“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
The hardest part of writing this blog post is writing this sentence – this one right here, the one you are reading right now. The starting point of any creative task is always the trickiest part, the part that slowly, painfully builds up in you, until you’re about ready to burst. It’s the one thing you keep putting off, escaping temporarily, to peruse your email, to do more research (who are you kidding), and get it “right.”
But the act of finally starting, especially when your idea doesn’t seem perfect, is the most fundamental rule to creativity. It’s not just in writing fiction or blog posts that this rule applies. The act of starting is hailed in all walks of creative and artistic life, as well as in business and the world of the entrepreneur. From the tenets of the lean startup, the teachings of the world’s best writers, to Steve Jobs’ philosophy of “always be shipping”, the world’s most creative and successful thinkers all knew how crucial it was to simply start.
Start and Beautiful Things Will Happen
The idea for this blog post came when I was watching C.C. Chapman, a self-help author and social media buff, speak to an audience in Toronto about how to live an amazing life. He gave some useful advice about how lead the life you want to be living, which he’s written about in his book Amazing Things Will Happen.
But the most memorable encounter of the evening for me was not from C.C. at all. A woman in the audience raised her hand and she said his talk reminded her of an old Goethe quote she’d heard long ago, a quote that had changed the way she lived her life. This was the lengthy, but powerful quote which she knew by heart, and recited to the audience:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
As a side note, there has been some questioning over whether Goethe ever actually said that. But the source of the quote is less important than its message. The fact is, you find fragments of this quote all over the web. It’s stuck around and is so popular for a reason: it feels absolutely true.
What the quote reveals is that when you finally commit your life to a path, only then do the things you need to make it successful emerge. Many of us struggle to make decisions in life. We pain over quitting our jobs, starting a novel, putting things off to a later date when everything will make sense. What this quote strikes you with is the idea that waiting for a better time is a mirage. There is no time where everything will be perfect and you’ll finally start without fear.
Your only duty is to start, and from there, the path will become clear and fruitful. “Providence” kicks in. Connections get made. The path always makes more sense looking back. But you had to take that first big baby step in the offset, or else none of it would have ever happened.
The Ego and The Psychology of Procrastination
“The easiest thing in the world is not to write.” (William Golding)
Previously we talked about Steven Pressfield in our tips to live life more creatively and his discussions of resistance. Resistance, he says in his book The War of Art, is that powerful force inside of you, preventing you from living your true purpose and following your dreams. This resistance can be felt every day, getting in the way of what we know we should be doing. It’s that desire to check emails before starting your real work. It’s the sneaking out for early lunch when really you should have your butt on the seat. Drinking with friends on a Wednesday, love making, yes that too, even putting your family first at the expense of what you want to be doing. Some of these things feel natural to you, and they are all good to an extent.
But much of these distractions come from something inside you that actually doesn’t want you to create what you feel you need to create. The ego.
We are psychologically wired to avoid trying to create, argues Pressfield, because when you finally set something down, you risk rejection, you risk failure. This is the ego protecting itself. We deeply identify with our sense of purpose, so if we screw it up, then who are we?
This is why creation is often discussed as a kind of death. It is the death of your fears and your ego, it is an evolution to a next stage. And that is scary. We seek comfort instead in the temporary retreat of not doing that big thing we should be doing.
But you must keep in mind these distractions will never fulfill you. Putting off your true purpose is one of the most numbing, painful things to live with, but you do it because the fears of the ego are even bigger. Facing these fears is incredibly tough and it’s why starting is so difficult.
Forget about perfect and go
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” (Margaret Atwood)
One way to cope with this constant resistance is to face it directly, and simply try and forget about it – or at least ignore it. Much of the time, we are too critical of our initial abilities to create, so we avoid starting, waiting for a moment when all the dots will line up.
The truth is, the most successful people don’t think they’re perfect. Shakespeare probably didn’t sit around waiting until the perfect sonnet jumped into his brain. He just began and he didn’t stop. The power is in knowing how imperfect you are, and to run with it anyway.
Susan Cadley, a licensed psychotherapist and writer, discusses on her blog how she faces up to her imperfections right from the start.
I acknowledged the initial feeling of disappointment and the inner critic voice telling me “you’ll never get a creative spark again”. “Thank you for sharing” I tell the inner critic and I let her know that I know better. I remind her that creativity is not always an instantaneous combustion of fireworks and ideas. Some creations take time and mistakes and detours create more layers, complexity and depth. I gently confronted my inner critic and suggested that we “play and see what shows up next.
Instead of giving in to her inner critic, she personifies it, and she tells it to go take a hike. When you’re on a mission to create, you should do the same. Ask your self, are you really just scared this idea isn’t perfect? Then realize it never will be, and feel free to just begin.
The Power of Starting in Business and in Life
“Real artists ship.” (Steve Jobs)
These days, it’s not an exaggeration to say people are in love with the idea of being a startup entrepreneur. From the Holywood blockbuster The Social Network, to the billion-dollar Instagram acquisition, striving to be a software kingpin is the new cool.
It’s interesting to note this entire culture of the startup is completely based on the idea of just getting started long before you’ve ever figured out what the hell you are going to do. The agile or lean startup method was arguably first set in stone by Steve Blank in his seminal Four Steps to the Epiphany. But this methodology was popularized by Eric Ries, a student of Blank’s, in his best seller The Lean Startup. “Lean” has given us a whole new vocabulary, one that gets thrown around in board rooms across the world, and tossed up on whiteboards, in all those fancy new venture-funded startups.
Lean is all about starting with just a hunch and going from there. You set down your hypothesis, then go out there and test it out. You don’t even expect it to be right. In fact, you’re happy when it’s proven wrong because you’ve just learned something. Ego plays a big role in startups, of course. But it’s never welcome when it comes to finding product market-fit. This concept is summarized by Blank when he says “inside the office there are no facts, there are only opinions.” To grow your start up, you need to get outside and you need to make mistakes.
And while Apple Computer certainly seems to believe in perfectionism – Steve Jobs was infamously a control freak – the company also seems endowed with the DNA to constantly be delivering. They have dependable ship schedules for new phones and computers, sticking to incredibly tight deadlines to push out the greatest, world-changing tech. And they keep doing it over and over again. The Steve Jobs quote above, that “real artists ship,” is a perfect summary of this idea. You sit around waiting to be perfect, or the perfect time, you’ll never be an artist. You’ll never create something worthwhile. You need to commit to starting and shipping, and you need to acknowledge upfront that there is no such thing as perfect, only hypotheses that beg testing.
There’s never been a better time to get started on that project that’s been bugging you. In fact, there is no other time. What is important to understand is that the procrastination you face daily, preventing you from beginning your creative task, is deeply entwined in a psychological fear of the ego. But what is clear, from the advice of entrepreneurs and writers, is that starting is the most important act of all. It won’t feel perfect. You might not know where you are headed – and that’s all good. When you finally arrive, all the steps you took will make sense.
To pull once more from the quote above: Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.