First Things First; Second Things Never
Posted by Sridhar Mutyala at 12:39 AM · No Comments

The title of this post comes from what was (and likely still is) Russ Greiner’s thought for the day. Just below it, he writes “I plan to update this daily… but that is not the highest priority.” I’m not sure Russ has ever updated “First things first; second things never”. The man understands priorities.

Russ is one of the researchers at the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Machine Learning at the University of Alberta (the school’s machine learning program attracts and develops some real talent). He was kind enough to hear out a somewhat urgent, out-of-the-blue request from us last week. A true gentleman, he turned it around the next day and wished us well.

First things first

In the startup world, you plan a little, you do a lot, but mostly you hope things go your way. I’m thoroughly grateful that Russ made our request a “first thing”. I’m pretty sure we weren’t on that list when his day started. He had to prioritize a new thing as a “first thing” — which suggests to me that “first things” perhaps aren’t meant to be fixed or pursued in a hard, singleminded fashion.

“First things” are instead flexible. They give way, even momentarily, to other “first things” (and “second things”) as circumstances shift. We see and act on what matters now. What matters tomorrow is notoriously difficult to pin down. The suggestion alone is an offense to anyone who puts strict faith in planning. But it seems to me that, in our personal and professional lives, we often outlive our plans — without outliving the claims they make on us.

The appeal of “first things first” — its terse and brutal clarity and uncompromising emphasis on process, process — is immediate for management types. It’s about efficiency, conserving and focusing powers — what Peter Drucker referred to as the essence of managementdoing things right.

The idea can as easily be about determining what’s important (“first things”) and doing only that. This is what Drucker referred to as the essence of leadership: doing the right things. “Second things never” recommends that all your time should be spent on the important first things, which seems as much a formula for the good life as one for effectiveness and accomplishment.

A second look at second things

Let’s say the idea of “first things first” is less about setting (or sticking to) priorities than simply recognizing them. In this view, knowing what to do comes before the determination to do it. But how can you recognize “first things” without exploring the dreamy, distracting world of “second things”? “Second things” have a purpose: they’re suggestive. They open up possibilities for “first things”.

A big part of data-driven marketing is measuring. Measuring the outcomes of marketing actions allows you to determine what’s working and what isn’t: one of our favorite mantras. Having the right metrics in place is about defining “first things” — so that you can focus your efforts on moving the needle where it most matters. Figuring out how to move the needle is about wandering through “second things”. It’s more narratives than numbers.

Some random points

I did some wandering through first and second things while putting together this post. Here are some highlights (an affectionate defense of “second things”):

1. Who’s credited with with the quote?

Shirley Conran, the author of Lace, which was made into an ’80s mini-series starring Phoebe Cates. She is also known for having said “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.”

2. Isn’t there a management book on this?

Yes, there is. At least on the “first things first” part. It’s by Stephen Covey. “Put first things first” is also Habit #3 of Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I had less success tracking down a management book that explores, much less advocates, “second things”.

3. It sounds like a manifesto.

That’s because it is. At least the “first things first” part. Ken Garland published it in 1964 as a challenge to graphic designers and visual communicators, proposing:

… a reversal of priorities [away from high pressure consumer advertising] in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication.

Rick Poynor has a discussion in Emigre on the continuing significance of Garland’s challenge for modern designers. Here’s the original manifesto from Garland’s site:

4. Where can I wander through “second things”?

The Discovery Channel! This is the sequel to The World is Just Awesome commercial. Darren sent me the link this afternoon. Diversions, like friends, are their own reward.

5. Where else?

In your head according to this Globe and Mail article. And Robert Browning’s poem Two in the Campagna is, among other things, an excellent tribute to the pleasures of mindful wandering.

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