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Put Down The Toothpick And Pick Up The Hammer

Business Imperfections

The story of The Statue of David and how it relates to worrying about the imperfections in your business.

Imagine a giant block of Italian Carrara white marble.

It’s over 20 feet tall, it weighs over 6 tons, and it’s your job to turn it into a beautiful statue. Imagine the pressure you feel: your reputation rests on this job. Your family is counting on you. Everyone is watching. The marble itself is priceless and irreplaceable, but there’s one catch: it’s been examined and abandoned by two skilled sculptors before you. Unfit for carving, they said, shortly after one of them gouged an ugly hole in it and left it out in the elements for 25 years. Too many imperfections.

You have one shot.

I’m curious what you’d do first, where you would start to tackle this mess of a task and turn it into something everyone could be proud of. Would you start timidly with a toothpick, poking away at the smallest of the “taroli” (imperfections)? Would you chip away at tiny flakes so as not to compromise stability at the base? Maybe you’d worry yourself into complete inaction, convince yourself the other sculptors were right, and abandon the job like they did.

In 1501, a young Italian sculptor faced exactly this challenge. He’d convinced the commissioning party that he could finish work that the skilled hands before him could not, and when he examined the neglected and gouged marble block, towering above him and riddled with taroli, he knew something they didn’t: this job wasn’t going to get very far with just a toothpick.

The sculptor took a hammer to the imperfect marble. He hacked about six feet right off the top, and he found a reason to make that ugly mistake of a hole even bigger than it already was. He was ruthless in eliminating the unnecessary. What did he see that no one else could? Years later, he shared these words about his masterpiece:

“David was always there in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David.” —Michelangelo

Recently, a friend was asking me for help with his new business and the website that accompanied it. He wanted input, he said, because the site was riddled with taroli—or maybe he just said the logo didn’t look right on the page. The color wasn’t quite right. The sizing was off. And he couldn’t decide if it should be left or center aligned. There were so many details to worry about, he confessed. Too many imperfections.

I stopped him in his tracks and asked “Are any of these concerns going to help your customer buy your stuff? Better yet, does your logo size and positioning help your customer be better at what they do?”

Feel free to stop reading this article if you’ve ever made a purchasing decision based on the alignment of a logo. Oh, you haven’t?? Yeah, me neither.

Of course, his answer to both questions was “no.” My friend realized immediately that he was too focused on the details, and was attempting to carve his marble statue with a toothpick.

As business owners, we worry too much about the “taroli”

We spend loads of mental energy worrying about tiny imperfections in our businesses. We toil over the fear of making incorrect decisions that will reduce our businesses to rubble. We convince ourselves that everyone else was right, and that we should abandon this slab before it gets worse. We lose sight of David in the marble.

When you get stuck worrying about the placement and size of your logo (as an example), you’re approaching a giant piece of marble with a toothpick. You’re also probably poking away at a section that doesn’t even matter (yet).

Should your logo look great? Yes, it should. Should it be clearly visible to people who visit your website? Yes, it should. But should you spend more than a couple seconds worrying about your logo placement on your website? No, because that doesn’t help your potential customers make an informed decision about you or what you’re selling.

Whether your goal is to carve a marble sculpture or sell your products consistently and profitably, you need to be prepared to make big changes and take risks. You need to put down the toothpick and pick up the hammer.

Even Michelangelo made mistakes while working on the Statue of David, you know. Some say the right hand is too big, and others debate about a missing muscle in David’s back. And who knows what happened during the carving process that Michelangelo managed to fix before anyone saw. Maybe he chiseled off a little too much or removed a piece in a spot that he didn’t mean to. Maybe he thought a day of work was going to go one way, but he was soon working on a completely different part of the statue. Whatever the issues were, Michelangelo certainly didn’t finish the Statue of David in three years by whittling away at the tiniest pieces or concerning himself with the taroli.

Use the hammer

To figure out how to best serve your customers (which also typically leads to making money), you need a hammer. You need to be willing to try new things and make mistakes. This has nothing to do with failure, but it has everything to do with trial and error.

Instead of worrying about the sizing and placement of your logo, maybe you should try reducing your product offering to one focused thing for awhile.

Instead of adding social share icons to your website, maybe you should try writing useful and valuable content that gives away 90% of your business knowledge.

Instead of being on every social media platform, maybe you focus on just one for six months (or better yet, abandon them all and focus only on email marketing [LINK]).

Instead of tracking your employees’ progress by the hours they work, maybe you give them complete hourly working autonomy for a month. Then compare the progress between the two months and see what brought in better results (sales/deliverables/happiness/etc).

Instead of changing some copy and images on the homepage of your website, maybe you change the entire layout and switch it up month by month.

Instead of having a bricks-and-mortar business with the same hours as everyone else, maybe you do limited hours for a month, but in those hours you offer something really unique: free local coffee and pastries, a fun atmosphere to relax in, complimentary accounting advice, etc.

These are just a few examples. They’re hammer changes instead of toothpick changes, or at least that’s the intent. The results will tell how much marble you carved, and how big of a deal it was.

Do less assuming and do more swinging.

You aren’t going to need the hammer forever

The hammer gets you started. Use it to eliminate all the unnecessary stuff, sometimes up to six feet right off the top!. Eventually, you won’t need to make big changes anymore. And like a sculptor, you’ll then grab a smaller set of tools that help you refine, tweak, and adjust the minor things that show up later on down the road. Even Michelangelo didn’t carve the features of David’s face first.

There’s a reason why there isn’t a set way of starting or running a business. There aren’t a specific set of rules and steps you must follow. Your hammer is going to be completely different from mine. The trick is to use the tools you have at your disposal and not be afraid of the mistakes that will inevitably happen along the way.

Unlike a marble statue, though, you don’t have just one shot. Your business is not priceless and irreplaceable, and it’s not going to stay the same forever.

A few years from now, you may need a sledgehammer and an entirely new block of marble. That’s called adapting to the times.

Enjoy the process of carving away and getting your business to a successful state. You’ll definitely have to make big changes again in the future, so get comfortable with the bigger tools, and keep in mind that what you’re trying to build is already there in the marble.

What will you use to get it out?

This is the end of the yellow brick road. If you want to read more articles mosey on over yonder.