bare-minimum brilliant

A couple weeks back, I wrote:

Just because we don’t have an obsessive devotion to writing—or any other area of expertise—doesn’t mean we can’t get pretty darn good at doing our jobs. You don’t have to be a master to act a lot like one, most of the time. 

The following week, further confirming Jung’s plate-of-shrimp theory of universal synchronicity, I stumbled on a post by software engineer Sandy Maguire entitled “You Don’t Need to Be Brilliant to Do Brilliant Work.”

It begins when Maguire observes that his professional reputation has grown:

All of a sudden people were throwing my name around in the company of the people I looked up to, whose work I’d always felt was far beyond my grasp.

What changed? Only that Maguire has published a book—a book filled with impressive, even brilliant, thinking. As a consequence, and quite understandably, people “suddenly” decide Maguire himself is brilliant. Not quite, he argues:

[People] see this book in its finished form, but are shielded away from the tortuous months I spent writing it…None of it was exceptionally difficult. Mostly it was just tedious…Any idiot could have done what I did—read blog posts, think hard about them, write some code that used the idea, and then write one chapter at a time. That’s it. There was no magic…I’m convinced that any idiot could have put together the same book that I did.

“Any idiot”—hey, that’s a bar I can meet! What struck home was Maguire’s closing point. He suggests that, while a few problems may actually be “brilliance-constrained”—meaning only geniuses can properly solve them—the vast majority are simply “effort-constrained.” If you put enough work in, they get done. The more work you put in, the better the results are, often far beyond what you might consider the point of diminishing returns.

Writing a book is an iterative process of bottomless depth. As long as you’re willing to keep working—not just writing and editing but also researching, interviewing, soliciting valid feedback, and otherwise synthesizing new ideas and information—the brilliance of the work itself can far exceed your innate capacity.

I’d add: Of course, there’s a certain amount of necessary intelligence and talent involved. But, Maguire argues and I agree, it’s less than you think. To do brilliant work, you only have to be bare-minimum brilliant—and uncommonly diligent.

Because of the way successful creators obfuscate not only the work that goes into their successes but also the pre-existing resources they brought to bear, it’s easy to see any significant accomplishment—from writing a book to starting a business—as brilliance-constrained when it isn’t.

Effort, not brilliance, separates the brilliant from the blah. Effort, vast effort, makes stuff good. Then luck makes it successful with an audience. Anyone who tells you luck isn’t a factor in outsized creative success has been exceptionally lucky. That said, without consistent effort, luck can’t find you. Gotta buy those scratchers for a shot at the mega-millions. And unlike this guy, you can’t pick all the possible combinations to ensure a win. You have to take your shots and accept the misses like the rest of us.

On Here’s the Thing, Moby spoke to Alec Baldwin to promote his new memoir. I learned that the album that made Moby a superstar, Play, was actually his fifth. His fourth album had been a complete flop, leading his label to drop him. At the time, he’d figured his career was over. Then, someone at one of Richard Branson’s labels heard a track from the new album and offered Moby a deal. To this day, he has no idea how that person discovered a track from his unreleased album nor why Play went on to sell millions of copies, becoming an essential refrain of the turn-of-the-millennium soundscape. What’s more, while Moby has steadily produced music ever since, he has never coming close to replicating that success, even with Play‘s enormous momentum behind him.

If Moby had stopped at four albums, he would have been a “failure.” Likewise, if he’d never done anything else after Play, he’d be just as rich and famous. The lesson I take from this is: I need a better reason to make work than success.

For me, that reason is creative alchemy, the almost-too-good-to-be-true factor Maguire hints at in his post. In medieval times, alchemy was the search for a way to turn base metals into gold. That’s not going to happen outside of a nuclear reactor, but there is a far more profound and interesting transmutation any of us can attempt: turning our own diligent effort and the limited talents we’ve been given into legitimately brilliant work. Once you realize that’s actually possible, it doesn’t seem worthwhile chasing anything else.