Start With the End: How to Follow Through

Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, has an unusual approach to mastery: start at the end.

Waitzkin, a former chess prodigy, learned chess backwards. The conventional method of learning chess often starts at the beginning: practice your openings, learn the counter-strategies, develop your pieces. But Waitzkin’s coach took an unusual approach. He’d learn the end-game principles first. With just two kings and a pawn on the board, Waitzkin was free to think moves through to the end. There was no rote memorization.

“This forces you to focus on principles,” said Tim Ferriss, who interviewed Waitzkin on his podcast. “If you’re memorizing the [chess] openings … you’re effectively stealing the answers from the teacher’s guidebook.” Focusing on the end helps students see the entire game.

What does this have to do with you? No matter what your field of expertise, most of us could stand to refocus on follow-through. To build up enough momentum to start, think about what you want to achieve at the end.

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Start With the End in Mind

Bill Walsh is one of the most revered head coaches in NFL history. Yet when he took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, he didn’t start fast. The team was a measly 2-14 the year before; they went 2-14 in Walsh’s first year, too.

Walsh was less concerned with immediate wins than with follow-through. In his book The Score Takes Care Of Itself, he outlined his philosophy: “Winners act like winners before they’re winners.”

Walsh started at the end. He didn’t focus on winning and assume a championship organization would rise spontaneously around him. He decided to focus on the organization first and let the wins become secondary.

The things that should have come first - wins and losses - became incidental. Yet even the smallest details related to follow-through were precisely managed. Phones had to be answered a certain way. Players were expected not to showboat after touchdowns. Any object displaying the 49ers emblem - such as a helmet - was never to touch the ground. Walsh relentlessly pursued the best coaches and staff he could find, cutting loose anyone who challenged his authority or couldn’t uphold what he called his Standard of Performance. Yes, he even gave it a name.

Despite the 2-14 record his first year, there were hints that the new behaviors were having an effect. Players behaved more professionally. The losses became more competitive. And the organization showed more poise and confidence even before the wins showed up on the stat sheet.

Eventually, they showed up. Walsh won the first of his three Super Bowls just two years later.

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Ditch the Illusion of Perfection

We often hold up prodigious artists like Mozart as examples that talent is innate. If we don’t start out great, we figure, we should accept that life is hard and we’re not Mozart.

Yet Mozart himself probably wouldn’t have advised that. His most famous works arose only after decades of craft-perfecting. He traveled Europe seeking tutors, studying, copying, imitating, perfecting. Among his teenage works are simple rearrangements of earlier pieces. It took decades for Mozart to become the genius we know today.

What’s more, the popular perception of Mozart as the innately-talented genius of “Amadeus” fame may be a myth. In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes:

“Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years. Though it makes the results no less magnificent, he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.”

Well, then, is it too late to perfect your craft? Of course not. Grandma Moses, conversely, an example of a prodigious late bloomer, didn’t snap her fingers to become a famous painter. She created thousands of paintings spanning multiple decades. Many sold for only a few dollars apiece.

But Grandma Moses understood follow-through and never relegated her dream of painting to mere hopes: she finished each painting, thousands of times. Each painting finished - not simply started - represented another step on the ladder.

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Improve Your Clarity

Follow-through has another built-in advantage: a miraculous clarifying effect.

Consider a famous example from the 1884 Presidential election. Chester Arthur was on his way out; the Republican nomination could belong to a newcomer, even a political outsider. Some turned to William T. Sherman, who had distinguished himself as a Union general during the Civil War.

They were barking up the wrong tree. When asked about the possibility of becoming President, Sherman responded:

“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

A simple “no” might have sufficed. But Sherman’s military background shone through; no one was going to out-plan General Sherman and execute some political trick to wrangle him into running. That he even conceived of the notion showed politicians just how serious he was.

They stopped bothering him.

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How to Practice Follow-Through

Here are some ways you can utilize these lessons in your own life:

Focus on perfecting, not perfection. We like to think that the Mozarts and da Vincis of the world spring out of holes in the ground. More often than not, they’re the result of great thinkers who could conceive what greatness looks like and are willing to spend their waking hours chasing it, rather than assuming that they deserve perfection from the start.

Finish what you start, then start again. Where would Grandma Moses be if she never finished a painting because it wasn’t “good enough” yet? Yet she finished thousands, selling them for dollars at a time, giving herself new skills and reference points for every “repetition” completed. The difference between ordinary practice and deliberate practice is your willingness to see each repetition through to the end.

Give yourself clarity. Spend time establishing exactly what it is you mean to accomplish. The famous golfer Jack Nicklaus reportedly spent as much as 50% of the energy on any given shot in visualizing its success; he would reportedly first watch the ball in his mind, sitting “pretty on the green.” He started with the end in mind, and it gave him clarity with every shot.

The old cliché is true: it’s not how you start, but how you finish. Yet how many of us actually use this advice to give ourselves more motivation, more energy, and more clarity? When you focus on follow-through and less on immediate results, you’ll worry less about where you are - and more about where you’re going.

Dan Kenitz

Freelance writer based in Wisconsin. Dan's previously written for Grasshopper and GoToMeeting.

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