Comparing Someone’s ‘On-Stage’ to Your Own ‘Backstage’

Patrick Rothfuss is not just a writer of fiction that I’m having trouble wading through, but he’s also a thoughtful person with a podcast that I really like. In one of his many discussions about creative work with Max Timken, he brings up the common problem of comparing someone else’s onstage work to our backstage. In other words, someones genius, refined work vs. our in-progress dumpster fire.

The presumption being that the perfect work represents the output of a perfect process. That the work being presented is so much more refined than the working drafts, frustrations and utter psychological mess waiting for us back at our workspace. Our own work is already a failure.

Social media brought this terrible feeling to everyday people, and boy does it scale! Here is where we present idealized selves to the world. We build the illusion of extraordinary, action packed, fulfilled, creative lives. We know it’s a lie, but sometimes it’s easy to forget. From experience, seeing this at 10pm, on hour-four of a colicky baby screaming in your ear, can be a tad discouraging (this is me being vulnerable).

What we don’t take into account is everything going on behind the scenes of that person’s life. To paraphrase Frank Beamer, nothing is ever as good as it seems or as bad as it seems.

Yes, there are people who are more talented and capable. But that doesn’t mean they just rolled out of bed and produced genius. Everyone has to work through the mess to get somewhere great.

Which, by the way, is also why the idea of creative agencies having a “proprietary process” is always complete nonsense, no matter what their new business deck says. Creative work is rarely clean, orderly, or easily replicated.

Getting Back to Basics

I like gadgets. I like notebooks. I like pens. I like backpacks. And oh boy, do I love apps.

I have a bit of a gear problem.

And in a podcast cue and RSS reader full of people who like to talk about the latest and greatest of everything from Apple gear to note taking to creative work, sometimes it’s nice to have a counter. An angel on the opposite shoulder from the devil.

Patrick Rhone is good for that. He’s the voice of simplicity. Of quiet calm. He stands out from the frantic storm of newness and upgrading and always searching for some kind of new way to hack one’s life.

In a piece he wrote about continuing to use his iPhone 5 in the wake of yet another iPhone release, he relates to the Amish and their technology: 

You see, it is not that the Amish shun modern technology. It’s that they take a very long, mindful, and considered approach as to what technology to adopt, weigh the pros and cons of how it might affect them, their homes, their communities, their way of life and if any of those trade-offs are worth it. Phones, for instance, are fine — as long as they’re not in the home and used only when absolutely necessary. And, if it’s not in any one home, then why not just have one phone in a central location that the whole community can use? So, one can see from this example that really what is at stake with the Amish approach is a question of true value — beyond the material — that every technology must pass and only applied in specific ways in order to be adopted.

I write about this because I’ve found myself over-building systems for work. I’ve been using too many tools, and I’ve been spending far too much time trying to find a better way to do X,Y or Z. Especially Z. Especially if Z works on iOS.

Enough with the Fiddling!

I have notes and saved links and blurbs of text in way too many apps. It’s become difficult to find information that I’ve captured. I’m also at a loss for how to deal with a lot of what lands in my email inbox. When I find an article that I want to read later, it can wind up in any number of different places. I have too many options for what to do with it all, so I put it everywhere. And then I can find it nowhere.

I have too many email apps. Too many ways to make outlines or mind maps. I have apps hanging around that have been waiting to revolutionize how I work since I downloaded them months ago. I have apps for automation and list making and WOW do I have a lot of text editors.

I have text editors with automation built in. I have text editors meant for writing books. I have text editors with built in previews, and text editors that can publish to websites, and text editors that sync to Dropbox, but also text editors that have their own built in libraries that sync through iCloud. I also have text editors that are meant to send text to other text editors.

A giant warehouse of spatulas for every occasion.
Thousands to choose from in every shape, size, and color.
And because we eliminate the middle man, we can sell all our spatulas factory direct to you.
Where do you go if you want to buy name brand spatulas at a fraction of retail cost?
Spatula City!
Spatula City!

It’s time to streamline … to get back to basics. Develop a way of working and stick with it.

And somehow try to stay away from the new and flashy and loud.

Romanticising Crunch Time

One thing that I’ve learned a lot about over the years is crunch time. The night before a pitch or an important creative presentation is rarely an easy one.

Work will expand to fill the time allotted. It’s called Parkinson’s Law. I’m not a mathematician, so I can’t prove that it is the natural order of the universe, but I think we can all agree that it should be considered one of the fundamental laws of physics.

At an agency, crunch time usually means late nights and some early mornings.

Early is relative, by the way.

There will be pizza and snacks and tightly-wound bundles of nerves.

Crunch time gets a bad rap. It feels high pressure, people are tired, spouses are irritated, weekends are lost.

But this is when a lot of good work is done.

Priorities become immediately clear and everything else falls to the wayside.

Decisions have to be made.

Difficult problems are wrestled to the ground.

Arbitrary ideas have to be pulled out of the air and fitted with cement shoes.

Differences of opinion have to be forded and compromises have to be made.

There’s no time to dance around the details or wait for someone else to come around to your way of thinking.

This is when the magic, as they say, happens.

I’m not arguing that all work should be left until the night before.

That work will almost always suck.

Crunch time works best when the work is 90% done, but another 90% of it still needs to be done.

The focus and intensity that a group can bring to their work at the very last minute can be powerful. It’s like pissing-off the Hulk and pointing him towards something that you need smashed.

Is that a good metaphor? I don’t read comics.

Give it a minute.

From a New York Times interview with Louis CK:

NYT:

You have the platform. You have the level of recognition.

LCK

So why do I have the platform and the recognition?

NYT

At this point you’ve put in the time.

LCK

There you go. There’s no way around that. There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.

This is important.

7 Days of Blogging

Today is my 7th consecutive day of writing and publishing online. This is the most I’ve ever done. Or that I remember doing.

After a difficult second day, things started to click.

It helped a lot when Russell and Erik both noticed what I was doing. That gave me a kick in the pants, and was affirming from the standpoint of “hey, people I really respect are paying attention!”

Finding topics has become fairly easy. I’ve been clearing out the dark, dusty corners of various drafts folders, as well as finally building out ideas that have been laying dormant between folds of grey matter, covered in cobwebs.

Writing about the process for 3 out of the 4 days probably means that I’ve cheated. But I have so many more ideas now than I did before, so even if the output was a bit focused on the process itself, I’ve seen real benefits in terms of idea generation.

Some of the new ideas have come from editing posts down for single-mindedness. But I think I’ve also managed to shrug off my internal topic sensor. My list of ideas has grown pretty long.

When it comes to the writing itself, knowing that there will be a new post to write tomorrow has helped to control the urge to bludgeon every post perfect for publishing in the New York Times. In the past, that perfectionism has stopped me from finishing a post, or even starting a new one, in the past.

Oh, and since I’ve been trying to actually write, rather than my usual links with pull-quotes, I’ve been spending much less time in search of interesting things to post. That time, which usually didn’t result in anything besides too much time in an RSS reader, has been put to much better use at the keyboard.

It’s also helping to prime-the-pump on my work days. It gets my mind turning, my fingers used to putting together ideas, and I’m free of the ridiculous pressure I’ve put on myself to do more writing.

I feel good about it so far.

Let’s keep going.

Let’s see what happens.