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The tropical island campfire analogy

The tropical island campfire analogy
By Ash Lamb • Issue #65 • View online
A few surprisingly valuable lessons on life and work from a really silly story about two friends, an island, and a campfire.

Starting a new project is exciting.
Especially when you have high hopes and expectations. After all, very few individuals start something new without some sort of end goal in mind.
But being excited doesn’t mean that it won’t be hard, in fact, we’re often excited when we’re about to face a new challenge.
We all dread that blank canvas, though. We don’t know where to start, too many possibilities! Once we paint that first stroke, we realize how much work it will actually take.
We’re masters at underestimating what it takes to build anything from the ground up.
Fortunately, there are a few mental models that will help you take things further than most people.
I’ve realized that zooming out and understanding the big picture can help us persist when things get tough.
Things usually go like this:
You spend a bunch of months (at best) working on something, but you see that nothing “good” comes out of it. Because of that, you decide to quit and you miss out on what I like to call delayed results. (More on that later)
This wouldn’t happen so often if you internalized the “tropical island campfire” analogy.
Let me explain:
Don’t ask me why, but imagine you’re completely lost on a remote island. (If you want you can pick a significant other to accompany you in this story.)
You’re panicking.
Even though the climate is pleasant and the scenery is beautiful you know that sooner or later you’ll have to find food, water, and shelter. The night is coming, and the law of the jungle isn’t fair. If you aren’t careful you could end up being someone else’s dinner, and that isn’t a pleasant thought.
Given the circumstances, you and your friend decide to get some coconuts (food and water covered for now) and after a few minutes of tropical pleasure, you and your buddy realize that in order to survive you’ll have to find a way to start a fire. No 5-start hotels on this remote tropical island!
You come from a first-world privileged background and you have no clue on how to start a fire, so you spend all day trying to figure it out somehow.
After a few long hours of looking around, you finally find a few sharp enough stones and a bunch of thin sticks.
You spend a couple of hours more rubbing the stones with the sticks in hopes to start a big enough spark.
And when you finally manage to start a tiny fire… It starts raining. Sigh!
You wait for the light rain to end, and you start the process all over again. At least now you know how to do it!
Hurray! You now have a latent flame. You just need more wood to turn this medium-sized flame into a proper campfire.
After finding a bunch of bigger pieces of wood you sit down right next to your friend in disbelief. You’ve figured it out! You’re now safe, at least for one night!
Your friend has caught 4 medium-sized tunas. You can now roast them using the fire you’ve started.
Here are some priceless takeaways from this silly story:
  • In order to go from 0 to 1, you have to believe in your ability to figure things out. Most things in life and work don’t come with instructions, and the only way to understand them is by pure practice.
  • If you want extraordinary results, you’ll have to do things when you don’t feel like doing them. Somedays I don’t want to get out of bed. Then I remember that no one said you have to be happy all the time. I get up, get to work, and before I know it I’m happy again. Action leads to momentum, and momentum leads to fulfillment.
  • If you really have no other option, you’ll get things done no matter what. Sometimes we need some pressure to make things work. Lacking a plan B can be a really good strategy. Your good friend is exhausting herself to find some food and she’s counting on you to start a warm fire. If you fail to do so not only will you disappoint your adventure buddy, but you won’t be able to cook the fish, and have a warm night. You might also end up inside someone else’s stomach.
  • Things in life aren’t usually directly proportional. Let me explain. We think that if we dedicate 10h of our precious time working on something, we’ll automatically get those 10h hours back in form of money, impact, or “success”. The truth however is that in most cases your input will be decoupled from your output. This is true in entrepreneurship, dating, friendships, apartment hunting, etc. Most results are delayed. They show up after many hours of work and dedication.
You can spend a whole year, like I did, working hard on a project, and you might not see any results until the second or third year. Once you internalize this, your consistency and patience will substantially increase because you’ll know that everything in life has a reward of some sort, and if you wait long enough and enjoy the process, you’ll get that reward and more. Just trust me on this one.
It may be tough to spend a whole day on a remote island trying to start a fire, but once you finally have it, that fire will protect you from wild animals, will give you warmth and coziness, and will allow you to cook food that otherwise wouldn’t be edible. And in order to keep that fire alive, you’ll only have to find or chop a few pieces of wood every day. Things get easier with time and experience.
Today is a beautiful day to start that fire! You’ve got this.
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Ash Lamb

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