Vayera 5762 — Underproject and Overperform
This week’s parsha starts out with Abraham breaking off a conversation with God in order to attend to three unexpected visitors. Abraham tells his visitors to “take a little water, and wash your feet, and rest under the tree, and I will feed you with a morsel of bread.” Abraham then goes and prepares a lavish feast with milk, cakes, a calf, etc.
Why does Abraham tell his visitors that he is going to bring them a morsel of bread, when in reality he provides them a feast? Is this just some kind of Middle Eastern custom, a manner of speech, or is there a deeper significance? Of course, by now you’ve probably guessed that there is a deeper significance, otherwise I wouldn’t have brought it up!
The Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi (a 13th century commentator) says that from this story we learn that the righteous speak little, and do a lot. And it is appropriate that the story is written here in the Torah to teach us about “derech eretz,” about proper behavior, because Abraham said I’ll bring you a morsel of bread and he prepared a great feast.
One of my mentors from my business career, Dr. Abe Zarem, gave me some advice nearly 20 years ago which has stayed with me to this day: “Underproject and overperform.” Which would be the contemporary way to describe the behavior that the earlier Abe modeled for us when he told his guests he’d bring a morsel and he provided a feast.
This is great business advice: if you put together a business plan, and tell your investors that you will turn a profit of $2 million in the 2nd year, and you only turn a profit of $1m, they will be disappointed. On the other hand, if you tell them you will turn a profit of $750,000, and you achieve a profit of $1 million, you’re a hero! It’s the same $1 million profit—the difference is in the expectations that have been established.
Entrepreneurs are by their very nature optimistic. You have to be optimistic to decide to commit yourself wholeheartedly to a completely new venture. I find it pretty humbling to look at the business plans I wrote when I started a company at the age of 27. I expected my company to go public within five years. It took over fifteen, and when it finally happened I was no longer with the company.
My friend Abe, who was also one of the first investors in my company, is a very successful scientist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist. During his career, Abe has provided many optimists with financial backing. He also shared with me the definition of a pessimist. A pessimist, Abe said, is a man who has backed an optimist!
This advice does not mean that the entrepreneur should scale back his or her goals—chas v’shalom! The young optimist can have the $2 million goal all along—but when it comes time to talk to investors, it’s good to be a little cautious.
Later in my business career I worked for the Dutch conglomerate Philips, and with Abe’s advice in mind, I generally beat my sales and profit targets by about 20% every year. One day the finance guy for the billion dollar unit I was part of was subjecting me to a lecture about how important it is to have accurate financial projections for cash flow planning, and so on, and that it was just as bad to miss your numbers by being too high as by being too low. At which point the Sr. VP who was in charge of the billion dollar business interjected, “well, almost as bad!” We all knew that the penalty for exceeding sales by 20% would be a lecture from the accountant; but the penalty for falling 20% short would be reassignment to a less responsible position or worse.
The implications of “underproject and overperform” go deeper than a simple practice to emulate. If we take this advice to heart, we implicitly accept upon ourselves a couple of important personality traits: humility, and striving for high performance.
Clearly it takes a little humility to underproject. It is much more typical of human nature to want to brag, to build oneself up, to sell others on how great you are and how great you are going to do.
Immodest projections can be hazardous to future success. As it says in Proverbs (16:18): Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The pride, and haughty spirit which leads to overoptimistic projections, results in the fall and destruction.
The overperform part of the prescription reminds us that we always need to strive to do the best we can do. Underproject is not an excuse for being lazy and underperforming. I was at a trade association board meeting one time when a colleague quipped “I don’t know why you guys are always whining about your projections and plans. I have no problems with my plans. It’s my actuals I have a problem with!” After projecting the little bit of bread, Abraham still scrambles and provides the feast; he overperforms. The idea is to project below reasonable expectations, but to perform above reasonable expectations.
You may now be thinking that this advice is well and good for an entrepreneur, but that’s not what I do for a living, so the advice is not really relevant to me. Think again. . . the definition of an entrepreneur is “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” We are all entrepreneurs with the enterprise of our lives. We all make projections to others—whether it’s a boss, colleagues, family, or the synagogue board.
The Talmud cautions us against violating this precept with our children: we are told if we promise something to our children and fail to deliver, we are teaching them to lie. If you tell your kids that you are going to take them to Disneyland, you need to take them to Disneyland.
If you tell your spouse you’re going to do something really really special for your anniversary, and it turns out your idea of really really special is not the same as his/her idea of really really special (maybe she is not really so thrilled with Monday Night Football), you may have turned an opportunity for celebration into a moment of disappointment. On the other hand, if you set a somewhat lower expectation, “oh, let’s just go out for dinner,” and deliver something a bit grander—say a romantic weekend, you’ll be a real hero!
Underproject and overperform—it worked for Abraham 4,000 years ago, and it still works today!