There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
Do you ever go through one of those intensely busy, even grueling, periods of life, the kind of period that might easily be summed up in an upbeat montage? Except it’s your life, not an 80s movie, so you actually have to do all the work instead of chopping together the best parts to the brisk beat of a New Wave pop hit?
Whether you’re a boxer training for a big match, a misfit making the best of detention, or an oil rig worker learning to be an astronaut to drill a hole in an asteroid to save the Earth (as opposed to an astronaut learning how to operate a drill, which might have been easier), nothing beats a good montage when it comes to showing the work while skipping the boring parts.
Writing has its pleasures. Like finishing! Most of the rest is hard and boring. And right now, it’s not just the writing I have to get through. We’re in the process of moving (NYC → NJ) and between that, buying our first car, and tackling all my client projects, I can’t help but hope for an off-screen song to speed me through a montage. My kingdom for a shortcut.
The problem isn’t the absence of shortcuts. The problem is that we seek them anyway.
I first learned about yak-shaving more than a decade ago on Seth Godin’s blog:
Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do.
“I want to wax the car today.”
“Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I’ll need to buy a new one at Home Depot.”
“But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls.”
“But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor’s EZPass…”
In other words, yak-shaving is finding yourself doing the thing before the thing before the thing, some odd, fiddly task with no obvious connection to the important and time-sensitive mission of the day. Sometimes that recursive journey is necessary, but more often yak-shaving is a form of procrastination. The idea of beginning in less-than-ideal circumstances just plain frightens us.
The way to avoid finding yourself elbow-deep in yak hair is, of course, to compromise. To do what you can with the tools you’ve got. Understanding that hasn’t kept me from shaving a hell of a lot of yaks in my time, however.
You know what has helped, though? Multiplying my workload by an order of magnitude while simultaneously carving away huge chunks of time for family and household obligations. Pushed to my limit, the only way through has been to get really, really efficient with my writing. Line-‘em-up, knock-‘em-down efficient. At this point, I can’t even pretend I have time to borrow my neighbor’s EZ Pass. I wax the car with an old shirt and move on with my life. It’s my only option. Day after day, session after session, I sit and write, and if it comes out ugly, I rewrite. Alfréd Rényi defined a mathematician as “a device for turning coffee into theorems.” I’ve become a device for turning Ice Breakers into book proposals.
Stop searching for shortcuts. It’s the difference between putting down a layer of fresh asphalt in a paver at a glacial pace and driving down the old highway as it is, in your usual car, potholes be damned. To make progress, stop trying to make things easier for yourself and settle in for a bumpy ride. Bumpy rides are the only kind of ride worth taking. If it’s easy, anybody can do it—where’s the value in that? If you don’t want to shave a yak, put down the razor and pick up the pencil.
p.s. My pal Mo Bunnell (The Snowball System) recently launched an excellent new podcast. His latest episode features none other than James Clear (Atomic Habits). Their conversation is well worth a listen (or a watch) for any expert looking to build an audience. Check it out.