This Article Will Probably Not Be My Best.
Frankly, I am totally fine with that.
If you're anything like me, you know that it's very easy to get caught up in the pursuit of perfection. You get bogged down trying to find the optimal way to do things and continually keep polishing your work before putting it out into the world.
An entire industry has sprung up around this very human flaw. We're bombarded with ads showing the best marketing tools, the fastest way to six-pack abs, the best bodybuilding program, and the number one free online coding courses. These are designed to drag you further down a rabbit-hole, convinced that the holy grail is out there.
Aiming for perfection is dangerous, so I'm not going to. We are so focused on figuring out the right way to do things that we never actually take action.
That's why I'm writing this post: not to have it be a masterpiece, but to take action. To practice and to put in my reps.
In his book ‘Atomic Habits’, James Clear shares a story that perfectly illustrates why having a large body of imperfect work is preferable to creating a single masterpiece.
For a photography class at the University of Florida, the professor divided his students into two groups. One group would solely be graded on the quantity of photos they made, regardless of how great they were. The other half of the students would be graded on the quality of their work. By the final day of class, they would need to produce one photo, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image.
So what do you think happened?
Not only did the ‘quantity’ group take vastly more photos, the members of this group also produced way better photos than the members of the ‘quality’ group. The students in the ‘quantity’ group spent the entire semester taking countless photos, playing around with lighting, subjects, and composition. Over the course of taking hundreds of photographs, they learned from their mistakes. They figured out what did and didn't work. They honed their skills by creating a massive body of work.
Meanwhile, the members of the ‘quality’ group had been theorizing about what constituted the perfect photo. They had fiddled around a bit, trying to make the image “just right.” But in the end, all they had to show for it was a slightly-above-average photo.
As the story above shows, there are two ways of going about creating a body of work: Output-First or Perfection-First.
With an Output-First approach, you accept that your first attempts are not going to be earth-shatteringly good. You resolve not to feel guilty about making mistakes and putting work out into the world before it's fully ‘ready’. Like an entrepreneur, you resolve to ship early and often. In doing so, you might have a couple of ideas blow up in your face. Not everything is going to be a home-run. But with enough iteration cycles, you figure out where you can improve. Mistakes that used to plague your work disappear, your headlines become catchier, you process faster.
With this approach, you attempt to avoid the dangers of the Perfection-First approach. The easiest way to procrastinate is to work towards perfection. Trying to be perfect is the best way to actually avoid doing any of the work and get better. How can you know your writing is good or bad if nobody reads your work until it's ‘ready'? How will you know if your business idea is valid, or if you music is worth listening to?
One of the primary strategies in learning faster is to focus on output above all else. According to Adam Grant, one of the best predictors of success is how prolific someone is. Having a greater body of work allows you to have shorter feedback cycles. You figure out what works and what doesn't.
Whatever it is you do, I can guarantee you'll get better at it if you focus on output. Whether it's entrepreneurship, fitness, writing, photography or something else, having a large body of work is invaluable in becoming better. Someone who's had four previous startups knows a lot more than a first-time founder. A person who has 1,000 gym sessions under his belt is bound to know a lot about exercise. A writer with 10 published novels has learned from his past mistakes and writes better prose. Do a lot of something and I guarantee you'll get better at it.
Picasso, one of the greatest artists of all time, made over 50,000 pieces (!) of art over the course of his long career. He produced an average of two pieces per day. A lot of them were simple doodles, small paintings, and other nondescript items. But it allowed him to experiment with new styles, new techniques, and to iterate his way through realizing his artistic vision.
Only by making mistakes and learning from them can we improve.
The more we try something, the better we get. The 10,000 Hour-Rule is real. Very few artists create masterpieces without many years of practice. Why should you and I be any different?
Try new things out expecting to be horrible. Odds are you will be. However, this mentally frees you to experiment. You're okay with doing imperfect work because that's not what you're aiming for. You've taken the pressure off of being and creating the best. Now, you can actually focus on learning and doing your best.
Always do your best. You will make plenty of mistakes. The more work you produce, do, and put out, the more you'll learn.This works for almost any field or goal…
If good writing is all about putting in the reps, then I want to make sure I put in plenty of reps. Historically, I've not been too great at this. My posting schedule has been erratic and I often find myself fretting over the tiniest details in my posts.
My goals for 2020 were clear: I want to write. I want to publish 100,000 words before the end of the year. Now, I realize that I want more.
I want to write a lot, and to make numerous mistakes. I want to learn from them and become a better writer and storyteller. I want to figure out what formats work and which don't. I want to find my voice.
I'm going to focus on putting in the reps. That's why — inspired by James Clear — I'm publicly committing to a posting schedule.
Some of my posts are going to be complete shit and others are going to be pretty good. I'm totally fine with that, as long as the average quality of posts is increasing over the course of weeks, months, and years.
I can't predict which articles will be successful and which ones won't. However, I know that if I write two per week, then sometimes I'll hit the bullseye. Whatever the case, I'll learn a little from every failure and every success.
All I'm concerned about is that I get 1% better with every post.
As James Clear puts it, improving by just 1 percent isn't notable (and sometimes it isn't even noticeable). But it can be just as meaningful, especially in the long run. If you get one percent better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. This is what he calls the Aggregation of Marginal Gains.
All I care about is achieving that compounding growth — getting better just 1% with every passing day and every post I publish.
The key is to focus on the repetitions that lead to my larger goal: to become a great writer with 100,000+ words published. I need to focus on the piles of work that come before the success and not worry too much about how perfect every single piece is. I need to focus on the hundreds of average photographs that come before the masterpiece.
Individual failures and misses will have little impact on my long-term learning and success, as long as I learn from them and continue to put in the reps.
I'll see you next Thursday.
“It's not the quest to achieve one perfect goal that makes you better, it's the skills you develop from doing a volume of work.”
- James Clear