when the work isn’t working

We get so attached to the work: the big idea, the outline, the draft. As long as it’s flowing, we are terrific, brilliant, inspired. Everything’s coming up Milhouse.

Then, things take a turn. As the easy and effortless surge of inspiration slows to an ooze, even a trickle, we teeter. Emotionally enmeshed with the work, our self-worth gets shaky. As our mood sours, so darkens our rose-colored view of the work—it’s a dun-ward spiral.

Ironically, this is the very moment in the process when we need to be self-possessed, impassive, even nonchalant. Fixing a writing problem is cognitive surgery—you don’t want to operate on yourself. Yet we try. Is it any wonder why so many authors turn to various forms of over-the-counter “anesthetic”?

That’s easy, says the voice in our heads, just don’t let the work not work and you’ll be fine. That’s what good writers do. No. There will always be a time when the work isn’t working. It’s not a bug in the system; it’s an essential phase in the process. You get to the thing you were supposed to make only by going through the ten thousand (or so) things you weren’t.

They say the difference between shame and guilt is “I’m bad” versus “I did a bad thing.” To heal from shame, you transmute it into guilt by establishing a healthy separation between you and your actions. To make good work, work a parallel transformation.

In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega does a bad thing. (Well, he does a few bad things, but I mean the thing in the car.) Sure, it’s a graphic scene, but let’s be honest, we’ve all had writing projects go south as abruptly, and with just as much blood on the upholstery.

Speckled with the results of Vincent’s error in judgement, Jules Winnfield could easily have thrown up his hands and quit. Instead, he stayed cool and called Marsellus Wallace. And Marsellus Wallace called in The Wolf.

What follows is a gem of a scene (though not safe for work because, d’uh, Pulp Fiction.) But it’s also a powerful creative metaphor, and looking at it now I think it’s no accident that Quentin Tarantino himself is in the foreground at the start—The Wolf is an obvious stand-in for the director, his creative avatar.

When things get tangled up in your writing and you’ve got your brains splattered all over the windows, call in The Wolf. Step away from the work, get yourself a cup of coffee, and then examine the situation dispassionately. Resist the urge to coddle yourself. That only feeds into the shame trap. You’ve got nothing to apologize for. You just have a mess to clean up.

If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast, and I need you guys to act fast if you want to get out of this.

Let The Wolf handle it. Figure out what’s salvageable and salvage it, quickly. Then look at the rest with a stranger’s eyes. It may be a bit much to “murder your darlings” as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once suggested, but you can definitely put them on probation. I grab any questionable material and toss it in an outtakes folder before going back to work. Knowing it’s still there helps because I can always pull it back if I end up needing it.

I never do.

the only system that works

What’s the difference between a polymath and a dilettante: Credentials? Concrete achievements? The opinion of the specialists, or of society as a whole?

It’s only with hindsight and context that we can separate the dabblers from the doers. Circa 1502, Da Vinci must have been one frustrating employee: “Leo’s a go-getter, but will he ever actually build us that helicopter? Let’s sit down with HR.”

Your true Renaissance individuals are rare. We should be grateful for their contributions and, the rest of the time, sticking to our own lasts. Instead, we invest our precious energy in policing each other’s attempts to branch out. “I’m not getting anywhere in my lane, but the important thing is that everyone else stays in theirs.” (You know you do this, but if you’re the exception, the gatekeeping subreddit is ample evidence of this tendency.)

Why does it matter so much if people succeed in multiple areas—resentment? You’re struggling to do your thing—I sure am—and then you read yet another New Yorker piece about a guy who earned tenure based on one—albeit “definitive”—book, then put literary criticism behind to become a successful poet, only to put poetry behind to become a successful painter (starting at age forty-nine), all while swimming several miles every morning. I mean, what does The New Yorker even expect me to feel while reading these ridiculous profiles? Sadism plays a role.

In contrast, I don’t resent John Gall, pediatrician, author, and systems theorist. As a rule, we don’t resent the doctors-plus, your Gawandes and Sackses. For one thing, no gatekeeper appoints you a doctor based on one “definitive” surgery. Plus, surgery is gross. If somebody wants to write screenplays when they’re not busy suturing aortas, best of luck to them, I say. Aortas, yuck.

Gall spent forty years pediatrizing in private practice. Along the way, he published several books about systems: what makes them work and why they fail. I learned about Gall through the Law he coined:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

People find Gall’s Law relevant in the world of technology, where simple, flexible systems like the World Wide Web were able to evolve far beyond what any initial set of specifications could have allowed. In fact, the Web couldn’t have succeeded the way it did if Sir Berners-Lee had tried to specify all of it in advance: “We can’t do video yet, but I have a feeling about cat videos. Better create a dedicated <catvideo> HTML tag.”

The principle of Gall’s Law underlies agile software development. You have to start simple, stay flexible, and add complexity to your product only as necessary. Tech, however, is only one small arena. Gall meant all systems.

If you read the Maven Game regularly, you know two of my areas of interest are creative productivity and creative success. Each of these are systems questions. Your approach to making your work is a system and, clearly, some systems are more productive than others, regardless of the merit of the work produced. Similarly, your approach to driving attention to your work is a system and, again, mileage varies.

Gall’s Law explains why imitating winners is a trap. The complex systems that work for someone at the peak of their productivity and success evolved from simple ones over time. Adopting these methods at the beginning of your own journey “never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.”

Shun complexity. If you’re writing your first or second book, you need “a working simple system” for organizing your ideas and getting words on the page. If you’re starting a podcast, buying the same high-end rig some NPR alum uses in their home studio is just going to slow you down. In the words of computer scientist Donald Knuth, “premature optimization is the root of all evil.” This applies just as much to book outlines as it does to blueprints.

To succeed, start with the simplest possible system: butt in chair. Let it evolve from there.

cheating all the time

Last week, I wrote:

A depressing percentage of students at every top school are there because somebody told them how to ace the test, someone handed them the impressive internships and travel experiences that padded their application, someone even wrote their essay. Yes, really, cheating, cheating everywhere, cheating all the time, so much cheating.

This week, the New York Times wrote:

In what the Justice Department called its largest ever college admissions prosecution, federal authorities charged 50 people on Tuesday with taking part in a nationwide scheme to game the admissions process at highly competitive schools like Yale and the University of Southern California.

Swept up in this were a few celebrities, including Felicity Huffman, wife of William H. Macy. I can just picture how it happened, too. Bill was on the phone with USC admissions:

USC: Now, I just need, on this application you sent us, I can’t read the SAT score.

Bill: Yah, but it’s OK. The acceptance is in place. Yah. So we’re all set, then.

USC: Yes, I just have to confirm that your daughter is actually qualified to attend USC, but I can’t read her SAT score, so if you could read me—

Bill: Yah, but, see, I don’t have it in front of me. Why don’t I fax you over a copy of her SAT score?

USC: Fax is no good. That’s what I have, and I can’t read the darn thing—

Bill: Yah, OK. I’ll have Felicity send you a copy, then.

USC: OK. Because if I can’t confirm this SAT score, I have to call back that acceptance letter.

Bill: OK. No problem. I’ll just fax that right over—

USC: No, no. Fax is—

Bill: I mean send it. I’ll shoot it over to you.

And, scene.

This isn’t about money or career options. All these kids would have had plenty of both. It’s about status. And I can understand social climbing. There was a time not too long ago when you had to have read the right books and acquired the right diction if you wanted to mingle at the highest levels of wealth and status.

Times have changed. Today, Instagram trumps all, and fake followers are a much safer way to cheat. Watching sophisticated, highly respected actors like Huffman and Macy go to these absurd lengths to chase such an outdated form of status is like watching Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan. I’m just—why? I mean, USC is a good school—I guess?—but photoshopping your kid’s head onto a real athlete’s body? Climbing a sheer rock face without a rope? Chill. Read a book or something.

I have similar thoughts when I hear about an author spending a quarter of a million dollars to buy a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a nice-to-have, yes, but not a must-have. You could have used a fraction of that money to build a much, much better book.

maybe you’re winning after all

The Italian cyclist Daniele Nardello won the Tour de France twice. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t. I’ve never seen anyone wearing his fluorescent charity-branded rubber wristband. I’ve never heard about him dating Ashley Olsen when she was half his age, either. In fact, despite twice dominating a sporting event watched by over 3 billion viewers, Nardello has yet to date any of the Olsen siblings.

(Just kidding. As John Oliver has aptly pointed out, there is only one Olsen “twin.” She just moves back and forth really, really fast.)

The reason you don’t know of Nardello is that he placed 7th in the 1999 Tour de France and 10th the following year. Which, in pop culture terms, means he might as well have stayed home for all anyone cares.

As it turns out, however, everyone who placed above him in each race cheated. Nardello won both races, fair and square. Nobody knew it, though—except for the guys ahead of him, and they weren’t going to tell. You can see how Nardello might have felt down on himself at the time. Like a loser.

Our economy is a Tour de France. The winners are not winning for the reasons they’d like us to believe—we’re doing far better than the numbers (i.e. asset distribution) suggest. The rest of us, particularly those who make a habit of voting against our own economic interests, assume our values are shared by those above. Poisonous as it is, it’s a fundamentally generous philosophy: if the people on top insist they won the game fair and square, we should believe them just as we’d like to be believed were we in their place—which is something they will never let happen.

College is a Tour de France. A depressing percentage of students at every top school are there because somebody told them how to ace the test, someone handed them the impressive internships and travel experiences that padded their application, someone even wrote their essay. Yes, really, cheating, cheating everywhere, cheating all the time, so much cheating.

Books are a Tour de France. The popular ones are not popular for the reasons their authors and publishers would like you to believe. Worse, many of them aren’t even actually popular in the sense that (1) people bought them to read them and then (2) actually do and (3) are glad for having done so.

There’s no accounting for taste with books and newsletters and social media because it’s possible, even likely, to be counted as a “consumer” without actually having consumed anything. You buy or click or share and that person’s stock rises. Whether you read something, let alone like it or benefit from it in any way, isn’t relevant to who is accounted the winner.

Not so in other arenas. Take a viral phenomenon like LaCroix. Here’s a flavored seltzer product that surges out of nowhere to achieve market dominance. Sure, it’s made of roach poison and the CEO is a bit odd, but when I noticed all those pastel boxes stacking up at the grocery store, I wasn’t left with an existential puzzle to untangle. I didn’t take a sip of an ice-cold Key Lime LaCroix and wonder, “What is this crap? How did it achieve double Perrier’s market share? Are people crazy? If everyone else likes this and I don’t, is there something weird or different about me? Who am I?”

Strategy and execution play a role, but if you drink a can of LaCroix, you can understand its success. It arrived at a moment when people were looking to avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners. LaCroix isn’t sweet, but otherwise it’s as close as you can get to the chilled, bubbly refreshment of a can of soda. Why did it beat other, established competitors like Seagram’s—the unusual flavors? The packaging? Some other aspect of its marketing strategy?

It doesn’t really matter. People like the stuff. You drink seltzer and then it’s gone. You don’t leave unopened cans around your apartment to impress visitors. Nobody’s spouse is bugging them to install built-in seltzer-shelves. If people weren’t enjoying LaCroix, it wouldn’t be around anymore. People are going back for more. Same goes for Halo Top ice cream—it ain’t Häagen-Dazs, but you can understand why it delights people on low-carb diets.

None of this is true with books. The most popular books usually leave me baffled, not only because they aren’t very good in terms of, you know, words, but also because I’m aware of substantially, inarguably better books addressing the same topic that continue to languish.

I’m not here to tell you that the world isn’t fair. You know that. I’m here to tell you that fairness is irrelevant. Stop seeking it.

What does “languish” mean in the context of a book? Self-help book A sells 10,000 copies over two years and changes 10,000 lives. The buyers read it because they bought it to fill a need, not because of Instagram or a newsletter drip campaign.

Self-help book B sells 500,000 copies in 6 months. Maybe it changes 10,000 lives. Maybe it doesn’t. Which of these enthusiastic buyers actually reads it? Which of these readers actually likes it? How could they? I mean, really. Look at some of these books.

Selling 10,000 copies of a book to 10,000 people who genuinely want to read it is an astonishing feat. Someone being glad they read 50,000 of your words is an order of magnitude more impressive. Yet in comparison with these engineered Armstrong-esque book-shaped fallacies, the talented and hard-working Daniele Nardellos of the writing world are treated like failures. They even think of themselves that way.

The world will never be fair. Sociopaths make up 4 percent of the population. When you understand what it takes on an emotional level to dominate—as a politician, a TV talking head, a CEO, a thought leader, a social media influencer, or an author—and you realize there are 13,000,000 American sociopaths out for the brass ring, well, 2016 and after make more sense.

Sure, rank yourself against others. Just shave off the very top contenders before you do any comparative assessment. The cream rises, but the crud rises higher.