Obey Me or Fail

Are you trying to do something hard and complicated? Maybe it’s lose weight or build a business online or improve your Star Wars origami skills.

Along the way, you might have sought out some advice. It could be advice from someone you know, free advice from blogs or the library, or a paid “how to” product.

If your Hard Thing has enough pieces that need to get put together, and you don’t quite know how all of those pieces work, the thing is probably giving you a giant headache.

Advice is swirling around you like a sandstorm. Each guru is competing for your attention and action. Everyone has a surefire system for you.

Your head gets more and more jammed up with conflicting information, even as the gurus are trying to get you unjammed by giving you a single path to take. They use their authority and a mountain of case studies to grab your attention and try to get you focused.

“Obey me or fail. It’s your choice.”

If you don’t learn how to navigate all this well-meaning advice, you risk getting too exhausted to go on before you’ve reached your goal.

Here are some tips I’ve found useful for finding a path through the wilderness:

Find one or two voices you trust

There are many paths up the mountain, but if you try to put a foot on every one, you’re not going to get very far.

(If anyone knows the source of that paraphrased quote, will you let me know in the comments?)

For almost every complex endeavor, there’s a limited number of things you need to do, but lots of different ways you might do them.

Whatever path you’re on, you’re going to get to a rocky, annoyingly difficult spot and think to yourself, “This can’t really be the path. This isn’t a path at all. Is that giant boulder really supposed to be right there in the middle of it?”

Sorry. There’s a giant boulder in the middle of all the paths. You can get a good map and a really spiffy compass, but you’re the one who has to scramble over the boulder. With very few exceptions, a new and better map will just take you a few miles out of your way to circle back to the same damned rock.

Find a map-maker you trust and follow her map to the end goal. It’s generally a good idea to make sure that someone else has used this map to get to where you’d like to go.

Starting over with a new map is hardly ever quicker, even though it’s always tempting.

Create cycles of action and learning

Learning and taking action are two very different modes. If you’re going to do your Hard Thing, you want to honor them both.

Action without learning is usually fruitless. It’s too likely to leave you wandering around without direction or purpose.

Learning without action is definitely fruitless, assuming you actually want to do your Hard Thing. Sometimes the dream and the mental challenge can make you feel good, which might be enough. If that’s why you’re doing it, go ahead and be honest with yourself about it.

Assuming you want to take the action route, you need to consciously plan out that moment of transition. If you’ve picked up some advice, whether it’s a paid information product or a blog or a free email course, take a separate step to translate the advice into activities. Go through each lesson and figure out what next action you should be taking, then figure out when you plan to take that action. Create a worksheet for yourself and fill it out.

I can’t tell you how much I learned from Teaching Sells in the process of creating worksheets and next actions for other students to take. When you sit down and take the time to map out how you’re going to translate learning to action, you’ll find yourself much less overwhelmed.

If there are lots of individual components you need to master, you may need to string together different pieces of advice. You don’t necessarily need to get a Big Overarching Map from anyone else, but if the system you’re using doesn’t have one, be sure to create one for yourself.

Understand what the pieces are (even if you’re completely clueless about how to do them) and scribble out some rough ideas about how you might put them together.

Plan out your cycles of learning and doing. They’ll both seem to be taking too long to produce any results. That’s ok. If you’re consistently alternating between learning and doing, and if you’re following a decent map, you’ll get there.

When you’re in the middle of it, it always feels like you’ll never get to the end of the path. That’s how you know it’s a path worth being on.

Be your own guru

I was talking with Havi the other night about her frustration with gurus. She’s spent a lot of time getting clients unstuck who aren’t moving forward with their businesses because they can’t complete some seemingly necessary step like creating a USP or developing their personal brand.

Her advice is often to just keep moving past the stuck spot.

Sometimes there are spots on the map that you won’t be able to use. They’re not suited to your project, or your personality, or the resources you bring. Sometimes you need to blaze a few pieces of your own trail.

Sometimes you’ve actually completed the step already, but it doesn’t look like you thought it would, so you wait around trying to figure out what comes next.

If you spend more than two weeks feeling stuck about a particular step on your map, try moving forward without it. If you skip it and things start working again, that step might not be one you need. Or it may be a piece you can fill in later, when you know more.

Learning matters, but when it keeps you from doing, that’s a red flag. While you don’t want to bounce from map to map, it’s also not helpful to use a map that’s inscribed in stone. (Too damned heavy, for one thing.)

At the end of the day, any map is really a model for you to write your own map on top of it.

So what Hard Thing are you working on? How’s it going? Are you stuck or are you rocking and rolling? Let us know about it in the comments.

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Flickr Creative Commons image by PhillipWest


  1. Julia Dunlop says:

    Well I spoke to the lovely Sonia as my guru – and since our conversation during a fire-drill everyone else I’ve spoken to has agreed with you! The hard thing that I am working on is writing a book explaining how cryptic crosswords work. I’m about half done now, but it’s a struggle! Would class myself as ‘rocking and rolling’ but also stuck in the middle. A bit!

    Julia Dunlops last blog post..A good one by Araucaria …

  2. Joanna Young says:

    So the conclusion is… to ignore the advice of gurus, except for this one? I’d go for that!

    I like the concept of starting with a map that’s known to work, but also giving yourself permission to make it your own over time. I think a lot of us go astray by thinking we need to carve our own path out entirely, when there are easier and better worn routes to try. (Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself here!)


    Joanna Youngs last blog post..8 Things I’m Up To (and where you fit in)

  3. JoVE says:

    Great advice. Your bit about the boulder on the path made me think of my policy for checkout lines at the grocery store. Never change lines. So the guy in front of you has some delay going on. If you change, then someone in the new line will develop a delay too. Better to wait out the delay.

    And I think this is all about the tension between having some well worn routes to follow and having good judgement about what is going to work in your case. Sometimes we are so worried about messing up we find solace in more and more learning and advice. Other times, as Joanna says, we dump all the advice and try to strike out on our own. When really, there is a middle way.

    JoVEs last blog post..If I knew then… #2: Publishing in the wrong places

  4. Grace says:

    So true! One of the best things I ever heard from a truly wonderful teacher was along the lines of, “Don’t pay any attention to me – it’s your experience that counts.”

    And I see so many people who get to the boulder in the path and think they’re doing something wrong … or, maybe even more sadly, get to the place where they’re about to shift the boulder and give up.

    Thanks, Sonia. This was a great reminder for me today!

    Graces last blog post..Meditation and the argument with the mind

  5. Fabeku says:

    This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. I’ve been feeling stuck on a few planning points for too long. Now I feel better able to move on without them, and either circle back later or not. Thank you!

  6. I can think of a couple of good sayings to go with this one:

    The obstacle is the path.

    And especially this:

    The map is not the territory.

  7. Sonia Simone says:

    @Julia, I am so glad you are moving along! It sounds like you are making great progress, I look forward to hearing more about it.

    @Joanna, LOL. I have very much the same tendency, I will overcomplicate the map for the sake of making my own thing, or will just thrash around for no sensible reason when I really could just ask for directions.

    @Michael, wise you are, my child. ;)

  8. “When you’re in the middle of it, it always feels like you’ll never get to the end of the path. That’s how you know it’s a path worth being on.”

    Truer words have never been spoken.

    As I build up a following on my own new site Insomnia Cures, *(excuse the blatant self promotion :p) I find the most difficult thing is taking the time to stop thinking negatively and just take the required action. And the more I look at the long road ahead, the more insecure I can get that I’m not doing something right, or rather, that I’m not on the right course. Sometimes it’s worth it to know that the most difficult and intimidating path is usually the right one.

    Love this post Sonia.

    irene @ insomnia curess last blog post..Busting The Top 10 Sleep Myths Wide Open

  9. Peter Beck says:

    Many thanks, for another of what always seems like a “couldn’t be more timely” post.

    Lots of irons in the fire over here…but I knew it was time to regroup when I sensed relatively little forward movement, and a definite overall blah. In bodywork terms, it’d be called “overtraining.” Or training without taking the need for cycling into account.

    Goodness abounds out there, as does the “paralysis of analysis.” Decisive action from a solid foundation goes far.

    Peter Becks last blog post..EMR 101, Part 3: Abstract & Delegate

  10. Sikantis says:

    The path is the goal! One of the important steps is a healthy self-esteem.

    Sikantiss last blog post..Esteem through words

  11. I think you got the quote from me. And I got it from my teacher, which is why I hear it with that crazy Ukrainian accent in my head.

    Though for all I know he translated it from Sanskrit or something.

    I was going to say that there’s nothing more genius than the phrase “obey me or fail” (can’t wait to read the book), but that image you got for this post takes the genius cake. With frosting. I may have to marry that little gromlin.*

    *I know it’s gremlin, but that little guy is totally a gromlin.

    Havi Brooks (and duck)s last blog post..I survived SXSW.

  12. Terry Heath says:

    So I was reading Naomi [see how cool I am that I assume anyone worth anything knows who I'm talking about] and she mentioned crowd outsourcing is one of the big buzz things right now. She heard it at Southby [see, if you're really cool you'll know I mean SXSW] which she went to but just hung out with Havi [whose comment is right above mine, so I'm like cool by association] and didn’t go to any panels, which is so totally alternative that I love it.

    So anyway, crowd outsourcing. It totally works in blogging too. Just be yourself and move forward, and listen to the crowd that surrounds you as you do. As long as you’re being authentic. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, I mean we’ve heard of crowd mentality and all, but people know what they like.

    That’s how American Idol works, and American Idol works.

    Really. Obey me or fail.

    Terry Heaths last blog post..A Rant About Actually Being Qualified To Do Stuff

  13. Mark Silver says:

    I know it’s kinda lame and useless to show up several days late, and just say “Yeah!” waving my fist in the air. But that’s what I got:


    There’s this concept in Sufism about entering Oneness through the heart of your teacher, which requires a complete surrender to them. However, what is often misunderstood is that the surrender is not to *them*- it’s to your own heart’s to the infinite through their heart.

    Why am I saying all of this? Well, there’s another saying: “There are no false sheikhs.” Meaning someone who is truly sincere in seeking the truth can find it on any path.

    The trick is to focus on seeking the truth, and not mistaking the guru for the truth. Merely a doorway, a signpost. And anything can be a signpost to the truth if you listen closely enough. :)

    Okay, I guess I had something else to say. But, what it really sums up as is:


    Mark Silvers last blog post..Luddite Offline Marketing

  14. Fernando says:

    So true.
    It reminded me of this. (I think it is one of those “anonymous” ones).
    “A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision with a task is the hope of the world.”

  15. Sonia Simone says:

    @Mark, you can show up any time and say anything, I am always so glad to see you here. :) I think that’s exactly the same thing I’m trying to get at.

    The path is the path. It doesn’t belong to any one person or tradition, and really your path is always unique, made of your own stumblings. Some paths are more efficient and some lead to more or to less comfortable spots, but the main thing is to walk it and see.

    @Havi, I can see getting it from you. One of those quotes I heard and got instantly encoded deep into my brain, without any memory of who got it there. Brains are tricksy creatures.

  16. Désirée says:

    A very good blog post. Thank you.

    I got advice about my formatting that I tried to follow and made a mess of it all. Read more

    And learning and action – to true. You need them both.

    A very inspiring blog entry.

    Désirées last blog post..Project Sunlight is up and running

  17. I’m trying to make a good living online without having to do too many painfully unpleasant or repetitive tasks. I’ve had to do a lot of them during my first year of independent consulting, but I don’t want to hire or outsource them and get stuck as a ‘manager of boring tasks’ – I want pour my energy into something more creative.

    For me the “great boulder in the middle of the path” is usually this feeling of overwhelm… like the internet is moving too fast and I just don’t know the right direction. What am I thinking? What am I drinking or smoking? How am I going to make it and constantly compete with all these people in an ever-changing landscape?

    I feel kind of burned out from too much ‘doing’ and not enough learning. Three years ago I took a year off and studied direct marketing, graphic design and basic web dev and it was tremendously empowering. Would love to have a sabbatical or do something like that again.

    Brett Borderss last blog post..Dear Web ‘Celebrity’ Who Never Follows Anyone Back,

  18. Sonia,

    Simply great advice and a wonderful metaphor. You want to always be moving forward toward your goal, but you also don’t want to sacrifice learning from what’s behind you. Action and growth only help each other grow in size.

    David Dittells last blog post..The Hip-Hop Dictionary.com Word Of The Day: Imbroglio


  1. Learn and Do says:

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  2. [...] About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication. [...]

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