Hello friendos. Don’t tell Rachel, but I decided to take the week off. I had an epiphany the other day: working hard is no good unless you’re willing to work really really really hard. It’s kind of like grades. Getting good grades is really useful in life, but they have to actually be good. People aren’t impresseed by a 3.5, they’re impressed by 3.9’s and above (unweighted). So if you’re working your life away to get a 3.5, then why bother? You’re just using up all your time, and you’re using it inefficiently.
It’s like the 80/20 rule. The idea that it takes eighty percent of the effort to get the last twenty percent of the output. The fun thing about the 80/20 rule is you can keep running it over and over. So out of that twenty percent of the effort, it takes twenty percent of the time to get the first eighty percent (16 percentage points) and eighty percent of the effort to get the lasst twenty percent (4 percent). That means it takes 64 percent of the effort to get the last 4 percent of the output. Run the calculation one more time and you get the 50/1 rule. Fifty percent of your effort goes to achieving that last percentage point in performance.
People use this as a justification for perfectionism. They’re like, oh yeah you might think it’s good enough to get 99 percent, but the person who gets 100 percent is actually working twice as hard as you. There are lots of people who are almost good enough, but few who are truly excellent, because most don’t realize how much effort it takes to go from good enough to excellent.
This is absolutely true, but I’ve always had the opposite thought, which is jesus christ, there’s no point in working hard unless you’re going to work extremely hard. Getting to ninety-nine is difficult, but it’s nothing compared to getting to 100. And that’s why ‘almost good enough’ is meaningless.
Whereas intead you could dial down the effort to twenty percent, be content with your eighty percent, and use the rest of your time more productively.
My feeling is that there’s no point in engaging in any form of head to head competition. It’s just a pointless rat race. Like, look at all the people out there working to get straight A’s so they can get plucked out of some application for some prestigious job. Instead, they could just go out, make some influential contacts, and get the job much more easily. Because in the latter scenario, you’re not competing with a hundred other people.
Obviously very little of this applies to the arts, where performance isn’t really measurable. But I have always felt that my role as a writer isn’t to perfect my sentences, whatever that means (I’ve never understood this concept of the perfect sentence, to be honest–it just seems like hokum that people have invented to self-aggrandize). My role is to work smart, not hard. Of course, I have no idea what that means, in practice.
One might easily say, however, isn’t the point of writing to create something that meets your own aesthetic standards? All this talk of performance and percentages seems besides the point.
It’s a fair notion. Once upon a time, writing manuals and writing instructors used to emphasize a thing called ‘finding your voice’. The most important part of writing was to find the thing only you could do–your subject matter, your particular syntax and diction. Then for some reason that stopped. Ambition fell out of fashion and started to seem quaint and even self-indulgent.
Now people don’t talk about finding your voice. Instead it’s about taming your voice, subsuming it to existing models. Your originality will always shine though–the point is that you also have something in there for the reader, so they can connect to and appreciate your original voice.
I am not sure whether this is true or not. All I know is that it takes absurdly little these days to be considered original or unique. Even a hint of ambition will do it. Any more than that, and people start to feel uncomfortable with the text. So from the perspective of having a satisfying literary career, it makes little sense to nurture your own creative ambition.
But the pendulum will probably turn at some point. From the perspective of a person sitting down to write, the objective is always the same: splash blood onto the page. But what does that look like? How can I shape my unique concerns and turn them into something?
I dunno. But I am inclined to say that too many people think the answer is ‘by being a grind’. To me, the thing that authors are often missing is playfulness–a sense of fun–a feeling that you’re reaching without straining. A sense of fun comes out in the text in a number of ways. But often it manifests in a sense of abundance: the idea that there is more in here than you can see, that there is an aliveness, that there are more stories that you’re not being told.
You can’t work your way into a sense of fun. Just like you can’t think your way into originality. It’s a kind of divine inspiration. It may or may not come.