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.
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
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
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
- 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.
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.