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Dare To Be Crap

2016 May 29
by Greg Satell

Like most people, I try to do things well and am frustrated when I don’t. That’s why I always find it hard to start something new. I tend to remember my past work in its best light, so the new stuff I’m working on feels inadequate by comparison. I also worry that a future failure will tarnish any past success that I may have had.

That’s why the toughest part of any job is to start. Every project begins with enormous potential, but once you start it becomes a messy reality. Choices need to be made and with those choices come the inevitable errors and mistakes. We’re not always at our best, but we tend to judge ourselves against the times when we were.

The result is that I often look at something I’m working on and say, “what a load of crap.” Yet over the years, I’ve learned not to let it bother me. In fact, I take pride in it. I dare to be crap, knowing that any flaws can be fixed later on, while a blank page will get me nowhere. The truth is that if you are ever to do anything that’s any good, you usually have to start with crap.

The Myth Of The Prolific Genius

One of the things that makes doing anything of significance so hard is that there always seems to be others who do it so much better. For them, things seem to come so easily that our own personal struggles seem futile by comparison. Yet if you look at any great story of success, you are much more likely to find heartbreaking desperation than blithe nonchalance.

With over 1,000 patents to his name, there has been no one more prolific than Thomas Edison. Yet he was no stranger to crap. When asked about his 10,000 failures on the way to inventing the lightbulb, he said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.”

Fareed Zakaria seems to agree.  As he recently noted, “Thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my ‘thoughts’ are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.”

The problem is that we can only experience our own struggles, so we discount those of others. If Thomas Edison failed more than he succeeded and an acclaimed journalist like Fareed Zakaria can start out with “incoherent impulses,” then there is probably some hope for the rest of us too.

What It Really Takes To Achieve Excellence

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the world to the 10,000 hour rule. As he described it, world class talents like Bill Gates, The Beatles and chess grandmasters attained their great prowess only after 10,000 hours of practice. This would seem to support the idea of procrastination, because more time to prepare means better performance.

Yet look a little closer and it becomes clear that the opposite is actually true. Gladwell’s 10,000 rule is based on the work of Anders Ericsson, which shows that doing something for 10,000 hours will in no way make you a world class performer. True excellence takes a specific kind of activity called deliberate practice.

Ericsson illustrates the concept in an article where he uses golf as an example. He explains that after 50 hours of practice, most people can become reasonably adept golfers. Yet after that, few improve. Golf becomes a social outing that they engage in for fun. They are, in some sense, practicing by putting in hours, but it doesn’t make them any better.

Professional golfers, on the other hand, continue to work on the worst parts of their game, focusing on areas of weakness and repeating shots over and over again. They also employ coaches to point out errors and push them to improve. This is really hard work, which is why few people ever subject themselves to it.

In other words, truly great performers never stop exposing their own crappiness. That’s how they become so much better than everybody else.

How Xerox Missed Out On The Personal Computer Revolution

In 1973, Xerox created a revolutionary new computer called the Alto, which was years ahead of its time. It had a mouse, a bitmapped screen that could produce impressive graphics and a graphical user interface that was far more intuitive than anything anyone had ever seen before. It built a few thousand of them, which were mostly used by its own engineers.

The truth was that the company had much bigger plans. It intended to combine the Alto with other breakthrough technologies it had invented, such as the ethernet and the laser printer, to completely reimagine the modern office. It called this revolutionary new system the Star, which it launched in 1981 with great fanfare.

Unfortunately for Xerox, that very same year IBM introduced its PC, which was much less impressive, but with a $1,565 price tag was far more affordable than the $50,000 Xerox charged for a Star installation. And with early productivity applications like EasyWriter word processing program and Visicalc spreadsheet, the PC quickly became a hit product.

A few years after that, Apple launched its Macintosh and Microsoft came out with its Windows operating system, both of which became runaway successes. Xerox, could have launched similar products a decade before, but the company set its ambitions higher. As a big, impressive company, it couldn’t bring itself to dare to be crap, which cost it dearly.

Life In Perpetual Beta

Software developers often launch “beta” versions of their products which aren’t fully tested. They do this so that users can point out flaws and report them to be fixed. In essence, branding a product as “in beta” gives them a license to be crap, because users know that it isn’t supposed to be a finished product.

Tim O’Reilly, a Silicon Valley icon, advocates for perpetual beta development meaning that developers continue to co-develop with users for an extended period of time. For example, Google’s Gmail was in “beta” until 2009, five years after it was launched. It had already become the most popular service on the planet and still wasn’t considered finished!

Most of us don’t have that luxury. We certainly can’t send unfinished work to clients and expect them to help us iron out the rough edges. Still, we can set up an effective feedback process internally where crap is not only acceptable, but encouraged. The sooner we get our work out in the open, the faster the flaws can be exposed and fixed.

Another strategy is to quickly do a first draft and then put it away for awhile. When we come back to it later —many of my articles sit in reserve for weeks or even months—it’s much easier to look at it objectively and fix it. Nobody really cares how bad the first draft is, because they never see it. All that matters is the finished product.

On this point, Pixar founder Ed Catmull writes in Creativity, Inc. that “early on, all of our movies suck” and that he sees his job as helping projects go “from suck to not-suck.” In other words, Pixar became what is perhaps the world’s greatest creative enterprise not by starting out with better ideas, but by daring to be crap.

– Greg

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