Perfection is the antithesis of inspiration; it prevents you from getting started.
The trick to getting going is to do it badly. Be intentionally messy.
Producing crap isn’t the end-goal. The point of taking small actions is to create enough momentum to feel like we’re winning.
What sustains persistence are small improvements. You’re looking to go from one pushup a day to two the next week. You’re trying to walk five thousand steps a day before graduating to six thousand. You’ll need to write one-hundred words day after day before developing the muscle to get down two-hundred words on a consistent basis. By the way, there is no such thing as writer’s block!
Do small things to get started — not matter how poorly — to avoid second-guessing yourself and to prime the motivational pump.
Most people start something until it becomes something else. But Susan Sontag stuck with her creative impulse. When The Paris Reviewasked her where she came up with writing prompts, she said:
From the beginning I always know what something is going to be; every impulse to write is born of an idea of form, for me. To begin I have to have the shape, the architecture. I can’t say it better than Nabokov did: “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing.”
This runs contrary to the belief that we don’t know what to think until we scribble it down first. For Sontag, she wrote the book in her head so all she needed to do was solidify it on paper.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Susan Sontag revealed what helped her get motivated to write:
Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing. There’s a wonderful remark of Henry James: “Nothing is my last word on anything.” There’s always more to be said, more to be felt.
We’re never finished, only stalling. Postponement, aka the Zeigarnik Effect is a catalyst for productivity.
A professional author may complete books but the act of writing resumes.
And if a deadline-enforcer says “If it’s late, it’s late,” the response might be “But it’s not late late.” Here repetition indicates that the canoncial meaning of late it intended. It’s not late late, it’s just a little late.
Tautologies, like metaphors, break things down to their essence. They make things easier to accept so we can move on with the business of living.
Garp threw away his second novel and began a second novel. Unlike Alice, Garp was a real writer—not because he wrote more beautifully than she wrote but because he knew what every artist should know: as Garp put it, “You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else.” Even if these so-called endings and beginnings are illusions. Garp did not write faster than anyone else, or more; he simply always worked with the idea of completion in mind.
Finish what you start, or throw it away and start something you’ll finish. Ship it.
On the other hand, you can put it aside and let it marinate. Everything comes to use, eventually. You can only connect the dots looking backward after the experience.
The hare makes mistakes for speeding through the process. The tortoise doesn’t finish things frequently enough.
But who do you think makes the better end-product? Someone who ships quickly or someone who pokes away at their work? Author Malcolm Gladwell thinks that it takes at least two years to write a proper book, recommending that writers even shelve their manuscript for six months and come back to it to make more edits.
“We need to be a little bit more tortoise-y and a little less hare-ish.”
When it comes to code, it may be beneficial to move fast and break things. You can always release a software patch to resolve an issue. But there should be ever more reward for postponing gratification to make deeper work that results in greater quality.
If you do small things, slowly, they’ll add up to something timeless. The rapid pace of production tends to burn out just as quickly.
The train represented that ‘third place’ between work and home, a space for both productivity and relaxation. It could hum with the ambient sounds of a coffee shop — a scientifically proven pitch for productivity — yet lull people to sleep in the quiet car. While most passengers relaxed in private, their habits were all too revealing. Snorers, nail-biters, and loud eaters all advertised their flaws in public space.
Paul spent the past four years commuting in and out of New York City on the Metro-North Railroad. While most people considered the commute routine, Paul viewed it as a journey. Instead of pursuing the structured procrastination of work email, he used his free time to watch people, to catch up on reading, and to listen to music. He wore a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to avoid fated eavesdropping, especially on Friday nights when the entire train turned into a rowdy bar car. Paul nonetheless enjoyed all the stimulation.
As a noticer, he rode the train with the eyes of a restless photojournalist. He liked to document everyday life: the Wall Street executive folding the newspaper in quarters, a teacher fastidiously marking up papers in red pen, the intern shuffling between playlists on her iPad, and the 9-to-5-er using the Fordham Station tunnel reflection to preen their hair. The mobile camera condemned Paul to record and remix the world around him. He felt compelled to recast his surroundings into new patterns and abstractions. A wannabe outsider, he piloted a future that strived to fight genres.
But the train also offered him one of the few moments in the day where he could disconnect and prime his brain for the day ahead. First, he wrote for five minutes in his journal trying to answer the eternal question — ‘what would make today great?’ Then, he meditated to induce a slow, purposeful experience to link his presence up to the train’s centered locomotion.
Every day, the New Haven Line slithered through the woods, passing colonial style homes before crossing into graffitied Bronx ghettoes. The train traveled over the Harlem River Bridge into Manhattan at 125th street before sliding underground into the Park Avenue tunnel to dock at Grand Central Station.
Paul liked the way railways seemed to skim the world, stitching together the surrounding landscape like pictures in an Instagram feed while the experience on the guts of the train was unedited and all too real like an Instagram Story. Every passenger adhered to the mores of their business world. Yet, the train was the engine of progress, the great social equalizer among the plurality of classes.
Paul looked for commonalities amid business people, custodians, and tourists in this shared space. Regardless of their bank account, everyone occupied the same-sized seat, a pitch of 39 inches b 23 inches in width, still roomier than most airline economy seats. On the Metro North, there was no such thing as the first class. Everyone was a temporary resident with Wifi.
Nearly every passenger stared into an electronic widget of some sort annihilating space and time of the world around them. No one appeared to care what reality they were living in as long as technology and the internet inured them to boredom. Paul hashtagged the phenomena–#neverlookup–to his Instagram photos although he too fell victim to screen culture.
Train-spotting bled into all Paul’s work. It helped him see patterns of conformity in all movements of capitalist realism. Climbing the ladder meant jumping through hoops and doing what you were told. While the corporate racetrack paid the bills, it drained creativity. Paul often felt too tired to “rage into his art” after a day of obedience. Work beat the rebelliousness out of him.
His persistence ebbed and flowed. Like a true millennial, he refused to become another cog in the system yet he couldn’t quite nail down what his career had in store for him. The only thing he knew was that mediocrity was the antithesis to leading a meaningful life. At the end of the day, he wanted to do something that mattered.
He had reached an inflection point in his career. Unlike his friends peaking in their thirties, he was concaving downward. Working in the internet space shifted life too often to make five-year plans. He needed to get ahead of the next software upgrade; to be nimble and adapt, and fight like hell to develop a lifestyle that allowed him the freedom to do what he wanted.
One of the supposed answers to Paul’s mid-life crisis, at least in his head, was to write a book. The only thing stopping him was making time and doing the work. He struggled in facing the resistance but knew at the end of the day, the only thing that counted is if you could finish. People only remember what ships.
One November morning Paul picked up a newspaper that had been left on the seat. One of the headlines read “Now Boarding: Amtrak Writers Residency.” Amtrak was gifting authors multi-stop tours across the United States. Paul felt excited but instantly dismayed by his lack of merit. He operated a blog in which he was the sole subscriber; the rest were paid bots. He built himself up just as quickly as he tore himself down. Stuck in a crisis of confidence, he never treated himself like a friend.
The web leveled the playing field — you no longer needed permission to call yourself an artist — but it also unleashed mediocrity and created more noise than signal. The SoundCloud and Instagram generation seemed to over filter their work, making it all sound and look the same. You were better off making something unique for the long-tail instead of striving to become a celebrity in a hits business.
Ever the amafessional or well-informed professional, Paul was more than happy to steal the travel writing concept to fund his own Amtrak experience. He googled Amtrak routes and discovered a West Coast adventure called the ‘Coast Starlight.’ It traveled daily between Seattle and Los Angeles. Paul’s brother lived in Los Angeles so he planned on staying with him there for a few days.
He reserved his ticket online, snagging one of the last sleeper rooms on the bottom car. He emailed his boss to let him know he’d be gone the first week in December; days he had to use anyway before they expired at year-end. He forwarded the email to his girlfriend to get it on their shared Google calendar.
Little did he know, this thirty-six-hour train ride was going to be an experience of a lifetime. But would he finish the book he so desired to write?