We have this misconception of successful people that everything they create is amazing. But, nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most significant sources of resistance for any creative is the belief that everything they produce has to be good. As author Anne Lamott famously said that all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.
Even though I’ve been writing 1000 words a day for more than five years, I still have plenty of false starts. Sometimes my first 900 words are false starts. None of my sentences connect to the ones before and nothing I’m writing sounds coherent. I am usually writing in the words of my friend Sarah Peck, “god-awful essays that nobody wants to read, myself included.”
We resist false starts when it comes to creative work because we mistake them for failures. As a result, the false start prevents us from doing anything at all. But a false start is better than standing still. Action creates clarity, movement creates momentum, and both lead to progress, result in a cycle of motivation and consistency.
It’s exactly how this article started out. For the first 900 words, I was writing down whatever came to my mind. But I couldn’t expand on any of my ideas. So I kept jotting down more ideas. As Seth Godin has once said, the key to having good ideas to have lots of bad ideas. To become a prolific writer, you have to be willing to have false starts, half-baked ideas, bad ones, and incoherent ones.
Bad creative ideas are like the dirt that you have to shovel before you hit gold.
Half Baked Ideas
Some of my best writing is the result of half-baked ideas over the course of multiple weeks. Half-baked ideas give you puzzle pieces. After accumulating enough puzzle pieces, you’re able to complete the puzzle.
People resist half-baked ideas because they think that their creative process has to be linear. They don’t realize that ideas need time to bake. This belief kept me trapped for years. But when Jennifer Louden told me an interview “your structure, has to be linear but your process doesn’t” my creative output skyrocket.
The most popular thing I’ve ever written was the result of dozens of half-baked ideas over multiple writing sessions. What started out as nothing other than paragraphs and status updates eventually turned into my article about what we should have learned in school but never did. I didn’t realize what I was creating until I had enough puzzle pieces to put the puzzle together. I took the same approach to my ultimate guide to mastering your craft.
Creating for the Trash Can
In his book, Unthink, graffiti artist and author Erik Wahl describes what he calls “creating for the trash can.” When you’re creating for the trash can, you know you can throw something away if it isn’t good. This allows you to approach every day as a blank page. If you what you created today isn’t good, you can come back tomorrow and give it another shot.
All writers have lousy writing days even if they’ve written multiple bestsellers.
All painters have lousy painting days.
When I interviewed Elle Luna for the Unmistakable Creative, she said this about her creative process. “I still throw plenty of work away.
Regardless of the art form, people who are masters of their craft have days when their performance is subpar. But they understand the profound power of consistency, so they just come back tomorrow.
Shitty First Drafts
In his book Do The Work, Steven Pressfield tells the story about writing something awful that suddenly seems brilliant when he looks at it the next day. We judge our work both harshly and quickly. Often we judge it while we’re creating it.
You might be drawing and thinking “this is shit.”
You might be writing and thinking “this is nonsense.”
But as the term “shitty first drafts” implies, work that is shit is just a part of the creative process. It’s not necessarily a reflection of your skill or capabilities.
Any author who has worked with a publisher will tell you that a manuscript goes through dozens of revisions before it’s approved for production.
They don’t see the endless redlining and comments that say “what does this mean?” as a reflection of their value. They recognize that t is just part of the process. As I’ve jokingly told friends, the secret to my writing process is that 90 percent of everything I write is shit. I rarely write anything worth reading. I just write a lot.
Developing the Discpline to Capture Ideas
As I said in my new book, An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for its own sake, we don’t have a shortage of ideas. We lack the discipline of capturing them A few weeks ago a friend told me about Airtable, and within a few days of using it, I was a super fan. I have two editorial calendars in Airtable. The editorial calendar for our podcast has all of the following:
- The schedule for upcoming episodes
- The status of episodes (recorded or scheduled)
- The sponsor/advertiser for the episode
- Ideas for potential guests
I use a similar editorial calendar for my writing, which has all of the following.
- Schedule for an upcoming post
- Status of something I’m writing (in progress, staging, etc.)
- Ideas for new articles
The other thing I do is capture all of my highlights and underlines from the books that I’m reading in Evernote. Your brain is a terrible place to store information, and by capturing your ideas, you’re free up your cognitive bandwidth to come up with new ones.
The Virtually non-Existent Cost of Bad Ideas
We’re gradually moving towards what the economist Jeremy Rifkin defines as Zero Marginal cost.
A platform like Medium is a perfect example of zero marginal cost.
- First, it costs nothing to be a writer on the platform.
- Second, you can publish something shitty today, and it’s not going to cost you anything to come back and try again tomorrow.
Over last 20 years, the gap between creativity and technology has become much narrower, driving the marginal cost of expressing our creativity closer and closer to zero.
It used to take weeks and thousands of dollars to build a website. Today, thanks to tools like Squarespace, anyone can build a decent website in a matter of hours for less than their monthly coffee budget.
Look at the early work of any successful creative, and you’ll likely find that it’s awful in comparison to what you know them for today. But that didn’t stop them from doing their work. Every creative act planted a seed for their body of work.
As Reid Hoffman has famously said, “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.” Progress is far more useful than a level of perfection that prevents you from shipping. Don’t underestimate the value of bad ideas. Sucking at something is the first step to being sort of good at anything.