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?).

About the author

Daniel Epstein

Daniel Epstein

Daniel 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 life accordingly. Today, he is the founder of the Unreasonable Group, of the Unreasonable Institute and a number of other "Unreasonable" companies.

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  • I really like this "effectiveness > efficiency" equation. It's easy to get pulled into the busy-ness of checking things off of your endless to-do list. What a great practice to ask "are we climbing the right mountain?" on a regular basis. Brilliant!

  • Is going to university no longer the right mountain to climb up? Jim Deters, George Kembel, Hunter Lovins, Matthew O. Brimer, Rebecca Kantar, Romain Vak… I'd love your thoughts.

  • Totally agree. We've actually built this into the "communication architecture" of our small team at Unreasonable Group. I had to structure it in and be religious about it to make this actually work

  • We built it into what we call our "communication architecture." I do a weekly 1-on-1 call with each member of our team and one of the questions we always discuss is if we are climbing the right mountain or not. We also do a 48 hour team immersion once a month and this is always front-and-center in our conversation. To see the structure of our communications at the moment, check out http://unreasonablevalues.com/ and scroll to the bottom of the page (note: this website is for internal / not public facing use)

  • When I am working on my start-up I keep finding myself spending time on projects that in the end fall apart and negate the work I have put in. In other words climbing the wrong mountain. That said I don’t think that there is any way to avoid the inefficient and unnecessary work because I have couldn't have known it would be useless it beforehand.

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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/

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • “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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Thank you for sharing the article! Daniel, I perfectly agree with you and love how you used the quote, “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.” Your quote gives me uplifting motivation and puts things in perspective.

  • This article is very easy to relate to being that I am currently a college student. I had to transfer schools and change my major many times. I am graduating soon and some times I still don’t know if I am climbing the right mountain. I think the important thing is to take time to step back, evaluate, and learn from mistakes or challenges.

  • Some great points are brought up in this post. I can say that sometimes I get caught up in being productive and getting as many things done as possible but at the end of the day it was just an empty feeling of satisfaction. To relate it to something, we go to college and some of us are undecided or just choose a major we think sounds good but it’s not truly what we wanted. We get our classes done and then a few semesters later we realize that we were just in a hurry to get school done with but we don’t even have any interest in that major anymore. I can say that I was lucky that I didn’t jump the gun with that. I am 24 and still in college (I took some semesters off, and a year off) but now i’m 3 or 4 semesters away from getting my bachelor’s degree in something I know is perfect for me! Climbing the right mountain.

  • This article is more inspiring. First thing that comes to mind is my educational path I am headed. I am in my 4th year of schooling but am looking at maybe 2 more years because i transferred and also changed my major twice, but I think I am on the right mountain, even though im only half way up that mountain. Once you have a goal and your are set to it, you change your life to make new priorities.

  • Thank you! I read your comment below that said it took you 4.5 years to get your undergrad which makes me feel a little bit better about my education. By the time I finish my undergrad it will be 5.5 years for me. I know that it is not usually to finish your undergrad in four years anymore but I was starting to feel like I was taking so long to finish my degree. But after reading your article I feel good about how long my education is going to take me. It is going to take me a while because I am trying to soak up everything I can in each class and maximizing my abilities. I agree with you that just because you finish something fast doesn’t mean it was the right way to go. I know a lot of people who finished college in 4 years and when they got a job in that field they realized they had chosen the wrong major. I am proud of myself that I took the time to decide what I wanted to major in because I know it is the right mountain for me.

  • This article really made me think about whether I am “climbing the right mountain” or not. I planned out the classes I was going to take and made it so I could graduate in four years when realistically I need to take five. This gave me the perspective that just because I do something fast does not mean that I will get to the destination that I really want.

  • Is the problem you are solving worth caring about? The last question of this article is the key. As I was reading, I did not expect to read the question, ” are you climbing the right mountain?” Now that I’ve read this, I think I’ve asked myself this numerous times before and just didn’t realize. I received a degree in 4 years right out of high school. After graduating, I had no clue what I was going to do with it. I looked for a job and thought about what I could use my degree for and came out blank. Obviously, I climbed the wrong mountain. I wouldn’t change what did because I still learned a lot in those 4 years. Now that I’m on the path to become a teacher, I’m much more confident in saying that I’m climbing the right mountain or at least on my way to that mountain.

  • I completely understand you. I took a different route to “climbing my mountain”. I didn’t go to school right away after college. I did several things till I finally decided that I wanted to be a teacher. I may have not climbed the wrong mountain, but I certainly looked at a lot of different ones. I think it’s important to take a good look around while you make that climb to make sure it’s the right one. Also, bring the right people with you on the hike up and leave the negative slackers at the bottom.

  • I love the analogy of climbing a mountain. Do you think sometimes the wrong mountain leads us to the right one? Everyone that has every accomplished anything has made mistakes. What if climbing the wrong mountain is actually the “right” because it will help you recognize what the right mountain really is?

  • I completely understand what you are saying! I haven’t gone through it personally, but my girlfriend is graduating this semester and it has taken her 5.5 years. She’s switched from one school, to another, and back to the original. Changed her major 3 times. Now, she was hired professionally at Walt Disney World before she has graduated. I feel like reading about what you are going through/what you have done you are in the same boat. I hope your future holds the same it has for her. You (hopefully) have found your niche and climbing the right mountain. Good luck in your future! 😀

  • I am a firm believer that doing the job right is much better than just doing it or doing it faster. My father always taught me that a man should take pride in his work and never do anything half-ass’d (excuse my language). A lot of people thing that 1 million decent products are better than a dozen amazing products and I beg to differ. When you put your name to something, that is yours. You own it and it represents you. I for one wont allow my name to be tarnished by something I can take a little extra time to work on.

  • i completely agree with what you are saying. i transferred, and changed my major twice. we are all trying to get to the highest mountain that works but sometimes the highest mountain takes the longest to climb. i also agree with you shape your life around your goals. i agreed to a job that starts before the sun comes up. im not much of a morning person, but i will do anything to reach a goal i set.

  • This is great. I am sure everyone has climbed the wrong mountain at some point in their life. It is an awful feeling to have finished a project or a paper for a class to realize you understood it wrong. Then you have to go back and redo it all. It is not fun and I have done it once or twice. Being that I have made the mistake once or twice I am able to say that I slow down and check things more often then not. But I am always afraid I will start climbing the wrong mountain

  • It seems like making sure you are climbing the right mountain is something that is overlooked much of the time. People want to be fast and efficient and do not want to take the time to make sure what they are doing is going to be the most beneficial for them. Great article.

  • I agree that the subject of your ambitions has to be worth all of the effort, or vise versa you should not aim low for easy results. It is up to us to choose the incline and height of the mountain we climb but it must be worth it. Far to often people either aim low at an easy target and lead an unrewarding life or put in numerous thought and effort in what they are working towards and yet are only in it for materialistic or shallow matters and get no satisfaction.

  • Absolutely. One thing you have to realize, is that life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s hard to remember that when you see some of your peers graduating in four years, some getting married, landing jobs, which is all great things. But being a religious man myself, I think one of the biggest mistakes people make nowadays is not trusting the timing of their life. What I mean by this, is God’s timing. He has a plan for each and every one of us, and although you may want to graduate in four, that fifth year might just be what that man upstairs had planned for you.

  • The analogy of climbing the right mountain also reminds me of the phrase, “life’s about the journey, not about the end result.” Sure, we would like the end result to solve a problem worth caring about, but we need to be able to enjoy the journey to get there. So many people want their end result to be working a job that pays a lot of money, but they may find that the journey to get there isn’t enjoyable. If they’re not going to enjoy the journey, then they need to reconsider whether or not they are climbing the right mountain. To add to your post, I think the reader should keep in mind that once they get to the top of the mountain, that they should climb another mountain, and another, and another. They should not settle for one end result. They should keep reaching new goals, keep growing. And then years down the road, they will have achieved so much more than they thought they were capable of. They will be in a place they never thought up of when they were on the bottom of their first mountain, or better yet, when deciding to climb the wrong mountain.

  • I love this because I am on my 5th year of college going for my Masters next year now. I may not have the most efficient path and process, but it’ll be effective because I’m going for what I love and changing my major will help me be more productive in the future! Sometimes the efficient way to do something isn’t the best way and I’m talking beyond college now. Something as simple as an everyday task. It may be more efficient to put the dishes in the dishwasher versus hand washing them. But what is important to me is to be sure I’m being effective in every aspect before I’m efficient. These two can go hand in hand, but I’ll choose the latter over the efficiency.

  • That is how I feel. I could take 18 credits and not work or do any extra curricular, but then I’m not becoming well rounded and using all my resources around me that I have access to. I’m being effective in setting myself up for success in the future, not rushing through it all.

  • I did not know you were a religious person ClaytonEI08, but I Love what you say here. Like you said it can be tough to see some of your friends and peers graduating or getting married and what not, but you just have to remember that you are right where God wants you to be in this exact moment. If you live by that you will be a much more positive and happy person.

  • I am feeling the same as all my friends are graduating from college but I still have another year left. It is hard to push through this last semester knowing I don’t have much time left to spend with them in college. I often have to step back and think about my college career vs. my friendships and how to balance them both.

  • I totally agree! I am doing the same thing. Trying to rush through my undergrad when I should be focusing more on what I’m doing and working on it. Figuring out the right mountain to climb. Thanks for sharing!

  • I feel like my route i took to “climb the mountain” is the way i thought you were supposed to go and that was go to college right away but now that i think about it for me a least i feel like i moved to fast to go to college because my heads not in it and it should be and im struggling right now i feel like its because im not ready for college or least not yet. i just jumped right into it because everyone else did. i was just following what everyone else did and not my path.

  • This article is very true in its effort to explain force exerted will only result in movement if positioned correctly. What I mean by this is what the author means by “climbing the right mountain.” The only way to acquire a desired result is by proceeding in the right direction correctly. Having the patience of finding the right “mountain” or “path” to choose is sometimes the most complicated task.