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Barriers are your enemy

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It’s surprising to me when I hear someone come up with something they want to do, but–in the same conversation–they go through every conceivable thing that could go wrong, and conclude that it will never work.

It’s like they have all the physical manifestations of running a marathon, but they never left their chair.

At these times I want to throw something at them and scream!!! But I don’t. Instead, I come home and write an article on a blog. If only all criminals were like this.

I’ve been thinking about why some people are so successful so quickly, while others seem to get stuck. I think I’ve got one big reason: The smartest people relentlessly remove barriers around them. And the others let barriers control them.

Last weekend, I went home to visit my family. While I was there, I asked my mom if she would make me some food, so like any Indian mom would, she cooked me 2 weeks’ worth. I came back home skipping like a little girl.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. When I got back to my place, I took the food out of the brown grocery bag and put the clear plastic bags on the counter. I was about to put the bags in the fridge but I realized something astonishing:



I’m hella lazy. And if I got hungry, I’d probably go to the fridge, see the plastic bags, and realize that I’d have to (1) open them up and then I’d have to (2) open the Tupperware to (3) finally get to the food. And the truth was, I just wouldn’t do it. The clear plastic bags were enough of a barrier to ignore the fresh-cooked Indian food for some crackers!!

Obviously, once I realized this, I tore the bags apart like a voracious wolf and have provided myself delicious sustenance for the past week.

But the larger point of removing barriers is what I want to talk about for a few minutes.

I think the source of 95%+ of barriers to success is…ourselves. It’s not our lack of resources (money, education, etc). It’s not our competition. It’s usually just what’s in our own heads. Barriers are more than just excuses–they’re the things that make us not get anything done. And not only do we allow them to exist around us, we encourage them. There are active barriers and passive barriers, but the result is still the same: We don’t achieve what we want to.

This happened to me a few years back, when I tried to start an education company with a couple of friends. We solicited feedback on the prototype (from our friends–you’ll see why this was a mistake). And what was the #1 question we got? Not “What’s the market size?” or “how do your financials look?” or “what do your users say–would they use it?” Nope, we never got those questions. The most common question:

“Don’t you need a business license to run a company?”


* * *

I hate theory, so I’ll keep it short: These are the the 2 types of barriers I’ve thought of, and they’ve helped me frame my thinking: Active barriers, the kind that stop you from doing something, and passive barriers, whose absence actually stops you from getting things done.

  • Active barriers are physical things like the plastic wrap on my food, or someone telling me that it’ll never work, etc. These are hard to identify, but easy to fix. I usually just make them go away.
  • Passive barriers are things that don’t exist, so they make your job harder. A trivial example is not having a stapler at your desk; imagine how many times a day that gets frustrating. For me, these are harder to identify and also harder to fix. I might rearrange my room to be more productive, or get myself a better pen to write with, etc. In another example, a design student named Maja Kecman realized a barrier–of doing laundry.As a fix, she created WashingSacks:

    The WashingSacks, designed by industrial design engineer graduate Maja Kecman, are nifty dissolving laundry bags impregnated with washing liquid. Once filled up with laundry the bags can be placed straight into the washing machine.

    Very cool. If I had that, I wouldn’t dread doing laundry. Imagine how that could apply to things you dread.

You can use barriers to your advantage
The good news is that you can use barriers to your advantage. Want to watch less TV? Throw the remote control away. Want to drink less Coke? Don’t buy it at the grocery store. It’s not rocket science, but it works.

You don’t know what you don’t know
I have a friend who I’ve been helping with jobs over the last few weeks. She’s doing fine but has one very peculiar view: She thinks she’ll never succeed in the corporate world. Why? I calmly asked, knowing I wouldn’t remain so for very much longer. She told me that she thinks she’s “not confrontational enough and not aggressive enough.”

Oh my god. Ok, here’s the thing: First of all, you don’t necessarily need those characteristics to succeed in business. Second, what does “succeed” mean to her?

Third, and most important of all, does she have any idea what she’s talking about? I’ll answer that myself: no. Any guesses why?

Because she’s never worked in the corporate world.

Most of us don’t know what we don’t know. I’m included, you’re included, everyone’s included. (This is why, when it came to our friends’ feedback on our company idea, we took it with a grain of salt, because they didn’t know what they didn’t know.)

And in ambiguous situations like these, we look to cues around us to guide our attitudes and behaviors, cues that are reassuring. Isn’t it more comforting to say “Aw that’ll never work” than to actually dive deep, talk to people who know what they’re talking about, and figure it out for ourselves?

Of course it’s easier to say no. Creating barriers is easy–especially the kind that let you do nothing. If someone approached you about starting a business, would your first questions be about who gets how much equity? Or who’s going to steal your idea? If so, you’ve successfully created a barrier.

Fortunately, most other people do exactly this–so if you’re the rare person who doesn’t, you win.

Some examples of barriers
Once I started removing barriers, I got wayyy more done. Here are some more examples. I hope that they give a sense of how the Removing Barriers mindset can be applied to your own situation:

  • “It’s got to be perfect.” Here’s a chat with a friend. Background: She had an idea that I was going to take to a company I’m consulting for, and I’d been after her for a week to send it to me. For some reason, she’d been dragging her feet.Ramit: hey can you also send me your mobile phone ideaRamit: i need that today if you want to send it

    Friend: today what time?

    Ramit: asap

    Friend: does it have to be fancy

    Ramit: no

    Ramit: no!!!!!!!!

    Friend: oh

    Friend: i started on a ppt

    Ramit: dude

    Ramit: it needs to be like a paragraph

    Friend: oh

    Friend: i’ll do that now

    Do you make things more complicated than they have to be?

  • “I’m not going to apply to Stanford/Harvard/etc because even if I got in, I couldn’t afford it. Plus, it’s expensive to apply.”Apart from being completely wrong, that sentiment takes the approach of someone throwing their arms up and saying “There’s not much I can do! Might as well give up!” Give me a break. I’d rather have someone say “How we can we make this work?” and then find clever ways to solve the problem.When it came to my college applications, it was about $50/application. In a middle-class family, that adds up quick. You know what I did? I didn’t enclose the application fee. Instead, I put a note in my application explaining my situation and asking if they could help. And I told them that if they couldn’t help, would they please let me know and I’d find a way to send the fee in.What’s the worst they could say–no?

    And of course, you can guess how many colleges asked to send the fee in: 0.

  • “I can’t start a Web site. It’s too hard.” Listen, I hate coding and dealing with the logistics of Web design. That’s no excuse not to start a site. Why do you think this site is an easy-to-update blog?

The bottom line of this whole essay is to remove the barriers that prevent you from getting things done. Some of these barriers are assumptions, things like “I can’t get that award” or “You need to have X, Y, and Z” before you can start a company.

No, you don’t. Talk to some people who’ve actually done it before you shoot yourself in the foot. PLEASE!!!

Other barriers are very real: The plastic bags on my food, no matter how trivial, would have actually discouraged me from eating my food. The outcome in both cases, however, is the same: They get in your way and you don’t get what you want.

The above examples were just that–personal examples. If you can connect my basic point with the barriers you have on a daily basis, I’ll be thrilled. Let me know how it goes.

Update 3/30/09: I’ve written many more articles on barriers:

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  1. This is great advice! I particularly like the suggesting with college applications. I will be passing that idea on.

  2. WashingSacks. Freakin’ genius. Why didn’t I think of that?!! haha

  3. a man with barriers Link to this comment

    Thank you for your fantastic post on barriers. As I read your post I realized that one of my biggest productivity barriers used to be the desire to sit around in my pajamas and read several newspapers in the morning. Though I simply identified it as ol’ fashioned procrastination at the time, now I realize that I was trapped by the mental barrier of feeling like I had to be showered and dressed, despite my lack of will to do so in the morning, to actually do something productive.

    I lived uncomfortably with this tendency to let my morning slip away until mid July when I took an LSAT practice test and I didn’t score as well as I had hoped. This was particularly devastating at the time because I had been taking a prep class and working pretty hard on the homework (after I finished my morning newspapers and showered, of course.) In my desperation to do better on the LSAT, I was willing to try anything. So when my girlfriend suggested that I start exercising in the morning, I tried it. It worked.

    Instead of starting the morning off with the paper, I started it with a run. While it took me a couple of hours every morning to run out of reading material and then feel satisfied enough to hop into the shower and start my day, it only took me 20 minutes to stretch and run a mile to achieve the same effect (most likely because I was sweaty, tired, and desired to hop in the shower to be clean again.)

    I didn’t really think about my morning motivational problems as a barrier until I read your post this morning. Thank you for helping me clarify why my new routine works. I look forward to identifying the other barriers in my life and figuring out how to remove them.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Your post is perfect! You do not have to think of barriers when doing something big, but in each and every little thing you (Ramit’s food example is good) – I just start making a list of what all I need to overcome – and I have repeatedly found (I get surprised even after repeatedly finding it) that every barrier was small enough to overcome once I became aware of it – so take a simple step of becoming aware that a barrier is blocing you!

  5. Perfect advise on startups and presenting ideas. I believe in demo-or-die and the demo needs to do just what it actually does and nothing else ! Lots of people I confront with when presenting an idea, ask silly questions about the fancy stuff and forget about the actual usage of the idea itself.

  6. Dear God I love this site…

  7. This is the best site on the internet. This guy is a genius and I have now doubt he will soon be rich.

  8. murli mohinani Link to this comment

    I think it was a great article..Indian moms are greatest in taking care of their kids but at the same time very very protective which I think is a time capsule barrier…many time ppl who leave away from Mom’s protection graduate faster then others.. So in every bizness I think its looking over the barriers and beyond..takins self advice then having too much protective advisers is the greatest advice

  9. Thanks Ramit. I’ve read this post twice now, and it is still a really great post.

  10. thanks mate. this is quite interesting to read. i have never really thought of obsticles in my life as barriers that i could simply overcome. i am working in school right now and i think that this advise is going to help me in the near future.