Kill It To Build It

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I almost launched a new product last week.


It started as a post. Then, I saw a deep pain point. One that gobs of people have, and that I’m capable of solving. And I figured out how to solve it on the cheap, really cheap.

So I did what I normally do when I need to think through every aspect of a project before actually launching it. I wrote the sales letter for it. Why? Because a really good sales letter explores every need, every buy trigger, every aspect of the solution, every point of differentiation, every element of proof needed, every possible delivery format and call-to-action.

It looked great on paper…but then I killed it.

Not because I couldn’t pull it off. Chances are it would have been a hit and put real money in my pocket. Not because there wasn’t a valid need. The demand is big and constantly renewing. And not because I didn’t have the proof to back up what I could do. That was the easy part.

I killed it because it was a distraction from what I really needed to be building. Because a sales letter tells me whether it’s right for the market, but it doesn’t tell me whether it’s right for me.

Stepping away for a day, it became clear the project would actually be serving a bit of a subversive role in my life. It would be pulling me from the much bigger thing that’s been looming in front on me for a long time now. The one I still need to do a solid chunk of work to really understand. The one that goes much deeper into who I am, what I really care about and how I want to serve people.

The one that, when I give birth to it—and I soon will—if it succeeds, it will take me, my career and path in life to a very different place.

But if it fails…it will crush me.

I killed the project, because it was a project.

And at this point in my life, I need to be building something more.


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60 responses

60 responses to “Kill It To Build It”

  1. Tim Brownson says:

    Oooo baby if I were coaching you I’d really be getting my teeth into that last bit.

    You don’t “need to be building something more”, you want to.

    You’re a successful guy with a great family and you’re doing stuff you want to do. Maybe, really, really, want to with all your soul is more accuarte?

    But need is a model operator of necessity and just imposes stress and makes us feel crap at a deep level, especially if whatever it is then doesn’t pan out.

    BTW, we just sold the rights for How To Be Rich and Happy into China of all places!

    • Tim, I wonder about this. I get what you’re saying…”need” can often come from a compulsive drive that isn’t so wholesome.

      But what if the “need” is a “need” on a deeper level, some kind of imperative that our spirit is calling us to do?

      I can’t speak for Jonathan, of course, so I’m not sure what meaning that word “need” has for him in this context. But your comment did make me wonder if there are times when it really is important to pay attention to a “need” that speaks to us in our life.

      • Tim Brownson says:

        What if it doesn’t happen for some reason? Will he die? If not, then by definition it was a want.

        Now we’re playing semantics somewhat, because of course we can have really, really strong wants or yearnings that we feel we simply must (same word in another guise) achieve to make our life meaningful, but they will increase stress levels (not always a bad thing admittedly) and if we fail the crash is much greater from a need than a want.

        And to be honest I was playing Devils Advocate somewhat with Mr Fields, I’ll give him a pass 😉

        • Ah, Tim… well, from one Devil’s Advocate to another…

          Your response implies that our physical reality dominates over our spiritual reality.

          Yes, I agree — on the physical plane, the only things that will end our life are basic needs such as food and water not being met. After that, everything else is a want.

          Yet, again, what if there is a calling, a yearning, that needs to be met in our lives? Our body may not die if it’s not met, but something inside us might wither away.

          I guess I’m wanting to highlight that duality we so often create between mind/spirit and body.

          I think the tricky part is delineating between needs and wants on that spiritual level. And here’s where I would agree with you… almost everything is a want. Including things we think we “need.”

          But I think when we really pare ourselves down to our most essential selves, there will be a yearning that needs to be answered. Maybe for one person, it’s about writing a novel. Maybe for another it’s running a marathon. For another it might be having a child.

          The other tricky thing about this is that we so often get attached to those ‘needs’ being met in very specific ways. So that if our dream is to write a novel but no one wants to publish it, we are devastated and, like you say, we’ve created lots of stress for ourselves. But what if we wrote it and published it ourselves? What if we gave ourselves the joy of meeting that need in our life without the stress of adhering rigidly to a certain idea of what form that takes?

          Just a few thoughts 😉

          • NOPE says:

            lol no

          • Niko says:

            Maia, I was really rooting for you – believing you’re very much on the right track feeling uncomfortable with the received wisdom of wants vs. needs.

            But, in my view, you undermine your case with the examples you bring up, in particular writing a novel and running a marathon. Having a baby – if we consider that phenomenon as a person being a principal conduit for bringing new consciousness forward – may be a good example (though only if we consider the phenomenon at some fundamental level beyond that at which we normally “think”).

            But I agree with you there is indeed something in us that withers away, as you put it – indeed, we could say it never becomes born – if we don’t follow this… what shall we say…?


            An instinct that resides at the very root of all that is. Deny it and it seems nothing is really different – nothing really changes – no life-threatening results, no crash and burn. Easy to dismiss, then, as just another want… Even easier to dismiss as the fantasy workings of yet another mystic loon…

            But accept it, follow it, live it out to its end – which is always a new beginning – and the truest Joy arrives, infectious in its capacity to spark out of dormancy the same instinct in others – if that is its destiny within the matrix of energies in which “you” refer to itself as “I” and to “them” as “others”.

            I’d like to believe Jonathan was speaking at that level of need. Yes, indeed, a need! 🙂

            The driving need of all that is to experience full consciousness…

            (Oh well, ho hum… just the fantasy workings of yet another mystic loon… :-))

    • TomC says:

      Hey Tim,

      Of course I agree with you. When I say “need” what I really mean is “for me to move on to the next step it is “necessary” for me to complete this step.

      Plus sometimes the word “need” gives me that little bit of extra stress that motivates me.

      So I am kind of giving myself a pass when I say “need”. I know I won’t die if I don’t take that step. And of course, if I don’t die, I can try again or move on. For example, if I want to be the American Idol, I need to win the finale. If I don’t win perhaps I can try again or move on to a music career or go in a different direction. Not dead, not the American Idol, but on to something definitely better than dead and possibly better than being the American Idol.

      Congrats on the book, btw.


    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Probably a more accurate word for what I was trying to express than “need” is “aspire.” K, we all good now? lol

  2. Kathy says:

    What a reaffirming moment of self-awareness. Not all of us listen so deeply. Thank you for the example of what it takes to pursue the big dream.

  3. love this

    needed to hear it

    even more that i needed whatever-amazing-product you were creating for the market 😉

  4. Hiro Boga says:

    Jonathan, your post this morning speaks directly to my heart. And to the work that’s been calling me.

    It takes courage, faith, and commitment to say No to other possibilities, no matter how worthy or practical they may appear to be. To follow this call where it leads.

    Wishing you a joyful journey, as you build your something more.

    • I almost expected this, Jonathan. Really. Hiro Boga said the words straight from my heart. (She always says something important, and beautifully)Each and every time something begins to be very troubling in all that I have been learning, either yourself or one of my other cyber-mentor-heros just nails it. Period. This is what is important. Thanks for being here this morning with your message.
      ~Amber-Lee (aka Alaska-Chick!)

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Word on the street is that no is the new yes (also the new black, but hey let’s conquer one thing at a time here)!

  5. Oh did this hit home!
    When there’s a slew of new ideas swirling around in my head and a legitimate pile of things to do on the desk, the challenge is to stay focused on the absolute must do’s.

    Which is where I am at this very moment. A deadline looming for the not so much fun stuff I need to do and my worktable looking woefully forlorn. Call in my Star Wars mantra, “stay on target.”

    So for now, I’ll sketch and make notes about all those great ideas and, as Steven Pressfield says, “do the work” and resist the temptation to cave into the distraction.

    Back to work for me!
    thanks for the nudge.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      One of the greatest challenges for any creator is to develop the ability to listen to your body and intuition on a level that let’s you understand the difference between Steve’s Resistance and legitimate “hell, no, you should do that!” I’m still very much on the path to figuring it out myself

  6. Good for you my friend that you didn’t allow any distractions in this point of your life – focus!

    Great reminder for us all!

  7. Julie Roads says:

    Hey there. Poignant as always. What if you took the idea and sales letter and sold it to someone you know, like and trust that IS in a place to do a project. And you got a percentage of their profits… maybe? a little room for grey?

  8. Nail. Hit. On. The. Head.

    Strategy is at its best, not when it tells us what we will do, but when it clearly shows us what we will not do. It sounds like you have your personal strategy locked in, Jonathan. Thanks for leading and teaching through your experience. I’ll gladly continue to learn.

  9. Maybe if someone else was managing it for you it wouldn’t be a distraction. Unless that’s not really the issue. It could be a distraction for your customers too and jeopardize whatever the big thing is you’re building.

    • Tim Brownson says:

      I suspect he’s building a big wooden horse that he’s going to climb into and have somebody push it all the way to SXSW next year as a publicity stunt.

      I could be wrong though.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great point, and something I thought about. With other projects, that might have been an option, but because this one revolved around a novel way to scale access to, well, me, it wasn’t really doable.

  10. jurgen wolff says:

    Very wise, and so easy to forget! There is nothing more alluring than a new idea, especially a good new idea. But as you say, sometimes we have to lash ourselves to the mast and ignore the sirens! Thanks for the reminder. – Jurgen Wolff, Your Writing Coach

  11. Yeah. The scariest but best operating principle. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  12. Happy to read that Jonathan. Saying “No” to potential work/projects/time-suckers is one of the hardest things to do for any of us in business for ourselves. In a culture that preaches “you should be happy for what you have!” or “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” it takes courage to make the call on something like that without regret.

    But I think that’s why many of us are here each week on your site, to offer support for each other as we attempt to do that THING, that something bigger that we know lies ahead.

    Good luck with the big plans you are hatching!

  13. Lisa Alessi says:

    Bravo Jonathan! Sounds like you are very connected to your calling and an inspiration for those of us who are striving to break out of the comfort zone and expand our roles. Thank you!

  14. dave r. says:

    the biggest lesson from this is being able to say “no”…when it doesn’t feel right, it is fine to walk away without regrets.

  15. Paula Dennis says:

    Thanks Jonathan for putting in words what I do all the time. As an artist who works in many different media, I am the queen of “oh shiny” and I’m off in a different direction. Then I’m wondering why I’m not progressing in my art.

    Only recently have I figured out that I need to focus on one thing and do that. (I’m a slow learner.)

    Thanks for the reminder that sometimes, more is not better.

  16. As someone still exploring the terrain in search of his first project, which I hope will take me, my career, my path in life in a very different direction, I can faintly relate to this.

    Making choices about how to use my time and energy are paramount for me right now, because right now both are at a premium.

    I recently severed a budding partnership because it was leading me away from my core.

    Maybe you will post again in greater detail about the process that led to your decision?

    I’m in search of perspective on this very important question.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s largely about a guiding question for me. I ask –

      Will this [insert opportunity] allow me the greatest opportunity to become absorbed in activities and relationships that fill me up, while surrounding myself with people I cannot get enough of, creating maximum value for my time and generating enough income to live well in the world?

      That question is always evolving with me, but that’s about where it’s at right now.

  17. Rob Nielsen says:

    Hi Jonathan —

    Thanks so much for this . . . what a crucial point you make, and it certainly rings true for many of us right now.

    I went through a similar experience recently . . . I’ve been tinkering with a project / side career for several months, only to realize that the “service” I wanted to provide (social media consultation for realtors) was going to be a significant distraction from my main (current) role, which is to sell houses.

    And, moreover, the most important part — I’m neither an “expert” nor a “guru” nor a “ninja” (happily so, mind you!) — while I have great passion for the tools & community engagement that social media offers, because I haven’t yet walked the walk, I need to stop talking the talk . . . and just listen while I learn. If I can’t point to my own personal success in converting prospects to clients via social media, how can I possibly coach others?

    Thanks again for your insight!

    SF, CA

  18. Erin says:

    Multiple messages for me here, but my top two:
    1.) I like the “backwards” thinking (doing the sales pitch before the service/product is even ready). I’m adding this to my own backwards technigue on things which is to ask myself, “How would I never approach this?”
    2.) Being thoughtful and mindful – taking the time to sit with something that’s initially so exciting, shiny and new, instead of immediately reacting to it, wanting it, jumping on it without thought to the consequences.

    Thanks, Jonathan. Yet another reminder to take deeps breaths…

  19. Jenny Thomas says:

    Well-timed post. I’m sat here reeling with exhaustion, and feeling lost, all from allowing myself to be distracted from what I know I really want to be doing.

    Thank you 🙂

  20. This is great, Jonathan, how you walk us through your process with this. This issue – great ideas popping up everywhere! – is a real problem for creative people. It’s easier to fall in love with the initial excitement than to stay with what’s challenging us.

    Thanks for modeling how to stay focused.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yup, entrepreneurial ADD. I think most of us have it, but the ones who create true genius are the ones most skills not only at focusing, but at dropping.

  21. Tami Smith says:

    Cool ~ just really cool to hear it put into words. I had a sense of that knowing, but hadn’t quite arrived at the clarity of “right for the market doesn’t always mean right for me.”

  22. Geoffrey says:

    Love the comment and the message. I’m curious about the timing evident in the phrase “at this point of my life.” I’ve bounced around a bit (from being a professor of law to a sales manager to a learning consultant). At times I have taken huge missteps. But since my twenties (a few decades ago) I’ve been driven to do what called to me at the time, even if I was not that good at discerning the meaning of a call!

    Why “at this point of my life?”

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Because it’s an evolving exploration for me and lifecycle plays a very real role in my decisions.

  23. Amen! It’s obvious, of course, but do people pay attention to this aspect? Not always. Reasoning is good. Gut. Intuition. Better. Best.

  24. Tara Landes says:

    For ten years I have been working toward the top spot in a company, only to find that when it was offered, the journey that I was on to prove my worth was far more compelling. I’m sticking with the current strategy – no need to make the jump.

  25. Dan Perez says:

    OK, so pass up a project to develop a product/service that’s in high demand, has a high likelihood of success and can generate lots of money that can benefit you, your family, or even a charity in favor of a cryptic, still unrealized personal project that might make you or possibly destroy you?

    Maybe I’m just getting a touch cynical as I get older but this one smells a little funny…

    Good luck with that other thing.

    • The value of self-actualization cannot always be measured in dollars and cents…but rather in the in the sense of oneself.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks for the opportunity to allow me to add two clarifications.

      1 – I used the word “crush” to mean it would hurt a hell of a lot emotionally. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be recoverable, nor does it mean it would “destroy” me financially or leave my family destitute. It wouldn’t.

      You already know from hanging around here, I’m not a huge believer in always following the “most likely to succeed” or safest option as the path to security. A lot of people did exactly that for decades and found themselves in a hella position in late 2008 and 2009.

      I AM a huge believer in extraordinary competence as the closest we can get to the notion of security.

      2 – This post was about me and where I am in my life. How it applies to anyone else and where they are in their lives, that’s up to them.

      No doubt, if I was having trouble putting food on the table and a roof over my family’s head, I would have likely made a very different decision. It’s hard to devote your energies to anything but survival when locked in a mortal battle with the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy.

      There is no universal right or wrong for every person, nor for every moment or phase of life.

      As always, Dan, thanks for asking the questions that allow me to go deeper into my own process and help clarify my words.

  26. It is usually not “bad” things that get us off track. It is those seemingly good things that can run us straight off the road, detoured, or dead ended. That is why it is most important to know our purpose and values; it serves as our compass. Without it, we have no guideposts for our choices. Thanks for the reminder to stay true to my purpose, and not let projects run me off track.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      There’s often great genius in allowing yourself to get off track. That’s why I traveled as far down the road with the other project as I did.

      But, at a certain point, you also need to start asking what the opportunity cost of traveling any further is. Always a fun balance to play with.

  27. Maddie Grant says:

    Hmmm, this seems a little strange to me. I’m much more of a “let 1000 flowers bloom” kind of person – and a “find what works and do more of that” person, and a “figure out the flow” person. I see nothing wrong with trying lots of good experiments, where some will fail, and some will turn into great, great work.

    And yes, I don’t sleep enough. But you only live once, IMHO. Better to spread value while you can than hoard it to the point where it may never happen.

  28. Wow Jonathan,

    The courage to stand for, acknowledge, and listen to that “quiet voice within that knows all”, to remember that there is so much more than our little pea-brains can sometimes grasp, allows the grandness of who we REALLY are to step forth.

    Thank you for your willingness!! And for sharing that process in such a delightful and meaningful way.

  29. I did a very similar thing, just last week. I saw that teaching yoga was distracting from the other aspects of my business which were bringing me greater levels of happiness: writing, working 1:1 and convening women’s legacy circles.

    It was a tough choice to cut the yoga. After all, I love yoga! But last week I came to see it for what it was; a smokescreen. It was something to hide behind. It was an easy cover to keep me from focusing on my main game.

    Like Maddie, I’ve often tried lots of experiments to see what works and still there comes a time when spreading yourself thinly means that your influence is spread thinly. Being true to what is really calling you takes much more courage and ultimately, I believe, ensures that your influence is deep and abiding.

  30. I applaud your courage Jonathan. It takes a lot of courage to focus and keep going thru all the twists and turns that arise once we’ve committed ourselves to somehting. As a result of NOT allowing distractions from side show alley to have their way with us (regardless how good they look or how bonified they may appear) something deepand rich emerges. Thanks for your thoughfullness in posting this, it comes at time when I need to be asking myself the same questions you asked yourself. . . . amazing how that works isn’t it!!

  31. Bravo Jonathan for not only doing but sharing.

    I’ve been thinking of this as the challenge of balancing Maslow’s level 2 with level 5, something that has been a constant struggle of late for me.

    To me this is more than “shiny object syndrome.” Rather understanding the balance between short-term and long-term personal, professional, and family goals. Not a single tightrope but a myriad of them to be traversed, each with unique obstacles in the way.

    I love the idea of selling your idea to someone else. If you try to have someone else execute but you still “manage” or feel engaged in it I believe that it will still pull on your time and attention. Can you set the opportunity free for someone else to breath life into? Might it be something that aligns with someone else’s path in life? Maybe your role is to birth it but allow someone else to have the change to help it nurture and grow? If you truly believe in it, you can “give it away” at no initial cost but with residual income downstream. Perhaps the name of one of your readers came to mind as you think about this.

    For myself, it was a good reminder. I’ve need to buckle down and work on my list of priorities. Create a “do not do” list.

    Be well, happy, healthy, and free of guilt on this one – whatever path you choose.


    • I ended up writing a blog on success in part as a result of this blog and comment stream.

      The bottom line is that we all define success and failure for ourselves.

      Jonathan – I was struck again as I came back by your closing statement “But if it fails…it will crush me.”

      I encourage you right this minute to decide that no matter what happens, you will NOT be crushed. You are in control of the definition of success and failure.

      Success may simply be taking the chance, the risk to try. That in and of itself is a success. The courage to do so should not be undervalued. Many are too afraid to try.

      I’m confident that one way or another you are on your way to another place. It’s your choice how to measure it.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Always love your insights and questions, they help me focus in on my own exploration. Take a look at my answers to Michael Martin’s comment on why I couldn’t pass off this particular project.

      And also check out my response to Dan about the use of “crush” (okay, maybe even I have a little drama queen in me, lol!). I was using the word to mean it would hurt an awful lot, but to me feeling that way is not a negative, it’s a signpost that something really matters to me.

      Hope that helps clarify.

  32. […] might be about walking away from an opportunity.  Jonathan Field’s recent article Kill It to Build It reminded me of this earlier today.  Jonathan had a business idea but decided to “kill […]

  33. TomC says:

    I could have this tattooed on my forehead so I can look at every morning.

    There are only two mistakes one can make (along the road to truth); not going all the way, and not starting. – Buddha

    My life has been about starting stuff… then getting sidetracked and then not putting focused effort throughout any project. I think this happens to people that are just idea machines. Some ideas just beg you to drop what you’re doing and work on them instead. And I fall into this trap every time. I am work furiously at the start, then when the idea is no longer new to me, the fury wears off and a new and “better” idea is there to put me back into my fury. And I love it but the results are painfully weak because I never completely focus on one project and the end result is something mediocre.

    Anyway, if there are only two mistakes, then I get a 50%.. which is an F in my book. But a lot of people get 0%. Sounds like you are getting a 100% A-plus Jonathan. Start, focus, finish.

    • TomC says:

      “Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing in life is to know when to forgo an opportunity.” -Benjamin Disraeli-

      Entrepreneurial ADD

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Oh, my friend, if you only knew how often I fall into that % to 50% window, too. LOL. We’re all human, just doing the best we can and trying to learn and grow.

  34. Phil says:

    Amen brother. There are some things we need to do. Purely for ourselves. To see if we can. If it fails, whatever. But some things need to be found out!

  35. Paurian says:

    In my line of business we have something called “Strategic Initiative”. Just as it sounds successful businesses have strategies that involve selecting which projects help it reach its overarching goal. Projects that detract from that goal suck resources, time, money and enthusiasm. It’s important to keep the primary goal in focus and not allow small, albeit profitable and interesting, project paths into the picture. You stated that very well in this post.