Make-or-Break vs. Nice-to-Have

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I’ve talked a lot about mindset on this blog. Each time I have, I’ve given a less-than-satisfactory answer of “I honestly don’t know how to fix this”. Truth is, I still don’t. But I think I might have something here that could help nudge people in the right direction. It’s the difference between the Make-or-Break and the Nice-to-Have.

The Make-or-Break is the dream internship you’re in the final round for. It’s the perfect 4.0 GPA you’re holding. It’s the championship game of the season. You’re so focused on getting it that you don’t think of anything else. You don’t even want to think about what life would be like if you didn’t have it. Well, the truth is, you still think about it. You don’t want to, but you do. And it gets you depressed. It puts an added load of stress on your body. The day comes, and you’re violently shaking all over. Then it happens, and you get it, and then…

…and then what? Maybe a pat on the back. Maybe there’s some sort of congratulatory pizza party. But after a few days, you’re already on to the next thing. Already on to the next stressor.

On the other hand, losing is a lot harder. You can be despondent for weeks, even months. (There’s a beautiful article I’ve read in which an author interviews former high-school football players decades after they lost a major regional championship, deemed the “most embarrassing day in [the town]’s history. It’s a perfect (albeit extreme) example of this, but I can’t find it. If you have the source, please comment it down below). So, this seems a lot more centered on the break than the make. Not exactly the best deal, is it?

Then, there’s the Nice-to-Have. Nice-to-Have is that Innovation Challenge you think would make a good resume-builder. It’s the tech internship you heard about last week that might be cool. It’s the one of many funding pitches you have scheduled for your startup. Noticing something?

With Nice-to-Haves, we turned the pressure off. We didn’t make you any less ambitious, or any more passive — they are not things, they are things that you want — but the lows are not nearly as bad. No longer are you depressed with visions of failure, or stressed by the massive amount of competition. No; you’re simply working for yourself. Everything simply is

So, there’s some clear advantages and disadvantages to these mindsets. The major thing that Make-or-Break has going for it is focus; you are much more likely to get a particular thing if you use a Make-or-Break mindset. However, I’d wager that this advantage is mostly a crock of shit. Want to get into McKinsey? There’s about 100 consulting firms that pay just as well. Harvard? There’s 8 Ivy League colleges, plus another 25 or so Elites. YCombinator? Last I checked there’s over 400 accelerators and incubators looking for applicants.

But those “aren’t the same as your goal”, huh? Well, why do you want to work at McKinsey? To make $100,000 a year advising companies, or to have people gasp when you tell them where you work? Do you want to go to a school that gets you connections, or a school that gives you prestige? Do you want resources for your startup, or the ability to say “YC ‘XX” in your Twitter bio?

Prestige is meaningless once you figure out how goals work. And Make-or-Break is worthless once you realize Nice-to-Have will get you to your goals without breaking the bank.

I’ll give you a personal example. About a year ago I was given the opportunity to go study for a semester at Stanford University. However, there were some major financial hurdles that put the whole experience into jeopardy.

In the first few months, I took on a Make-or-Break mindset. I believed that I had to get this experience in order to look competitive to companies I was going to end up applying to. I spent hours on end in a nervous mess, my health considerably deteriorating. For a few days, I couldn’t do anything but sleep — doing anything else at all just made me worried.

However, as things got closer, I began to see the reality of the situation. Life wasn’t all about trying to impress companies — it was about building something for yourself, and following your own long-term goals. I started realizing all the millions of things I could do even if I didn’t go to Stanford. I could build out the blog more. I could continue my podcast from hiatus. I could get down my movie backlog. I could read. I could write. I could start a company. I could do a lot of things. Little did I know, but this was the beginning of the development of my Nice-to-Have mindset. 

I did end up going to Stanford, but I had learned my lesson. It was time to start cultivating the Nice-to-Have fixation. 

If you want to start building a Nice-to-Have mindset, there’s a couple of resources I’d recommend. Tim Ferriss’ Fear-Setting Guide is a classic example of this, and is the one I’d recommend the most due to its structured nature. I’m working on my own variation of this called the Tactics-Strategy framework, but it’s a little bit earlier on. You can read the Twitter thread where I introduce it here. Finally, this piece by Tim Urban, while directed at communication in particular, can be easily extrapolated into this sort of scenario. 

Mindsets are some of the hardest things to build. Trust me, I’ve dedicated a decent chunk of my time to figuring that out. But any step forward is good, and if I can get you to turn from a Make-or-Break to a Nice-to-Have, I think I did good. 

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