wicked problems this way come

Happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans!

For every other passenger on Spaceship Earth: The United States is currently experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by for our regularly scheduled home of the free and land of the brave.

I don’t know about you, but there are times I wish you I drape a tarp over the whole damn country. Give us minute to get our stuff figured out and make ourselves presentable. Would everyone please do us a favor and avert their eyes until, I don’t know, January, at the earliest?

Moving on. My friend, author and publisher Rohit Bhargava, has assembled a “virtual summit” on book marketing, It airs this Wednesday. Completely free, it features Rohit’s conversations with many top-tier book experts: authors, marketers, speaking agents, publicists, booksellers, and more. So many good names from nearly every corner of the industry, all offering their best book marketing advice to you. For free. Sign up here to watch.

(All the guests are good, but my segment alone is worth the price of admission.)

(Because it’s free. Get it? Price of admission?)

Sometimes I wonder how many of my jokes come across in these essays. Informal polls indicate: few. Worse, I’ve offended a number of Maven Game readers over the years with my klutzy stabs at humor. I’m not saying I worry about getting canceled—what’s there to cancel?—but getting jokes to land in an email, without the benefit of facial expression, tone of voice, and/or clown nose, is a unique challenge that I have yet to master. (Yes, I’ve tried appending “wokka wokka wokka,” but the only Muppet most people know nowadays is Baby Yoda.)

I rarely crack wise in my clients’ manuscripts and book proposals. It’s usually inappropriate, although occasionally I slip something clever in. If it passes muster, I’m just delighted. Mostly, these newsletters serve as an outlet for the kind of thing I can’t do in my day job. The Maven Game has always been a learning tool for me as much as anything. Sure, I try to offer you, the reader, actual advice, but I follow a steak burrito content strategy. The beans, rice and guac are the jokes, riffs, and references—the material I’m trying out in my little email “act.” The steak is the stuff that’s useful and relevant to authors and experts like you. Have you ever opened a steak burrito before eating it? How much steak did you see? Cow is expensive.

David Epstein, author of Range, recently wrote about deliberate practice in the context of the passing of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson was one of the originators of the idea of deliberate practice and the so-called “10,000-hour rule” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell (a notion Ericsson later disavowed).

(While you’re at it, sign up for Epstein’s newsletter. It’s all steak.)

What’s interesting isn’t whether or not 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will make you a master at violin, chess, or tennis. Skills like that are easy to acquire. All you need to do is invest enormous amounts of incredibly demanding effort. Move the racket like this. Did you hit the ball? Great. Do that again. If not, try something a little different. Rinse and repeat multiplied by your wasted childhood. Immediate feedback, unequivocal results, and the game itself never changes.

Valid or not, deliberate practice has absolutely no bearing on the work of an aspiring author. Sure, writing a successful sentence, paragraph, or chapter is a craft that can be improved with practice—to an extent—but writing a successful book is a wicked problem: “a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.”

In other words, making a book work or, as editors and agents do, trying to figure out which book among many will be successful in the marketplace, is not one of those reliable and predictable skills that you can practice and master with however many hours. The rules change constantly. Success is hard to measure and based on countless interrelated factors. You can do everything “right” and still get it wrong. And it’s not like you can publish the same book over and over, trying different approaches until you get it right. It’s impossible to achieve mastery in the traditional sense when you’re dealing with a wicked problem. Luck will always play an outsized role.

This is all very confusing for people who have achieved high levels of expertise in a domain that does respond to deliberate practice: engineering, for example, or medicine. They don’t understand why you can’t just work really, really hard for 10,000 hours and then know exactly how to make a book successful. This blindness extends to the suits from sales and finance who inevitably wind up running things at large corporate publishing companies. They’re the ones who decide to fire world-class book editors when a particularly expensive book tanks. Nothing could be more absurd. Picking winners ain’t a science, folks. Nor is becoming one.

None of this is to say that you can’t develop some best practices and improve your odds with experience. But it’s hopeless to seek certainty in the realms of creativity and popularity. You get the best data you can, you plan things out based on sound principles, and then you go with your gut, accepting the very real possibility—in fact, the likelihood—of failure. If you learn a single true, universal lesson from publishing your book (or sending your weekly newsletter), consider yourself very lucky. Unlike chess, the rules will all be different next time. So will the pieces. So will the board.