I got it! I got it! I got it! I ain’t got it.
—Brophy, High Anxiety (1977)
When will it be ready? Does it need more work before I show it to anyone? What if I didn’t do it properly? What if people don’t like it? As though you can predict whether something will work before you even try it. As though you can plan away failure.
You see the tension between planning and doing in the story of the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre, described in Isaac Butler’s enjoyable and informative The Method. The naturalistic new troupe is down to its last rubles, its debut season is already on the rocks due to a string of lackluster productions, and everybody knows that the next play in the line-up, Chekhov’s The Seagull, flopped when it first premiered.
Konstantin Stanislavski, who has done a tremendous amount of preparation as both director and actor, loses faith at the last minute. The show isn’t ready yet—it needs more work. Stanislavski’s co-founder, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, steps in. He tells his partner, not for the first time, to get a grip. The show must go on.
(Naturally, The Seagull was a monster hit, leading in a straight line to the birth of Method acting, which led to Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman needing a shower, and Jared Leto’s cult island, all in a straight line. Life is weird.)
Some will tell you to plan what you want to build so thoroughly that actually building it becomes an afterthought. Like following LEGO instructions. That’s the promise of several note-taking and outlining approaches to writing, like the Zettelkasten method I’ve discussed previously. Lay out the numbers, then paint by those numbers.
In an essay, Matthew Guay tells software developers to resist the urge to code. Instead, they should document the software they haven't written yet first. That way, “when you start building, you’ll know exactly what to build, and why, and you’ll have pre-written documentation at launch.” Sounds so simple when you put it this way. You’ll have the manual before you even have the thing you need the manual for!
By this logic, you could mock up the cover of the book, draft sales copy, and put it up for sale. Do all the speeches, interviews, and TV appearances to promote it. Then, once the book was a best-seller, you could fill in the pesky blank pages between 1 and 256. Just hew closely to what people said they liked about the book in the Amazon reviews.
Guay points to the legendary engineer Tony Fadell, who sent out the press release for the Nest thermostat before actually making it. However, if you look at Fadell’s career, you’ll see a guy who became capable of making the Nest, as well as the iPod and the iPhone, because he’d made other products—at General Magic, at Philips—that hadn’t been properly thought through, devices that were wildly innovative and ahead of their time but, among other things, lacked product-market fit.
Would more planning have helped Fadell succeed? Or were his failures instrumental steps toward his eventual success?
It’s the failure piece that matters here, the clumsy way we stumble by trying to avoid missteps. The greats just go go go, plunging ahead and taking their licks along the way. Sure, maybe they’re propelled by an early success through the dispiriting mid-career failures, maybe they’d have quit if it hadn’t been for a stroke of luck near the start, but plenty of heavyweight creators continued working through an astonishing, unrelenting quantity of failure before their genius was acknowledged. Or, perhaps more accurately, before they were acknowledged as geniuses. Then, they kept going, even after their work was forgotten again, or dismissed. Sometimes they continued working until being re-discovered again, one or more times, in a single long, creative life.
Genius is mostly showing up. Did somebody say that? If not, I’m saying it.
“The key point is you have to enjoy the process of working,” award-winning scientist Daniel Spielman said. “As long as I enjoy that process, then it’s OK—as long as there’s success once in a while.” That’s the recipe for genius right there. Prove me wrong.
Planning is important. The outline is the only thing keeping me from getting lost in the weeds on a book project. When I get stuck in one section, I skip ahead to the next node of the outline and start writing from there. By the time I return to the thorny spot, it’s usually clear to me how to proceed. In the meantime, I’ve got a sketch started somewhere else in the manuscript. Progress continues.
So yeah, plan it out, think it through, but keep the building in lockstep with the planning as much as you can. Just as important, try to accept when it’s time to put what you’ve built on its feet, even in a primitive form. You have to try things out one way or the other.
"No matter how hard you work, it still takes a little bit of luck for something to hit," marketer Aaron Francis acknowledges. "That can be discouraging since luck feels like a force outside our control. But the good news is that we can increase our chances of encountering good luck. That may sound like magic, but it’s not supernatural. The trick is to increase the number of opportunities we have for good fortune to find us. The simple act of publishing your work is one of the best ways to invite a little more luck into your life."
So here I go, inviting some luck by hitting publish once more.
p.s. Go pre-order my friend Todd Henry’s Daily Creative, a book of daily practices for creators. I worked with Todd on The Accidental Creative more than a decade ago and since then he’s never stopped cranking out valuable resources for people who make ideas for a living. Looking forward to this one.