Writing and career epiphanies can come from strange places. Sometimes you just have to go with it and see where it leads you.
I was reading an essay last night written by Frans Johansson titled “Making Purposeful Bets in a Random World,” part of a collection of essays on motivation and process in the book Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, part of a 99U book series (I admit, the title put me off as one of those marketing schlock books, but I was led to it by a post on Brain Pickings, which I like, and it was only 3.99, so I took a leap).
Most notably, I found Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson’s essay titled “Focus on Getting Better rather than Being Good” useful in terms of refocusing craft so that you aren’t falling into that terrible trap of comparing yourself to everyone else (or why you do it in the first place). And in “Leaning into Uncertainty” by Jonathan Fields absolutely defines process for what we affectionately call “pantsing” — or writing by the seat of your pants (More on that in another blog post, I think.) There is an essay about productivity and the 90 minute work cycles that appeared in the general media over the past year or so. Much of this we already know or have experienced, but hearing it presented differently has value.
But Johansson’s essay was the last one I read before bed last night, and the one I woke up thinking about. Something about it was bothering me.
He discusses several cases, but in particular that Rovio, the developer of Angry Birds, had developed 52 games before that one that catapulted them into success. Picasso painted tens of thousands of paintings, having no idea which ones would become the masterpieces or which ones would end up on Pawn Stars. Johansson points out that not all successful people have put, as it’s theorized, 10,000 hours into developing expertise. In a summary statement, he says “This all suggests that success is far more random and serendipitous than most of us would like to acknowledge. So a question that immediately follows: Given that, what should you do about it?”
We all know writers who wrote dozens of manuscripts before selling, and the stories of people who published for years or who were widely rejected before hitting it “big.” When we see someone right out of the gate hit it big after we’ve published for 5, 10, 20, or 40 years with middling success, it can shake the best of us out of our Zen work calm, but Johansson says, well, it happens (and it can happen to anyone — or not). In his answer to the question, “what to do about it?” Johansson’s advice is basically: show up. He calls it “placing many bets” – in other words, you keep writing, you keep doing whatever it is you do, and who knows what will happen: “The more times you try, the more likely you will create successful designs, start-ups, or pieces of art.”
This is where I needed to untangle some of what Johansson is saying. It’s (too) easy, I think, to interpret what he’s saying as “throw enough shit against a barn wall and something is bound to stick.” Or maybe that’s his point exactly. I suppose that’s a viable method as any, but it undermines the idea of quality and purpose. I prefer to think the Angry Birds developers, or Picasso, were not throwing shit against the barn. Every piece of work, every idea they had, they were invested in. They crafted each effort, inbued it with whatever skill and purpose they had at the moment.
At the same time, I’ve also been reading Peter Lynch’s One Up on Wall Street (really so much more interesting and engaging than you might think), and it hit me that as an investment strategy, Johansson’s advice would leave you broke in a hurry. Certainly the market is controlled by enormous random factors, but yet, you can make informed choices and you can benefit by investigating why you make a certain choice. This doesn’t mean you won’t lose, but it will potentially increase your chances of success and teach you things along the way (another win).
What this underlined for me, and what was missing in Johansson’s essay, was that in that process of constantly producing, there has to be purpose. Personal purpose. (Just for the sake of carrying the comparison through, this is also true in choosing stocks and investments, but more on that another time).
What could those purposes look like?
Fixing a bug. Getting a color right. Having fun. Perfecting a technique. Attempting to create sharp dialog. Trying a new pattern. Learning from the research. Working through grief. Exploring a problem or a question. Working out your own emotional quagmire. Whatever.
For writers in particular, if external success is the only goal, if money is the only goal, or finishing a contract or getting something on the shelf is the only goal, that’s not enough because you might not make any money, you might not be a success, readers or viewers might not like your book and your contract could be canceled — these are all the random factors you cannot control. We know this already, but it’s a slippery thing to get a hold of, how to ground our thinking when we’re being buffeted by the rankings, the reports and the reviews. And that way lies the crazy. When you draw your purpose from “out there” you are heading to the bad place. This is also when we start slinging shit in fits of “make something work” panic (it’s a good idea not to go near the stock market in this mindset, so maybe stay away from writing when you’re there, too).
But anyway, assuming that Rovio and Picasso had some personal purpose past external success, I asked myself, what purpose did I have when I wrote my first books? what was the energy that carried me through back then? And what is the purpose of writing my current book, aside of it has to be done by deadline and that I’ll get a check for accomplishing that?
At first, I didn’t have an answer, and then, when I thought about the writing rather than the book, I did.
This is a small book, a Christmas novella that made me want to pull my hair out all summer because I couldn’t think of what to write… generating ideas and trying to find one did, in fact, feel, like slinging shit and seeing what stuck. I don’t like that feeling and would rather not write, actually, if it comes down to that. But I realized the purpose can be a very small one, as long as it’s one we feel invested in — that’s key to staying motivated (at least for me).
In this case, it’s carrying through a technique, a type of story that I haven’t done before, a sort of “story within a story” framework that’s a challenge to play out in 20K. Accomplishing this one thing makes writing the book worth it. It exercises a certain level of skill, and whether anyone else in the world notices that or not, I know it. I will have added to the list of things I can do, stories I can tell. So I have invested in myself, in a way, as well as in the book.
Of course, maybe I don’t do such a great job of it and it flops or whatever, but that’s beside the point. I can try it again and maybe be better at it next time (“Focus on Getting Better, Rather than Being Good”). Purpose abounds early on in a career, probably in any career — it’s fun, it’s a challenge, everything is new, you need to prove yourself, etc but I think it can be harder to define purpose the years pass. So you have to work to make it conscious. Take time to think about it.
I’ve started to ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” about my work, and I’ve already discovered that with various projects, some of the answers are not good enough to proceed. However, asking this can also allow me to adjust my perspective to find purpose in the work, and reorient it in a way that will make it better as well as more satisfying. Knowing my purpose allows me to do what Johansson advises: I can keep showing up — when I have a reason.
So maybe rather than make a bet, make an investment. I wouldn’t play cards without looking at my hand (thanks to Peter Lynch again for that one) or pick stocks without researching the company — why write a book without asking “why?”
What’s your purpose? If you ask yourself that about the things you are working on right now, or things you have done in the past, what answers do you find? Or have you found other grounding questions that you find useful? Or have you read things you never expected would help you align your thinking about your writing or work?