the only system that works

What’s the difference between a polymath and a dilettante: Credentials? Concrete achievements? The opinion of the specialists, or of society as a whole?

It’s only with hindsight and context that we can separate the dabblers from the doers. Circa 1502, Da Vinci must have been one frustrating employee: “Leo’s a go-getter, but will he ever actually build us that helicopter? Let’s sit down with HR.”

Your true Renaissance individuals are rare. We should be grateful for their contributions and, the rest of the time, sticking to our own lasts. Instead, we invest our precious energy in policing each other’s attempts to branch out. “I’m not getting anywhere in my lane, but the important thing is that everyone else stays in theirs.” (You know you do this, but if you’re the exception, the gatekeeping subreddit is ample evidence of this tendency.)

Why does it matter so much if people succeed in multiple areas—resentment? You’re struggling to do your thing—I sure am—and then you read yet another New Yorker piece about a guy who earned tenure based on one—albeit “definitive”—book, then put literary criticism behind to become a successful poet, only to put poetry behind to become a successful painter (starting at age forty-nine), all while swimming several miles every morning. I mean, what does The New Yorker even expect me to feel while reading these ridiculous profiles? Sadism plays a role.

In contrast, I don’t resent John Gall, pediatrician, author, and systems theorist. As a rule, we don’t resent the doctors-plus, your Gawandes and Sackses. For one thing, no gatekeeper appoints you a doctor based on one “definitive” surgery. Plus, surgery is gross. If somebody wants to write screenplays when they’re not busy suturing aortas, best of luck to them, I say. Aortas, yuck.

Gall spent forty years pediatrizing in private practice. Along the way, he published several books about systems: what makes them work and why they fail. I learned about Gall through the Law he coined:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

People find Gall’s Law relevant in the world of technology, where simple, flexible systems like the World Wide Web were able to evolve far beyond what any initial set of specifications could have allowed. In fact, the Web couldn’t have succeeded the way it did if Sir Berners-Lee had tried to specify all of it in advance: “We can’t do video yet, but I have a feeling about cat videos. Better create a dedicated <catvideo> HTML tag.”

The principle of Gall’s Law underlies agile software development. You have to start simple, stay flexible, and add complexity to your product only as necessary. Tech, however, is only one small arena. Gall meant all systems.

If you read the Maven Game regularly, you know two of my areas of interest are creative productivity and creative success. Each of these are systems questions. Your approach to making your work is a system and, clearly, some systems are more productive than others, regardless of the merit of the work produced. Similarly, your approach to driving attention to your work is a system and, again, mileage varies.

Gall’s Law explains why imitating winners is a trap. The complex systems that work for someone at the peak of their productivity and success evolved from simple ones over time. Adopting these methods at the beginning of your own journey “never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.”

Shun complexity. If you’re writing your first or second book, you need “a working simple system” for organizing your ideas and getting words on the page. If you’re starting a podcast, buying the same high-end rig some NPR alum uses in their home studio is just going to slow you down. In the words of computer scientist Donald Knuth, “premature optimization is the root of all evil.” This applies just as much to book outlines as it does to blueprints.

To succeed, start with the simplest possible system: butt in chair. Let it evolve from there.