Editor’s note: Today I’m excited to publish a guest article by Tom Ruby, the CEO of Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions. A 1986 United States Air Force Academy graduate, Colonel Tom Ruby served 26 years on active duty in positions from Squadron Intelligence Officer, to Chief of Doctrine for the AF Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Enterprise, to Chief of Special Programs for Air Force Materiel Command. Tom earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Kentucky in 2004.
As CEO of Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions, a business and consulting firm, he actively mentors business leaders, graduate students, and teaches advanced analysis and critical thinking courses. He continues to write on multiple issues and speaks globally on critical thinking, leadership, strategy, and morality in warfare.
It starts with a heartfelt and seemingly innocuous comment, “I wanna do what you’re doing.” There is so much back story to that one sentence. So many assumptions. So much abstract. So little practicality. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All endeavors need a starting point. Finding someone you’d like to emulate is as good a place as any to start. But, man, is there a huge chasm between that abstract idea of your desired goal and the concrete practical steps that much be taken before that end can be achieved.
This delta between the abstract and practical is an issue for all segments of business and commercial industry. It is also an issue in simple human sociology such as the use of social media and accepting specious claims all the way to believing in conspiracy theories.
The Planning Fallacy
You’ve read me write in the past that there is no such thing as Magic Pixie Dust. That means that there is no way to get from a good idea to a successful conclusion without numerous, necessary steps in a certain order and with considerable risk.
Yes, any successful endeavor starts with an abstract idea. If it were any easier, then nearly anyone could turn any idea into an easy pile of cash. But that’s not how the world works. And pretty much everyone knows that. Yet we don’t recognize how difficult those practical steps are that come after the abstract idea. Even experts in a field regularly underestimate the time it will take to complete a project. That reality is called the planning fallacy and it arises because seemingly simple steps are not planned for and times or budgeted. No magic pixie dust.
Perhaps you listen to podcasts and say to yourself, “I’d be great at that. That’s what I want to do.” To get from that abstract idea of wanting to host a podcast to actually hosting a podcast with listeners who care takes more than desire. You need to determine if your desire is simply to put content out there whether or not anyone listens to it or cares, or whether your desire is to have a following of a certain number of people. Or it may be that your real desired objective is to make a living off podcasting.
The First Step is Not Enough
[In this article I’ll ask you to apply the steps and lessons in the following paragraphs to your own business. The steps for podcasting may be unique to that endeavor, but if your desire is to make farm equipment or code software for a living, the same steps apply.]
If your desire is to simply put content out into the ether, then you can record your own thoughts on your mobile device’s voice recorder, save it to a web site and call it a podcast. If anyone finds it, great. If not, then you’ve still achieved what you wanted to achieve in putting content out on the web.
If your desire is to have a certain number of people who listen to you, then you need to figure out who your target audience is. It is unreasonable to expect any group of people to care about your podcast if you discuss issues uninteresting to them, or even differentiating between other podcasts in the same lane.
In this scenario, you go from a simple recording of whatever is on your mind to a targeted message. You are either determining which demographic would like what you are discussing and then go find them and convince them to listen to you, or else figure out what a particular demographic wants to hear and then discuss that and convince them to listen to you. The point here is that several steps beyond recording whatever is on your mind are necessary simply to achieve a certain number of listeners.
In 2018 there were half a million podcasts on the web. In October 2020 there were 1.5 million. That increase cannot go on at that same rate for long without some bubble bursting. But in the near term, more people are putting out podcasts. So if you want to convince your target number of people to add you to their podcast list you need to know what to talk about so that they want to listen and you need to get your name out there so that they actually know you exist and hopefully make it simple enough for them to listen to you.
And once the target audience finds you and actually listens to you, you need to continue putting out your content. So what does that mean to you in the concrete vice abstract? You have to conceive of your topics, research each one sufficiently to speak for the duration of your podcast and then you must continue that practice repeatedly until you are either tired of it or decide you can retire.
The Importance of Beginning with the End in Mind
If your goal is to make a living as a podcaster, you have to produce a podcast that enough people listen to that advertisers pay you in sufficient amounts to live on. If you look around the podcast space, you will quickly notice that those people who make a living off podcasting have full production staffs in order to facilitate the production of a podcast people actually want to listen to.
So before you make dollar one to support yourself and family, before you are popular enough to have advertisers to pay your for your work, if you want to earn a living off podcasting, you might think about how you will sustain yourself and the production staff you’ll need to hire to make it the kind of podcast businesses will want to pay to advertise on. Those are the steps that must be thought out. Those are the steps that take time, that must be accomplished in a specific order.
And all these steps, all these hires, all these investments before money is made must be financed by someone. That means taking out a loan from a bank or finding investors to fund you (a different form of borrowing, but borrowing, nonetheless). That means that if you want to make a living as a podcaster that makes a living by podcasting, there really isn’t any magic pixie dust. This is a real business venture with real requirements for a business plan sufficiently detailed to merit people or entities (banks) offering you their money at their risk for the hope of future profits off your most excellent podcast.
Investing in the Experience of Others
These steps make clear the reason that everyone who has a great idea doesn’t suddenly look down to find a freshly fattened wallet. If it was as easy as having a great idea, waving your hands and suddenly an entire business enterprise is churning out the product of said good idea, then pretty much everyone would be doing that, and everyone would be easily wealthy.
But the fact that there is no magic pixie dust means that those businesses that actually create enough wealth to pay their founders, the investors, and the workers who make their product, careful attention must necessarily be paid to specific steps on a daily basis. For a podcast, that means planning out a series either one episode at a time or one season at a time.
That means contacting potential guests for interviews and following up with them. That means researching topics. That means carefully writing and editing copy. That means practicing and reading and editing your recordings.
In other business sectors, the same steps apply. And it is those specific steps that most businesses need help with. Your average business leader is a smart individual with an idea and passion to succeed. But there is a surprisingly high percentage of leaders who desperately need an outside set of eyes to assess their process of turning abstract ideas into concrete strategies.
Those businesses that are confident enough to seek out and pay for honest and accurate assessment are those that win at their game. Sadly, the business leaders that most need outside help seem to be consistently the least likely to seek it out for fear of being seen as less than fully competent. But if you are able to set aside ego for the betterment of your business, think about calling a small consultancy for help and be surprised how clearly the concrete steps of abstract ideas can resolve themselves without magic pixie dust.