Essays on Technology and Culture

On Doing Less, Better

An artistic dilemma–I would rather make fewer things that are awesome than make more things that are mediocre.

The trick, I think, is that to make more awesome things, one has to produce a lot of mediocre, if not downright shitty stuff before then. Nobody sits down at a keyboard, opens up a new file, says “I am going to write the greatest story that has ever been written by anyone,” and succeeds. Anyone who tries will likely end up paralyzed by fear. Art is as much about destruction as it is creation. This ranges from knowing that you really, really, really need to cut out that epic seventy page monologue because it slows the story down to a grinding halt, to cutting a single good paragraph out of your free-writing because you know–simply know–that it’s the only one that you can actually make something with.

A couple of years ago, my Internet Hero, Merlin Mann, wrote a profound piece called “Better”. I read it when it was originally posted, but a key point Merlin was making only hit me about ten minutes before I started writing the first draft of this piece. I thought it was more about focus, but it’s more about effort. It’s not the same point as I make in the above “artistic dilemma,” but it is related: how can I make better things? How do I become better? The perfect may be the enemy of the good, as Voltaire claims, but how can one reach perfect without at least churning out a lot of good, mediocre, or downright awful things? More to the point… how does one even know the difference?

I remember as a kid watching an episode of The Galloping Gourmet, wherein Graham Kerr, in an attempt to complete a full meal in the time alloted for a 30 minute program, ran out of space on the stove top and was forced to make pans share burners. When I look at my own set of projects, whether its state is active, stuck, not-yet-begun, or simply pie-in-the-sky, I’m left with a crippling sense of fear. “Good lord, I work two jobs just to barely stay in debt,” I shout, “and I expect myself to do all this other stuff in the limited amount of free time available to me, maintain the rudiments of a social life, and get the occasional good night’s sleep–and I want to do them even better than I do now? What is wrong with me?”

Then you come across things like The Cult of Done Mainfesto, where the point is that one should stop worrying about perfection and just get whatever project you’re on the hell done already and move on to the next thing. There’s different states of “done” in the worldview of this manifesto, and I’ll happily agree with it on a couple of points, namely: “11. Destruction is a variant of done.” and “13. Done is the engine of more.” Everything else, though, runs contrary to that aching desire to do better work. At the minimum, to do better work, I have to go through an editing stage.

Writing, like any other creative endeavor, is an iterative process. You pour the contents of your heart and mind on to the page, then you get a mop and clean it up, keeping the important bits. Part of why I don’t post on this site every week on the nose is that I’d rather what gets posted here be something really meaningful to me. 1 It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes editing. Every morning, Ernest Hemingway wrote exactly 500 words per day, stopping in the middle of a sentence if he had to once his 500 words were up. The next day, he revised the 500 previous words, and wrote another 500. Lather, rinse, repeat. It worked, and he made some amazing works of literature. Hemingway had focus, he knew to throw down, stick to this project and only this project, and not keep his attention flitting between the pans on the stove top.

Some people can handle the stress of having a whole bunch of projects and things to do, and some people end up gibbering in the corner the minute a second task lands in their inbox before the first is done. I’m not the latter, but I envy the former–lucky bastards, with their ability to focus on all the things they possibly want to accomplish. For the rest of us, it looks like we face a serious quandary. Do you cull the weak projects from the herd (Point 11, Cult of Done Manifesto) or do you keep squeezing out crap in the hopes that something sticks to the wall? What good is being done with something if you can’t look at it and say that, “Yes, that was worth the effort. That was me doing my best. Now, let me try to do even better.”

Lately, I’ve been reading The Young Man’s Guide
by William Alcott, a 174 year old book aiming to teach young men “to be of the greatest possible usefulness.” The majority of its teachings hold up, even in the 21st Century. If there’s a regular theme in The Young Man’s Guide, it’s an attack on idleness. The emphasis is repeatedly on not wasting one’s time with trifles like sleeping late, eating and drinking to excess, and excessive time spent at leisure. 2 One needs to just do the work–and do it well–and they shall reap rewards. What would a modern-day William Alcott say about The Cult of Done Manifesto?

I don’t have the answers to any of the questions I’m raising here. The last six essays on this site have revolved around the same basic ideas: getting the work done, getting better, and getting better at getting the work done. I would like to close the book on that, at least for now, but it’s the biggest thing on my mind. What matters is doing the thing that inspires me, that makes me happy, that leaves me with a sense of pride, and that’s writing good stuff. I can’t short-circuit the process behind it. I’ve tried and gotten nowhere fast.

  1. Another reason is that, at least for the first year and a half of this, I was too lazy to do much writing. I still maintain that I would rather something go up once a month rather than churn out meaningless dreck that nobody, least of all myself, would care about. Hell, at one point in this site’s history, I posted a list of things on my desk as a blog entry. Enough said.

  2. Guilty on all counts.