Sink or Swim?: It Depends on When You Pick Your Head Out of the Water

As important as it is to ask questions, do your research, and learn from mistakes, often success in business (and in life) depends on striking a balance between the times when you must pay attention and the times when you just need to look the other way.

It's All in the Timing

Several years ago (in my triathlon days), I used to compete in races that included open ocean swims. For those not familiar with the sport, swimming in open bodies of water is not at all like swimming in a pool. There no neat lines to follow, no calm, clear water, and no predictable distance from one end of the pool to the other.

In open water swimming you are forced to contend with waves and currents that can push you off course, cold water, and an arbitrary route. Then there is all the confusion created by the other swimmers who, with no lanes to separate them, suddenly become a spaghetti bowl of flailing arms and legs. In order to stay on the race course, you have to pick your head up out of the water slightly every now and then and "spot" yourself – usually with the markers that have been placed along the route.

The spotting in and of itself is something that takes practice. You need to look enough times to stay on course, but if you look too often or too long, it will tire you out and slow down your momentum. The key is to time it right and to know where to look...

Navigating the Course

There are several givens when it comes to running and starting a business. You WILL make mistakes along the way. There WILL be down times when despite all your best efforts it just looks like nothing is going, nothing is changing. There WILL be customers who just don't seem to get it. Or maybe you don't get it. But if you stop to consider all of this or if you dwell too much on it, you'll lose your momentum; you'll stop moving- and that can mean the death of your business and any other goals you may be striving for.

Now, of course I don't mean that you should go along blindly. There are dangers in that as well.

The key to success in business and life is know what to pay attention to versus when to overlook some of the messages that may be coming your way and instead follow your gut.

So, you may be wondering how do you decide what to look at versus what to ignore. While you obviously need to consider the particular details of your situation, here are three "W's" specifically in the area of business to have in mind:


How common is the issue or setback? Are there other startups or businesses that have these concerns? In the grand scheme of things, will putting effort in this area really make a significant difference to your business, and what could possibly happen if you ignore it?

If, for example, you are struggling to pay off your monthly expenses, then it should set off red warning lights to stop an evaluate the flow of cash coming in and going out of your business since without sufficient working capital everything will come to halt. On the other hand, if you are starting a business, decisions that can be changed relatively easily later on, such as , may not have to command too much attention or effort.


Where is the concern coming from? Are you receiving consistent messages from your customers, your co-workers, your consultant, yourself? If your customers are consistently telling you the same thing, then it is probably a good idea to stop and listen, while it may not necessarily be true of a message from a handful of customers, your peers or even a mentor or consultant.


Do you have a time and place set aside to specifically evaluate how your business is doing? If you create the space to evaluate your operations and to consider areas for growth and even to just "check-in" with yourself, your employees, and your customers, then three things will likely happen:

  1. You'll be able to pick up on those areas in your business which may need some attention or tweaking
  2. You'll be more receptive to making any necessary changes because you'll be looking for them
  3. When you're not an evaluating mode, you'll be free to focus on running your business.

That said, if you simply find it impossible to make decisions based on gut feeling or your spontaneous nature often gets in the way of a more deliberate decision-making process, then align yourself with people who naturally excel in the qualities and the perspective that you are lacking in. We're talking business partners, mentors, colleagues, and friends who you can consult with to help you to stay on course.

In short, it's all about striking a balance, knowing when to look and when to shut yourself off from all the voices (whether they're coming from the outside or they're internal ones) telling you that you'll never make it, directing you off course. Get it right and you'll not only finish the race, but you'll come out wining.