I used to aim for ‘excellence’, but now I aim for ‘good enough’. This attitude would probably make my younger self wince. Fortunately, that puritan is consigned to the dustbin of history and doesn’t have a say in the matter. Back then, I was arrogant about my ability and snobbish about my peers, but I had very little to show for it in my life or work. The fields I sowed with my fanatical (and noisy) dedication to truth and beauty remained barren. So how does reduced ambition result in a higher yield come harvest-time now?
The biggest barriers for me when making new work are a ruthless internal critic and a predilection for procrastination. The former cuts new ideas off at the knees and the latter weakens my resolve in the face of such bloodshed. It’s not that I’m a fount of brilliant ideas which must be released for the good of humanity, but rather because I have an ocean of terrible ideas and the few good ones look a lot like the terrible ones at first glance. How can I save new ideas from the axe and put them into practice so I can see their true worth?
I’d realised that important areas of my life — relationships, life skills and creative practice — could be improved intentionally, but what held me up for a long time was thinking that Important Problems require Ambitious Solutions. And the problem with Ambitious Solutions is that they’re easy to dream up but hard to implement. When I plan everything ‘perfectly’ in advance, without testing any of the steps, it’s a lot easier to fudge the later stages of the process. Later, when I arrive at the gap between my plan and reality, I’m flattened by a landslide of insurmountable complexity. In practice it feels like the drawing books I had as a child — first draw a large egg shape on its side, then add a rectangle for the horse’s head and a trapeze for its neck; OK, let’s add triangles for the upper legs and more rectangles for the lower legs. That’s looking great — now I want you to fill in the remaining details and shade it exactly like the Stubbs masterpiece in box four. Thanks for drawing with us today!
I’ve wrestled with many approaches to this problem over the years but the only approach that works for me is to optimise for momentum over perfection. Aiming for interim results that are ‘good enough’, but come thick and fast, means I don’t have aspire to the optimum outcome or sustain a heroic effort. Instead, I take the smallest steps needed to achieve the minimum result required to unlock the next stage. This strategy dodges my inner critic — he won’t demean himself by commenting on such trifles — and side-steps procrastination, as the effort required for each micro-step is too small to intimidate. It’s a jiu-jitsu thing — you don’t pit strength against strength; you seek (or create) gaps, imbalance or lack of structure, then apply leverage to weakness. With each small win I accumulate more information, confidence and experience to feed back into the system to improve my skills or modify my approach for future problems. This is an approach that allows me to sneak up on seemingly intractable problems and chip away at them over time. Frequently, I bitch about a frustrating obstacle, but on reflection realise that I haven’t spent even five minutes with a pen and paper thinking up solutions, let alone making any tests or concrete attempts to solve it. When I lower the bar to begin to work on a problem so low a mouse couldn’t limbo under it, I make it easy for me to take the first step and get to work.
If this sounds sounds robotic and uninspiring, that’s great, because that’s its greatest strength. Whenever I trip myself up it’s because I’m in love with the idea of doing the thing, rather than the reality of doing the thing — I want to be the noun without doing the verb. If I can reduce the glamour and romance of an idea or solution, and get closer to the nuts and bolts of what needs to be done next, the better things go.
When I minimise pretensions to greatness, I reliably make more and better work. We can only see our canonical work in hindsight — there is no point shooting for the career defining piece, they’re only visible in relation to the body of work not yet created. Going out to shoot masterpieces only increases the disappointment when you download your images and you’re faced with a grid of what can only be generously be called ‘lesser works’. This is the disappointment that’ll make you hesitate when you reach for your camera the next time you go out.
I’ve found this approach serves me well across the board. In relationships, a focus on avoiding the dumb and hurtful things I do regularly has paid dividends over efforts to improve the quality of my occasional romantic surprises. Similarly, a focus on simple and pragmatic rules for exercise, diet and lifestyle have been a lot easier to follow than hyper-specialised and likely ‘better’ protocols, that are nearly impossible to integrate for more than a week before life gets in the way. As Charlie Munger said about his and Warren Buffet’s investment approach, ‘It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.’
Carpoolers by Alejandro Cartagena
A simple concept, elegantly executed — using the flatbed of pickups as a frame within a frame to showing different groups of workers on their way in to work from the suburbs. This week I listened to this great interview with him on A Small Voice too.
I knew nothing about her and her work until I was shown her stark and beautiful paintings of fish and animals this week.
Incarceration In Real Numbers
A brilliant data-vis project looking at American out of control approach to incarceration and the misery and inequity that it produces for a marginal effect on crime.
Ocean Vuong on On Being
A wonderful interview with one of my favourite writers — smart and sad and bittersweet, much like his writing.
Jack by Truncate
Sparse, repetitive and mesmerising — techno at its best.
One Life by Malibu
Another new one for me — lovely enveloping ambient that I have been working to all week.
Unpretentious and essential advice for writing artist’s statements from one of the best writers about photography on the web
A piece celebrating the strength required to quit.
The Weight of Our Living by Ocean Vuong
The brilliant essay that Vuong reads from in the above podcast.
ASMR on Interconnected
Weird and brilliant — Interconnected takes on ASMR and neurodivergence