This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works
Why I work alone
For a long time I’ve had the strong opinion that talking about doing something is a waste of time.
I’ve been in groups where we’re all talking about making some idea or product, with my internal mental dialogue screaming at me:
”Why aren’t we actually making the thing instead of talking about making the thing?!?!”
This often leads me to abandoning the group and going off to work on my own thing, alone. Then I can control it, I can make it now, and I don’t need to “waste” time convincing others what to do.
(And I wonder why I so often end up working by myself.)
I now believe this is mostly wrong. Especially when making new things.
Why? You need people if you want to make a big thing. You can only do so much yourself.
If people like your ideas they’ll try to help you, or introduce you to people who can help you.
And with every iteration of talking about the idea you actually understand the idea better. A new idea is this delicate thing, a mere thought floating in a single person’s head unprotected from criticism.
As it jumps from human to human it gains strength and permanence. The idea gets refined.
Some of the best entrepreneurs I know are storytellers, meaning they’re good at getting ideas into people’s heads.
A big part of Steve Jobs’s success came from this bucket.
If you look closely enough you’ll find that the CEO of almost any decently sized company is mostly in charge of getting the right ideas into the right heads.
The impossibility of creation
When you see a finished product, whether it’s a piece of media or a physical good, it’s completeness gives it a sense of authority, impossibility, and inevitability.
As if the product appears before its creators fully formed & perfect.
But talk to anyone who’s made anything and you’ll know this is rarely the case. There’s a messy battle of ideas behind the scenes where finishing is the victory and perfectionism is the villain.
But even finishing can feel mediocre. Some creators don’t like their finished products even when the target audience of the product loves it.
For example I’m reading a book about the creation of the show Seinfeld.
One section talks about the writer of the Junior Mint episode, where Jerry accidentally drops a Junior Mint into the open body cavity of a patient in the middle of an operation.
It’s an absurd plot line that would never happen in the “real world” that Seinfeld portends to take place in.
So absurd in fact that the writer himself (a guy named Andy Robin) didn’t like the episode even after it’d gotten rave reviews.
He thought it was totally unbelievable and would ruin Seinfeld itself. From the book:
As the episode proceeded through the production process, Robin was shocked that no one raised an objection. The audience at the taping laughed, but he figured that was just because they were excited to be on the Seinfeld set. He saw the edited version and still hated it. Finally, it aired. And though the public revolt he expected did not happen—many fans and critics loved the episode—he was still certain he had ruined the show. Regardless of what people thought, he still hated the episode. It wasn’t up to his own expectations of himself or of Seinfeld.
And yet the Junior Mint is one of the defining episodes of Seinfeld.
The juxtaposition comes because the creator could see the creation process from the absolute beginning and all we can look at is the finished product.
Imposter Syndrome doesn’t do this justice. The sin is much greater: thinking that great products are made on Mount Zeus by the Gods who are categorically better and distinct from us.
Steve Jobs had a great take on this:
“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. And the minute you understand that you can poke life, that if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it…um, that’s maybe the most important thing.” (Full interview here. Quote starts 30 seconds in but listen from the beginning. Emphasis mine.)
Of course all humans are buggy. And yet all the awesome stuff that exists was made by us.
From Andy’s vantage point he couldn’t get over how nonsensical he thought the Junior Mint was. Because he made it by definition it couldn’t live up to the standards of the Seinfeld show.
But for those of us outside of that process we ask ourselves how could the Junior Mint episode possibly be any better?
Jordan Cooper has a great bit about the process of creation on his blog:
Most people when they have an idea or a vision get caught up in it’s “unrealness”… because it’s so far from being visible and living and breathing. They can’t see how the incremental steps of putting language and resources around it lead to it becoming reality, and as a result… most people don’t try to create stuff from thin air. It’s not easy to understand how just committing to talk about an idea with anyone who will listen is a totally reasonable first step to making that idea reality… for someone who hasn’t done it before, talking might not feel like progress, but the steps to reality are subtle and require faith. (emphasis mine)
Making progress is the most important thing, so if that sometimes all that means is talking to other people then great.
Water your idea, recruit resources around it, and maybe you’ll be so lucky as to one day have fans that think you dreamed it up in a single moment of brilliance.