This article was originally published in Fast Company.
Take a deep breath. Engage parking brake. Turn ignition on. Shift into first. Disengage parking brake. Clutch up. Gas down. Sputter sputter. Cough. Lurch. Die.
So goes the first 15 minutes of my driving lesson yesterday, the one where I find out how hard it is to work a manual transmission. Mia, my wife, sitting beside me and patiently reminding me not to grind the gears, is wondering if we’ll ever move from this spot. Possibly wondering what’s more dangerous: this, or skydiving?
Then, for one magical moment, I let out the clutch and push down on the accelerator in heavenly harmony. The little blue car slides smoothly forward. I resist the urge to high-five Mia, and instead immediately go into a fantasy of actual usefulness–me buying groceries in Winterton; me driving to the bank to pay our Internet bill; me taking the kids to–huh? What?
Mia is screaming in my left ear. “Second gear! Go to second!” Flustered, I grab the shifter and pull it back, completely forgetting about the clutch. Grind, flobble, lurch, die, whiplash-inducing halt.
Take a deep breath. Engage parking brake… Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Gradually, I begin to get the hang of it. At one point, I am handling curves in fourth gear (when you don’t have to slow down, it’s easy), and I even make a right turn onto a side road, and then cherry-on-top it with a fancy reverse move known to professional drivers as the “k-turn.” Oh yeah!
Yet my conversion rate from cold dead stop to rolling first gear is still only about 25% by the end of the lesson (which is defined by a total cessation of left-brain function, such as the ability to count to 5 and form recognizable words.) So I have a long way to go.
But hey, 25% ain’t awful. Nobody got killed. And the rental car is back in front of our house, none the worse for wear (at least during a walk-around inspection). Since Session #1 qualifies as a success, I get to share some marketing lessons highlighted by the experience.
1. There’s a big difference between theory and practice.
I need you to understand that I’m not a complete moron. I do get the theory of manual transmission. I ride a 24-speed bicycle. And I’ve seen The Italian Job and Scent of a Woman. So driving a stick isn’t a foreign concept.
But knowing what to do in theory doesn’t count for much in the real world. I know online marketers who are addicted to Amazon.com and email newsletters and new product launches. Whenever they’re faced with a challenge, they run to find and absorb new information. Yet their infatuation with the information ends when it’s time to implement.
No matter how promising, how lucrative, and how easy it seems at the beginning, putting the strategy into practice always involves work, time, and a reduced set of expectations. No fun at all! So it’s on to the next big idea, and the next, ad infinitum.
Mastery is achieved not by understanding theory. It’s achieved by messy movement. By manhandling that clutch until my feet sense the correct pressure and release. By being willing to be bad at something until the trials and feedback and failures start to pay off.
As an author of Google AdWords For Dummies, I deal with a lot of people who want to get involved in AdWords but still can’t figure it out in their heads. They’ve read my book, and usually several others. They’ve attended webinars and seminars and downloaded ebooks and special reports. But they still haven’t set up an account, bid on a single keyword, or written a single ad.
You can’t learn to drive a stick shift–or master a marketing medium–in your head. Mastery is a form of muscle memory.
I’m not saying, by the way, that theory is a bad thing. If I had started to drive stick without understanding the mechanism and potential consequences of my actions, you wouldn’t be reading this now. (Yes, I know what you’re doing right now–don’t be alarmed, it’s just a parlor trick.)
And I certainly recommend that new AdWords users ground themselves in theory before giving Google their credit card.
But don’t confuse preparation for accomplishment with accomplishment itself.
2. Isolate the next step and eliminate distractions
While Mia is driving me to the lesson venue, a quiet, level side road, I am making a sequential list of the skills I need to master.
- Starting the car on a flat surface.
- Shifting as I speed up and slow down.
- Pulling out from a traffic light.
- Shifting while turning.
- Starting the car on an uphill using the hand brake.
At first glance, 1 and 3 and 5 appear to be pretty much the same: go from not moving to moving. But context matters a lot. When the big white van races up behind me, oblivious to my left indicator and my auric field of panic, I discover that letting out the clutch while pressing the gas is a lot harder when I’m also concentrating on not getting rammed from behind.
I’d be a fool to try shifting into first gear with 15 cars waiting behind me (even here in Africa, where patience is the rule rather than the exception). It’s just too much to think about.
I see a lot of online marketers falter when overwhelmed. It’s understandable. There’s so much to know, and that knowledge base is a rapidly moving target. But don’t try to take it all in at once. Find the one skill that can move you forward right now.
The trick to learning a skill is to isolate that skill until you can do it repeatedly in an environment of no distraction. Don’t practice jump shots until you can hit free throws. Don’t try to master image ads on the AdWords Display Network until you’ve figured out how text ads work. And so on.
3. Minimize risk
Two elements of this story to highlight. First, it’s a rental car. Low deductible. If I kill the transmission or sideswipe a jacaranda tree, it’s not really that big of a problem for me.
Second, my kids are not in the back seat. Not that I could have bribed them to come along with anything less than an ultra-light plane and tuition for Hogwarts. But I didn’t try. My genetic imperative is to keep them safe.
I’ll be driving them soon enough (as soon as their rational fear of my driving is drowned out by stir craziness). But for the moment, I’m happy knowing that they aren’t in the line of fire.
Many new online advertisers get burned by unknown and unnecessary risks. Setting unlimited budgets while giving Google and Facebook your credit. Accepting the default settings which target huge swaths of humanity rather than a strategically culled few. Sending expensive traffic to untested pages and offers.
Some people think entrepreneurship is all about taking risks. In my experience, most of the time, it’s just the opposite. Entrepreneurship is about planning ahead. About limited risk and exposure and learning from every test and applying what works to bigger and bigger opportunities. As Perry Marshall and Tom Meloche memorably put it in The Ultimate Guide to Facebook Advertising, “aim tiny and miss small.”
At the end of the day, marketing and operating a manual transmission are both about balancing momentum and leverage. Movement and power. Opportunity and risk.
And don’t worry, my next article is not going to be, “Marketing Lessons from Skydiving.” Mia refuses to drive me there.