Castles in the Air

ishot-15As a child, Foster Huntington dreamed of living in a treehouse. Now, at the ripe old age of 27, he divides his time between two adjoining treehouses – one to live in, the other to work in – both perched precariously on a grassy hilltop overlooking the vast wilderness of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington state. What started out as a young man’s pipe dream soon became a plan, which then became a reality, thanks to the help of some willing friends and a bit of clever engineering. An avid outdoorsman and photographer, he is now a social media entrepreneur who runs his empire from up here in the canopy, the whimsical treehouses serving as both inspiring backdrop for his work and clever advertisement for himself and his brand.

Like all passion projects, this one was not realized overnight. Four years ago, Huntington was living the life of a worker bee in the fashion industry in New York. But something about the urban life and glitzy career did not seem to fit. It began to chafe, like an ill-fitting suit. So after quitting his job at Ralph Lauren, he bought a used VW van and hit the road. He drove around the country taking photographs of van life, living on a steady diet of bean burritos. The photographs turned into a blog, which then turned into a book. The advance from the book gave him the money to turn the dream of building his big-boy treehouse into a reality.

Execution Trumps Idea

Most people have their own version of a “treehouse” waiting to be built. It could be a book long talked about but never written, a company never started, a widget never invented, an early retirement – some foolish notion that for whatever reason, takes up real estate in our heads and won’t let go. Back in 2012, I gave a talk at TEDx in the Netherlands where the theme of the conference was “Full Creative Potential.” One of the things I spoke about was the necessity of having a good idea, but more importantly, having the ability to properly execute on that idea. Ideas alone are worthless. Without the ability to execute, they remain as castles in the air.

Back when I started my own coaching practice, it took a lot of time and energy to get going. And I had a full-time job at the same time. So I started very small, giving myself the goal of one paying client by the end of the year. One client turned into two, and on it went from there. But it was really difficult in the beginning, and lonely too. Starting a business, I soon realized, is way harder than it looks. Nobody gives you anything, you have to go out there and get it. Thomas Edison once said: “A lot of people miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.” And becoming an entrepreneur, starting a business or building a treehouse – is really hard work. This is the execution part where most people fall down.

You Will Never Be Ready

“But I’m not ready, I need to do more research, I need to talk to more people,” I hear you say. That may be true. But if you have an idea or a project you wish to explore, my advice is simply to begin it. That’s it. Begin before you’re ready. Allowing yourself the possibility of failure is key to getting going. One of the things I liked about Foster Huntington’s story was how loosely he approached his treehouse ambition. He didn’t overanalyze it, or do market research on treehouses, or write up a business plan. One day, he simply called up one of his buddies and said, “dude, I think I want to build a treehouse.” The reason he was able to find people willing to help him was because it was a fun idea. Who doesn’t want to build a treehouse? I’m sure that there were challenges and setbacks along the way, but once that initial spark of a creative idea was ignited, there was no going back.

If you have an idea for a project, spec out the minimal features you will need, find some friends willing to help you, or find a single customer willing to pay and just get started. Even if you’re not 100% ready. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it might be better if it fails on the first go round. Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM put it this way: “Do you want to succeed? Then double your rate of failure. Success lies on the far side of failure.”

One of the most damaging myths our culture propagates is this idea of overnight success. But dig a little deeper into any “overnight” success story, and what you will usually find is some obstinate individual who was willing to devote a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance in pursuit of their ambition. It’s about making a start, learning from past mistakes, incremental improvements over a period of time. These small daily wins add up like compound interest in a bank.

How and where will you build your treehouse? What does it look like? How will you feel once it’s there? In the words of Thoreau: “If you have built castles in the air, that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”

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