Clouds and Dirt: Prioritizing, the Oxygen of Your Business, and Why the Middle Sucks

I spend all my time in the clouds and the dirt.

The clouds are the high-end philosophy and beliefs that are at the heart of everything I am personally and everything I do professionally.

Personally, it’s really simple: family first. Nothing else really matters.

Professionally, it’s not much different. That’s what I often tell my staff at VaynerMedia—99 percent of what we deal with every day in business doesn’t matter. This usually gets me a mix of confused, curious, and even disdainful looks from my new top execs or employees hearing it for the first time because of course they think that to do their job well, everything has to matter. But it’s just not true. If you religiously follow just the few core business philosophies that mean the most to you, and spend all your time there, everything else will naturally fall into place. My clouds are extremely simple, and might sound familiar to anyone who has been following me for a while:

  1. Bring value to the customer.
  2. Provide 51 percent of the value in a relationship, whether it’s with an employee, a client, or a stranger.
  3. Always play the long game of lifetime value.
  4. Smart work will never replace hard work; it only supplements it. People are your most important commodity.
  5. Patience matters.
  6. Never be romantic about how you make your money. Try to put yourself out of business daily.

These are my commandments.

So you see, the clouds don’t just represent the big picture; they represent the huge picture, the everything. They are not goals. Goals can be achieved and set aside or moved. I’m Going to Buy the Jets is a goal. It drives me, too, but it’s not at the core of how I run my businesses.

The dirt is about being a practitioner and executing toward those clouds. It’s the hard work. On  a personal level, my dirt is making sure I communicate well with my loved ones, that I show up and stay present, that  I apologize when I mess up and that  I make sure it doesn’t happen too often. You know, the stuff of being a good spouse, parent, son, sibling, and friend. Professionally, it’s knowing my craft. It’s knowing there is a fifteen-person limit to an Instagram chat and that infographics over index on Pinterest. It’s understanding Facebook ads and the ROI of Vine. It’s noticing changes and trends and figuring out how to take advantage of them before anybody else.

The vast majority of people tend to play to the middle, which is why they usually only succeed up to a certain level and then plateau. Alternatively, they get stuck in one or the other, getting so bogged down by minutiae or politics they lose sight of the clouds, or so into the clouds they lose the appetite or neglect the skills they need to execute successfully. Ideas are worthless without the execution; execution is pointless without the ideas. You have to learn to prioritize properly and quickly identify what’s going to move you further ahead and what’s going to make you stall.

I saw how these tendencies played out early in my career in the wine industry. I encountered a lot of amazing wine people with brilliant palates whose businesses stunk because they weren’t good at that part. Conversely, I’d meet with some of the best wine retailers in the country and be shocked to find that their actual knowledge about wine was incredibly limited. A great wine merchant has to be a businessperson first and a wine person second, for sure, but that second part really did matter. I always thought the reason the success of my family wine business, Wine Library, accelerated so quickly once I got involved was that I took both seriously. I knew my business, but I also knew my craft, and that practitionership— loving wine, tasting as many as I could, and caring about the regions and producers—created tremendous value for my customers and ridiculous ROI for me.

I see a similar phenomenon in today’s marketing world. At this point in my career I have sat down hundreds of times to meet with people claiming to be social media experts, only to discover they have gaping holes in their knowledge about the platforms and little idea of how they have changed over time. This is why I feel justified telling potential clients that if they work with me, they’ll be working with the best social media practitioner at the best social agency in the country. Because at VaynerMedia, the clouds matter, and the dirt matters, and nothing else.

There are too many people who are average at what they do, and then confused by their average results. Everyone has their own definition of clouds and dirt, but if there’s any advice I can offer you that will change the entire trajectory of your career, it’s to start pushing on both edges. Raise the bar on your business philosophy, dig deeper into your craft. You want to be an equally good architect as you are a mason. You’ve got to be able to simultaneously think at a high level and get your hands dirty.

Gary Vaynerchuk is co-founder and CEO of digital agency VaynerMedia. His new book is #AskGaryVee: One Entrepreneur’s Take on Leadership, Social Media & Self-Awareness 

#ASKGARYVEE.  Copyright © 2016 by Gary Vaynerchuk.  Reprinted with permission from Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Clouds and Dirt: Prioritizing, the Oxygen of Your Business, and Why the Middle Sucks