Churn & Burn to Learn
What I’m going to share with you in a moment goes against every fiber of my being.
When I create something to release into the world, I want it to be amazing. Sheer awe-inspiring magnificence. I want to take the time it takes, do whatever is required, to perfect that thing before releasing it into the world.
Why release something when you know it’s flawed? The predictable judgments will just echo what you already knew about the work — made worse by your pre-existing knowledge of its monumental imperfection. If I had my way I’d release one spectacular masterpiece on occasion, with cautious deliberation and painstaking care in between. Whatever it takes to make it great.
The problem is, if I did that, where would I be? I would suck at those things I wanted to master. Perpetually suck. Irrevocably and forever suck. No masterpiece would emerge. Nothing of value would emerge.
So, you’re stuck here reading my faulty writing, forced out prematurely by an unrelenting and dictatorial calendar deadline. Time is up. It’s late the night before the newsletter is due and I must hit send now. Ready or not. Like it or not. Here it comes. It scares the hell out of me every time (especially as the readership is growing 1,200 people a month).
Does this ring familiar with any of you? Cue the “Parable of the Pottery Class”…
A pottery teacher split her class into two halves. To the first half she said, “You will spend the semester studying pottery, planning, designing, and creating your ideal pot. You’ll be graded on the quality of your pot.”
To the other half she said, “You’ll spend your semester making a lot of pots. Your grade will be based on the number of pots you complete.”
The first half of the class threw themselves into their research, planning, and design. Then they set about creating their one, special pot.
The second half of the class immediately grabbed fistfuls of clay and started churning out pots. They made big ones, small ones, simple ones, and intricate ones. Their muscles ached for weeks as they gained the strength needed to shape so many pots.
At the end of class, both halves were invited to enter their best pot into the competition. All of the winning pots came from the students tasked with quantity. The practice they gained made them significantly better potters than the planners on a quest for a single, perfect pot.
I hate this. I wish it weren’t true, I want to make something great by sheer force of will. I don’t want to generate all that garbage along the way, and certainly not reveal it to anyone.
But it is true, and more so now than ever in our streaming, social feed, digital media, micro-attention-span world. There are no more Kubricks.
I’ve experienced this reality on both sides of the equation. My so-resolute-it-never-happened filmmaking career was characterized by paralysis of no script ever being good enough. First, I tortured screenwriter friends who too generously put up with endless revisions that never got the green-light due to some eternal lacking quality I could never quite put my finger on.
Then, deciding that if I wanted the job done right I had to do it myself, I took 6 (six!) screenwriting classes over years at $600 each all so that when I finished I was out of time and had to get a full-time job. I haven’t written a single page of script since then (sigh).
But during the courses, the intense frequent writing exercises produced passages I was proud of — moments that received laughs and praise from teachers and classmates. Not all of them, not even close. But some of them. And my work got better and better as we went. I was then finished with courses and back on my own, ready to deliver my Citizen Kane and… nothing. (Though I did meet my wife in the classes so not a total loss 😎)
Prior to that, I was a professional photographer for years. When I started I was churning out images, trying different styles, and endlessly experimenting. This led to rapid and flattering success. I won some of the biggest awards in the industry — Hesselblad Master Award, PDN Photo Annual selection, Graphis Gold Award, IPA “Photographer of the Year Awards”. And that in turn led to high-profile gear sponsorship, magazine editorials, and big clients.
Then something happened. With my greatness firmly established in my head, I only wanted to reveal major projects that showed the full extent of my capability. Budgets had to be big. Teams and set construction and cast and wardrobe had to be elaborate. I was terrified to release anything that didn’t blow everyone away. I was afraid of not living up to the hype. My output slowed to a few releases every year. Then two a year. Then none.
Now I produce between 8 to 12 videos, podcasts, articles, and newsletters a month and I’ve never felt so engaged and satisfied with my work. Not a single one of them are masterpieces. And that’s just fine.
I’m meeting so many amazing people, they’re finding me through the work. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s there. It exists. It’s released into the wild.
And it’s getting better. Slowly. Not linearly, but on the whole steadily over time.