on picking stocks

Nobody, I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffett or Jimmy Buffet, nobody knows if a stock is going to go up, down, sideways, or in [circles].—Wolf of Wall Street

As a book editor/cultural gatekeeper, I acquired many books, and the truth is I never knew which ones would work until after the fact. Success surprised me every time. "It hit the list? Huh."

If I'd tied my ego and self-worth to acquisitions, I'd have been mentally and emotionally crushed on a monthly basis. But I didn't try to pick stocks. As William Goldman said, nobody knows anything. I got stuff made and put it out there, not because that was my best option but because there was no other option.

If you think there is, you're kidding yourself. You know how people cheer for their pick at a horse race? It doesn't make the horse go any faster, does it? Don't waste your energy getting attached to outcomes or trying to pick winners from among your efforts. If you want to make it, make it, and move on. If you make something, it might succeed. If not, it definitely won't. It isn't rocket science.

Steve Keene paints a lot. At a pace of "eight hours a day painting, up to 120 canvases at a time, 52 weeks a year," Keene has made and sold well over a quarter of a million of his distinctively garish, plywood-panel paintings. They go for about ten bucks a pop. (Good luck buying one, though—his site has said he's "swamped" for a while now!)

“[Keene] doesn’t want to even think about, like, is somebody going to think one is good and one is bad,” his wife told an interviewer, “which is why he makes so many.”

You might hold up the famously selective Daniel Day-Lewis, who has acted in only six (world-class) movies over the last two decades, as the perfect contrast. Yet Keene and Day-Lewis both make stuff at a relentless pace. Different products, very different timelines, but I bet neither gives a second glance to anything they make once they've made it.

Don't mistake either approach for perfectionism. Ultimately, that's simply an unwillingness to move forward until success is guaranteed. Perfectionism is the only way to really fail. As the princess said, let it go.

Daniel Day-Lewis's oeuvre is qualitatively unimpeachable. Keene? In the eyes of some, he does great work. What else matters? Even at ten bucks a pop, the system works for the guy. He can keep the lights on, and he's even secured cultural relevance. His first catalog came out last year:

In essays and commentary by Shepard Fairey, the downtown gallerist Leo Fitzpatrick, the artist Ryan McGinness and the musician Chan Marshall (Cat Power), it makes the case for Keene as a cultural signifier, a subversive success — an artist who, though he has shown in galleries, art fairs and museums, still sells (and packages, and ships, via UPS) his work entirely himself, prizing accessibility above all.

What else do you want? Forget great. Optimizing for quality is unhelpful and counterproductive. Optimize for productivity. Optimize for whatever gets stuff done and out the door, regardless of the consequences. Don't spend another minute worrying about great, whatever that means.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.