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Effectiveness > Efficiency: Are You Climbing the Right Mountain?

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Why Give a Damn:

As entrepreneurs, we often fall guilty to the pleasures of productivity. But productivity in and of itself is a quick road to an end not worth caring about. Read this post to ensure you are climbing the right mountain.


The author of this post, Daniel Epstein, has founded and run 9 companies, including the Unreasonable Institute and Unreasonable Group. Along the way, he has started to pick up a few patterns… Particularly involving key things not to do. This is one of them.

When I started to take entrepreneurship seriously in my freshman year of University, I was obsessed with “moving quickly” and being as efficient as possible. I saw productivity and my ability to grind through work as my edge. Today, I can say confidently that my focus point then, although important, was misguided. Nearly a decade later, and after having found or co-found 9 companies since, I’ve come to believe something different. It’s best explained by this equation: effectiveness > efficiency.

After having found or co-found 9 companies since, I’ve come to believe something different. It’s best explained by this equation: effectiveness > efficiency.

I used to scoff at the belief that working smart trumped working hard. From observation alone, I’ve never met an entrepreneur who has done something historically significant without pulling routine all-nighters. A big part of me has always agreed with Thomas Edison who said: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” However, today, I now believe it’s not that working hard trumps working smart. Instead, it’s that as a team and as an individual, you must first work smart, then hard. Working hard first is an empty sense of productivity to an end not worth caring about.

I’ve learned how to articulate this best with a story that a dear friend of mine (a truly savvy entrepreneur), Matty Dorey, recently told me. It involves mountain climbing.

Let’s pretend for a minute that you have the aspiration of breaking a new record by climbing a mountain faster than anyone else in history. You are striving to be one of the fastest alpinists on earth. So you train painstakingly and relentlessly for years on end. You shape your entire life, your priorities, your sleep schedule, your friendships and your relationships around your singular goal. You spend your life savings and to afford the actual climb, you raise sponsorship and borrow money from friends and family. Finally, after having spent a small-fortune and many years of your life, the day comes for you to prep for the big journey. You reach the base of the peak and you push forward with focus, precision, and unfettered ambition. The weather is perfect and everything is clicking into place. Eventually, as fate would have it, you reach the summit. You look down at your watch and you realize that you have set a new world record. You have climbed that peak faster than any person before you! You just made history.

The most important question, far more important than the pace at which you reached the summit, is whether or not you climbed the right mountain.

That said, the most important question, far more important than the pace at which you reached the summit, is whether or not you climbed the right mountain. Today, I believe one of the most common causes of failure in the startup world is simple: you climbed the wrong mountain and you felt great the entire way up because you were moving at an incredibly fast pace. I am the first to attest, I’ve done this time and time again. I’ve raced for the summit before I considered fully the context, our resources, the competition, or market timing. Today, at Unreasonable Group, we now ask ourselves once a week, “are we climbing the right mountain?” Climbing the right mountain is a new core value of our team. We live by it. And in my limited experience as an entrepreneur, I’m willing to bet that living by this value is going to allow us to live much longer.

CANDID NOTE: I also think that making a fortune isn’t necessarily the right mountain. If you are a gifted engineer or designer and you build out a mobile game that is downloaded millions of times and you in turn make millions of dollars, I’d challenge whether or not that was the right mountain. (i.e. is the problem you are solving worth caring about?).

Daniel Epstein

About the author

Daniel Epstein has an obsession. He believes to his core in the potential of entrepreneurship to solve the greatest challenges of this century and he has dedicated his...

Daniel Epstein has written 19 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • fritzzr08

    I would first like to thank you for taking the time to not only write this blog but also found the unreasonable group. Because of you I now have the ability to go on this website and read blogs about all of your experiences and the experiences of the other writers and what they have to say about life in general. This blog is useful for me because I continue to question what I am studying at school right now because people continue to question my choice. One question I have for you is how do you know you are climbing the right mountain?

  • treehugger90

    Daniel, your article makes me think about my educational pathway. I am taking college slow and I am on my 4th year this year and still have about a year and a half left. I have switch schools 2 times and my major 5 times, but I believe it was my switch to help me climb the right mountain. I think everyone has a specific mountain they would like to climb and on their way up they want to make sure it’s the right one. I agree that everyone shapes their sleep patterns, relationships, and entire life around a certain goal!

  • http://danielepstein.me/ Daniel Epstein

    fritzzr08… thanks for the overly kind words my friend. Glad you are liking the blog!

    In regards to your question, I think there are a few ways to go about a litmus test around “right mountain” or not.

    - surround yourself with trusted friends (or co-workers) who can call you out on right mountain or not. And ask them routinely for their feedback (it may not always be right, but your reaction to their feedback will be telling)

    – listen to your gut.

    – Every night when you go to bed, reflect on the day past and every morning you wake up, think about the day to come. If you don’t feel great about both these for a series of weeks or months in a row, you are likely going up the wrong mountain.

    – Read this great post by Tom Chi – http://unreasonable.is/opinion/how-to-create-a-sense-of-purpose-in-your-life/

  • amykahl8

    Sometimes when I have a track or cross country workout I want to just get it done with quickly, I forget that what I am doing is for my future benefit, so that I can reach the peak of my mountain which would be getting a new best time in a race. I sometimes need to slow down and be effective instead of efficient. How would you suggest I stay focused on my goal on a day to day basis?

  • mhansen11

    Dear Daniel, I wanted to say thank you for this article! I completely agree with this message here you are trying to give out. It’s like quality over quantity as my softball coach always says. Making each thing you do really count and not just going through the motions. Which I think is what effectiveness over efficiency is! Making this an impact and really mean something than just getting it done. I would ask you a question of what are your thoughts on how you slow yourself down personally? We work on the mental game a lot in softball and we slow down the game and breathing for me works really well.
    Again, thank you very much for your time!

  • Collin Smith

    I am a big fan of the Thomas Edison quote. I believe that I work hard, but I also pride myself on working smart. I think the idea of effectiveness > efficiency is a great start to something bigger. How effective is the mountain you climbed? Who really cares if you climbed that mountain? I think finding your right mountain is extremely important. Strive to climb the highest mountain, regardless of how fast you make it. It’s better to reach the top of a mountain that’s never been seen before than to climb a smaller, more traveled one.

  • Caitlin Snyder

    Everyone has their own mountains to climb. With that mountain comes many doubts and fears. The higher the mountain, the better the goal and outcome of what you are trying to accomplish. I completely agree that people shape their lives around one goal, and people who are effective and work hard deserve to reach that goal! Thank you for this great article!

  • http://parisinmadison.blogspot.com/ Amanda O.

    “It’s that as a team and as an individual, you must first work smart, then hard. Working hard first is an empty sense of productivity to an end not worth caring about.” This is a great quote to live by. We often move so quickly that we forget the purpose of why we started something. It’s important to stop, think and reflect upon the journey that we are taking. And you are absolutely correct, the most important questions is not the pace you get there but whether or not you climbed the right mountain. Thank you for sharing.

  • vitalecm03

    Again, very inspiring and uplifting! I stated in another article of yours that I am currently struggling with my undergraduate and making it to the top of my mountain and over the past few months I’v realized that I need to slow down my pace and focus on doing well instead of finishing school at a fast pace. Hopefully with this new outlook I can do better in school and finish where I want to be.

  • http://danielepstein.me/ Daniel Epstein

    if it helps…. I took 4.5 years to finish my undergrad in Philosophy largely because I was working on so many things outside of school and like you are saying, I didn’t want to focus on rushing through it all

  • Marian326

    Daniel, thank you for your candor. I would agree that speed is not always the best way to approach a situation, be it school, or a business. What I did want to mention is that sometimes the mountain you are on is the right one for that season of you life, and the lessons you learn on that mountain will benefit you on the next mountain.
    I chose the mountain of marriage and motherhood when I was eighteen years old, and I loved being on that mountain for almost twenty years. I learned many things about myself and others while I climbed that mountain. When I got to the top of that mountain, I realized that it was time for me to climb a different mountain, and I started over with a new husband, and a full-time job. I learned many things on that mountain that prepared me for the mountain I am on today, the mountain of earning my college degree. I am just about to the top of this mountain, and I am not sure which mountain I will choose next. What I do know, is that there are many mountains to choose from, and everything I have learned from this climb is preparing me for my next adventure.
    I am a firm believer in choosing a path, sticking to it, and readjusting when you reach a destination. I advise students to stick with a major, to not be changing majors mid course. Get that first degree, and if you discover that is not what you want to do with your life, then tweak things along the way.
    One reason I waited to start college until I was 49, was that I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I am still not sure, but I have an education that allows me to chose from a myriad of possibilities. Not sure which mountain to climb? Pick one, and hike to the top to see what you can see.

  • Daniel Preuss

    I like the idea that everyone has their own “mountain to climb” during life, and will be faced with various obstacles in the way of climbing that mountain. As a college student, I am constantly thrown obstacles while “climbing my mountain” towards graduation and sometimes I just need to stop and think about which path is best for me.

  • Matthew Gust

    Thank you Mr. Epstein for this very insightful article. I found it to be very intriguing. I am a college student right now and I must say that I can relate to this pretty well. I have always had and have been working on the impression that I need to work as fast as possible so I can do what I want to do. I have started to change that kind of thinking though. This reminds me of the quality vs. quantity question. I always try to question myself am I doing a thorough and in depth job with my academics and responsibilities as a college student. This allows me to have great perspective. I am always reminding myself on what I am passionate about and what I am doing in college that will enable me to get where I want to be. The key to knowing if you are climbing the right mountain is having great perspective.

  • Zach Perkins

    Really motivating and inspiring! It makes you sit back and put things in perspective. That is very tough to do sometimes, because we are always on the move. I have definitely switched my climb on various mountains. Do you think most of us typically doubt the current climb we’re making even if its the right one?