If you care about what you create, every project you undertake has to have a standard of quality on which you can confidently put your name. If you cannot bear to have your name on a creative work, you shouldn't take the gig.
Nuance is all about how that attention to detail plays out in concert, about how subtle, tiny interactions among elements can contribute to profound differences.
Ubiquitous ability to create things of all sorts may be a profoundly positive trend, but the cultural challenge it presents requires careful consideration. Without a deep appreciation for a professional class of creators, the average quality of many things may rise tremendously, while professionals—those people who actually move various disciplines forward—gasp for air.
Everything is faster these days. Faster than what? Faster than it was a moment ago. Project schedules of all types no longer abide by 40 hour work weeks. Design cycles barely give consumers enough time to even get comfortable with changes in product lines. Books come to market about major current events only weeks after they happen; follow-up films to Hollywood blockbusters come out like the changing of the seasons. Major retailers are starting to experiment with same-day delivery solutions.
That's why, when it really counts, when reputation and big money is on the line, I almost always turn to the file folder of ideas I've been gathering for years.
Sure, sure: when it's time to put ideas into action, I like to think we move like lightning. But as a general rule, faster isn't better in much the same way that lethargy won't ever get you where you're going either.
Do you ever eat a salad? Intellectually, you know that those vegetables took weeks if not months to grow. There's simply no way to grow them faster, even if you consume them in mere minutes. Were you ever a child who wondered about his or her grown-up life, years away? It took you years to become that grown-up. Sometimes the most meaningful projects happen in slow motion.
What I find interesting here is that slow motion does not have to mean boring. If you've ever watched the countdown for a rocket carrying astronauts, it takes place with deliberate, almost tedious precision. On the way to the big boom, the rocket masters even pause for built-in holds. The clock stops while lengthy checklists and evaluations take place all over the launch facility. No doubt the process could be expedited, but when human life is in jeopardy, the need for speed clearly pales. Perhaps it's not nearly as vital as that mortal component, but you might feel a similar feeling if vast sums of make-or-break capital are on the line, too. Go too fast, and you risk calamity. Failure is generally not an option.
My point is this: feel free to go quickly at whatever game you're playing. Go fast to compete; go fast to impress; go fast to get it done and out of the way. But go too fast at your own peril. Some things are supposed to take time. You can make a bottle of wine in just a few months, but most varieties benefit from appropriate aging.
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Performance day. Delivery. Showtime.
Months of work across multiple departments compress into a single shiny point, a captured spark inside a gleaming stone.
It's always the same, and it's always different. By the time something is finally ready to leave the workbench, creators knows every single pixel, every sound, every explanation and justification and reason and inspiration behind every molecular detail in what's about to be revealed. On small projects the coalesced energy presses gently, urging enthusiasm. But on big projects, the potential energy grows exponentially. The coming kinetic release threatens to break on the shore of the event like a tidal wave, like the San Andreas fault growling to tip Los Angeles into the hungry sea.
Oh, Sweet Experience! There's no better teacher for managing the rolling deck of the boat than having brought many, many of them in to shore before. But that doesn't mitigate the buzz. And make no mistake: there's always a buzz.
Everything can go wrong. It's vastly challenging to predict every single eventuality you're likely to encounter on the day of a big show. No matter how much you like to think you leave nothing to chance, variables have a way of creeping in. Generally big performances do not happen in locations of your own choosing, or your own control. That's the biggest source of unexpected drama. You're also likely showing your work, whatever format it may be, to people who are not specialists in your field. You're not showing to other painters, nor dancers, nor even caring school guidance counselors who will clap enthusiastically for every single kid who gets up at the spring talent show to belt out a song. In the real world, your audiences demand something that wows 'em, that moves 'em, that makes 'em think their money was worth spending with you. But caution: if you're thinking you might get away with a Music Man moment, think again. You're not going to engender warmth simply because your clients will see themselves immediately reflected in their so-very-wise commissions. You're going to need much more than that, and flim-flam gets you nowhere. You have to deliver the goods, and you know it.
The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said, "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it." I've always regarded this as a cautionary tale from a performance master. Coasting on talent and experience is never enough. Preparation and practice makes all the difference in the world, and there's no getting around it. And if…IF…you should be so lucky as to have generated a good idea to work with along the way, well, that never hurts either.
Assuming you're serious about your craft, there always comes a day when what you're working on needs to get seen. Whether you've been commissioned by a big corporate client or you're working on your magnum opus of a novel, there always comes a time. Practice and preparation will get you far; they're essential, and deadly serious. Yet real life is not a practice run. Like Han Solo said, "Going against the living? That's something else." Expect to be scrutinized, expect to be cross examined, expect to be dissected in a million different ways. You may have been working on this thing, whatever it is, for months, but to your audience, it only lives for the few minutes they get to experience it, and they don't really care about how hard it was to create.
Everything can go wrong, perhaps. But everything can go right, too. Walk carefully but confidently. Answer questions, but don't defend positions. Own your creations, but be generous is sharing them. Because if you've been honest about the work all along, and it really is something of value, then your big performance--and that's what it always is: a performance--will be the vehicle that helps convey your vision to eyes that do not know what to expect. It's through those eyes that you have a chance to reach someone else meaningfully.
That's why this moment matters, because, as you know, the eyes are the gateway to the soul.
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If you live in the modern, technologically connected world, you already know there's too much stuff to do. People with aspirations of excellence often find that personal life interferes with pursuits of passion. Kids, family, bills, endless electronic jabbering: there's too much to keep track of without placing powerful filters to block out the noise. But the problem with broad-spectrum filters is that they block out positive signals as well as negative signals. Filters can be pernicious. That's why I regard one particular technique as an unusually effective way to accomplish big things. It's simple to say, if perhaps not always simple to do: if you can get something done right now don't wait to do it later.
Committing to write a novel does not fall into this category. Making a movie does not fall into this category. Remodeling the kitchen does not fall into this category. But taking two minutes to transfer a file to somebody across town who will have eight hours to work with that file DOES fall into this category. A moment of procrastination on your part can catastrophically cascade and make ordinarily challenging projects unnecessarily hard, or worse, mediocre in their result. Completing a five-minute, tedious phone call you've been avoiding will simply remove its burden from your back. Organizing yourself to assign tasks to trusted team members, getting the next in an endlessly nagging stream of documents out the door, or just taking out the recycling so it doesn't pile up in the corner keeps your to-do list from growing so large as to be unmanageable. Get something done... and it's done.
Now, here's the secret. All of this dogged diligence is not about establishing metrics for yourself about the vast amount of work you can complete in a given period of time. Work for its own sake simply hauls bricks from place to place with no great value in the counting. But show me somebody who's hauling bricks to build a house and now I'm interested. The secret is that the completion of mundane tasks right now, this instant, so that they're gone until the next mundane and task…is all in an effort to compartmentalize bigger blocks of time for far more important, far more interesting, much more relevant creative work. Don't sweat the small stuff: dispense with the small stuff. But ignore the small stuff at your own peril. These little tasks are a tight rope between the safety platforms of "The Before" and "The After", where the first represents the moment before you enjoin a giant project and the second is that moment of its satisfying completion. The tight rope––that viciously thin line barely connecting the two––is irrelevant compared to the stony stalwarts on either side of the chasm. But it's also the lifeline. One misstep and you fall to your doom. Nonetheless, that line itself is an aesthetic irrelevancy. The tight rope itself is made entirely of a million tiny threads -- all small stuff-- but it's the overall collection of small stuff that gets you across the void.
So don't let the dishes pile up in the lunch room table; get them into the sink. Better yet, get them washed. Pay your phone bill today, get your equipment room organized, make sure you've successfully crossed some of the little stuff off your list. Because the rest of the day awaits you, and there are big things to do.
The crazy thing is, you don't have to do the job well. What job? Any job. No one's forcing you to get outside, shovel the walk to the edges, clear your car windows frame to frame, completely dig out the mailbox. It's up to you how to do it.
But getting a job done versus getting it done well will almost always reduce to one essential decision: are you willing to do what it takes to do the job properly?
For most things in life it doesn't really matter. To build a peanut butter sandwich like a perfectionist is to misappropriate effort to goals of limited value. Not everything demands perfection.
But walk carefully along this ledge. The slapdash peanut butter sandwich may not matter too much, but there's a measure of finesse that accrues to the person who can balance the knife across the open jar rather than simply set it down on the counter, requiring you to clean up the smear. More precisely, the implied finesse is not one of manual dexterity; it's is, instead, one of awareness, of attention to detail, of genuinely taking pleasure in the conscious choice to do things attentively rather than chaotically. There's an aesthetic value in placing the peanut butter covered knife across the jar without slathering up the counter that goes beyond simply not having a messy counter.
Doing a job right means holding up standards you cannot deny. Doing a job right is often subjective, too; there's rarely just one way to do a job right. But there are guidelines to consider. Is there a measure of invention, no matter how small, in the technical performance of incremental tasks? Is there an economy of effort in the overall performance? Do the results confer an aesthetic value beyond the simple delivery of a completed job? Are there details that might have been perfected if they had only received a little time or attention? Are you rationalizing a low quality effort just to get it done?
Quality matters. But without a singular definition of what that means, the pursuit of quality matters most because it helps build an intangible something greater than the thing itself.