Don’t Look Down
For my last post of 2016, I’ll end with an admission: I have no idea what I’m doing. This isn’t false modesty, or some clumsy attempt to manipulate you. It’s a truth. I consider myself adept at making things. Yet, I fail to understand what resonates, what doesn’t, and how to affect such matters.
You, me, and every other person who makes things probably has this lack of knowing in common. We’re all just making stuff and seeing if it sticks. Sometimes things we feel proudest of don’t get any attention. At others, we produce something trivial that everyone seems to love. This is just part of the deal, and you either work through it, or let it beat you down.
You know this, and I know this. Me saying it again doesn’t change the fact that it’s tough, though. Two things make it worse: The first is the fear of admitting it’s difficult, which leads a lot of creative people to lie about their struggles. The other is measurement. Business-folks would have you believe that your success is a factor of likes, uniques, and followers. It’s difficult to keep yourself from buying into this religion.
That said, you can’t look for validation in the internet-like-machine. Public opinion is fickle, and it’s even more so when made digital. Retweeting, hearts, and likes are easy. Mean-spirited remarks are easy. Pressing an upvote or downvote button is easy. These mechanisms give power to those who often don’t make anything—and they use them casually.
We once criticized Hollywood for allowing films to be directed by focus groups. Now, all makers are under pressure to capitulate to digital influence. “Hey—they retweeted my post! I should write another like it.” “Drat. No one said anything. My idea must be bad.” See where I’m going with this? By listening to what others say, you allow your work to get shaped by them and not you. This is fine if you’re marketing a breakfast cereal. If you want to make something new, though, there are better ways.
You know that feeling when you start a project? I mean when everything moves quickly, and you’re pure energy? I call this project velocity. (In a future post, I’ll talk about harnessing this phenomenon through the use of bursts.) To my point, though, at the beginning of creating any new thing, you have a certain speed that allows you to move faster than you normally do.
That state is powerful. Personally, I want access to that energy all the time—because it feels good and I get more done. So, over the past year, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to best access this state. Two observations stand out: The first is clustering of activity. The second is in avoiding destabilizing influences. Today, I’ll talk about the second.
Instant feedback is powerful. It can also be destructive. The moment I release this post, I’ll find myself tempted to open Google Analytics (GA), and check the real time activity. If 200 people are concurrently reading this article, I’ll feel good about myself. If no one is, I’ll be disappointed. I should know better—and that site traffic isn’t a reflection of the quality of this post. Nevertheless, I’m weak in the face of dopamine.
So, I’m not going to look at all. Instead, I’ll post it, share it on a batch of communities and social networks, and move on to the next thing. (Today, that’s Officehours. On another it might be my new webcomic, Mastobwasto). I know how dopamine works. If I spend even a moment on GA, I’ll find myself bouncing between browser tabs, counting likes, checking for retweets, and responding to comments. And in that time, I’ll lose velocity and make very little.
You can’t control how people respond, but you can control what and how much you produce. As such, I ask you to set it and forget it. If others dig what you made, great. If not, maybe they’ll like the next one. But the moment you let others impact your creative velocity, you’ve lost something.
If you agree, I ask you to repeat this mantra with me: Ship it; make another. Ship it; make another. Ship it; make another. When you next find yourself stuck, I ask you to return to this phrase.
By the way, Paul Jarvis said this all of this better, in his post: Happiness and Gravy. And David Bowie discusses some similar subject matter in this video: