guidance with obstacles. But if you’re staring at everyone else’s buildings, you’re just going to keep messing up what you’re doing with yours. Back to the stopwatch.
Taking this further, you need to recognize that even your own previous successes were being run on a slightly different stopwatch. You should want to improve, of course, but you need to grade yourself with an updated form of measurement. As a company or as an individual, you can incorporate previous methods and people, but the goal should be altered to align with the updated vision. You already achieved the other goal, why are you trying to achieve it again? If it’s a new goal, it should truly be different in some way. Same for the vision.
Know where the finish line is. Success has a flexible, often subjective definition. You should get very clear on what success means to you with each business or endeavor you’re pursuing. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous strategy; where “run on your own stop watch” forces you to look at your own goal right now, “know where the finish line is” ensures you have defined what that goal is. The Beast can form when your goal is fuzzy because you might end up running the wrong direction and spend all your time getting caught up.
It can also form when you are running for the sake of running because everyone else is doing it. Have you ever accidentally ended up in a marathon race? No. It wouldn’t make sense to try to run a business for the sake of it. Further, as per Tim Ferris, you also shouldn’t try to win first place in the marathon if you just ran your first 5k last week, or worse, have never run at all. Find the race where you can be the fastest runner and run that race. You should still get out of your comfort zone and stretch yourself, but it’s hard to compete in your panic zone when you’re going up against existing giants in the industry.
Don’t train alone. You might be strong enough to go it alone, but teams exist for a reason. They break up the work, they provide support, and they diversify the perspectives. If you find yourself feeding some Beast you created or were assigned to, or you’re looking to avoid doing so, get assistance from others. Any entrepreneur at the top of their field, CEO of a company, or Olympic athlete will tell you they didn’t get there by themselves. At least, they won’t if they’re humble and being honest. You only get better when you leverage your strengths with others who leverage their own strengths.
Think of every person as being an expert in something you’re not. The Beast will have a difficult time forming if you’re constantly surrounded by people who can see weaknesses and threats coming in advance. Likewise, having more people with you helps you recover if you fall behind because of an unforeseeable set of circumstances. Remember, falling behind can lead you to the Beast, rendering you helpless to just keep feeding it and never catching up.
Doing any one of the suggestions above might help, but the power of following all three will create a stronger foundation. Think of it as a tripod and you’ll begin to see that a weaker, or nonexistent version of any one of those can reduce the effectiveness of the other two. If you’ve reset your stopwatch and have a team to help you, but you don’t know where the finish line is, then you’re more like tourists than race runners.