Overcoming the challenge of facing a blank canvas in order to create meaningful work.

Great Ideas

So many great ideas tend to seem early because the adjacent possible is only just coming into view.

The iPhone, for example, was a spectacular leap forward on the surface. But it was really the product of incremental progress in lots of different areas, ranging from batteries to chip miniaturization, storage, touch screens, carrier negotiations, software, and more.

In fact, Apple was so quick to combine the advances in all these areas into something revolutionary, Blackberry executives couldn't believe it was real. And even once they came to terms with the fact that it really did work as advertised, they didn't see it as a threat to their business.

This is one of the reasons why sometimes it's so important to start things before you feel ready.

The rest of the world may not know it's ready either.

Not For You

In a world with seemingly unlimited choices, trying to create something for everyone doesn't work anymore. The internet has made it easy to both create and find the best solution in every niche. There are so many great options out there, no one will passionately share what you make if it's only good enough.

If you constantly shave off every rough edge of your work that might turn someone away, the result will be so bland, no one will care about it.

Instead of trying to infinitely maximixe the number of people you're trying to please, consider this question instead: What's the smallest audience you need to make your work worthwhile?

In academia, your writing might have a global audience of less than a hundred people, depending on how specific your research niche is. The market for someone making sweaters for people who are 6'10 is also very limited. And picking out an engagement ring has an audience of one.

In all of these examples, expanding the audience for your efforts would undermine your ability to help the people you originally sought to serve.

This means that facing rejection is baked into the process of making something that matters.

It means having the confidence to tell most people "this is not for you," so that you can focus on ensuring that the people you are trying to serve will love your work.

And if you succeed, they'll love it so much they'll turn to their friend and say, "This is for you."

See also: Work Designed to Be Shared

Keep the Channel Open

Theseus' paradox poses a simple thought experiment: If you systematically replace every single part of a ship over an extended period of time, is it still the same ship? Looking at it, we might know that none of the original ship still exists. But it still has the same essence from when it was first constructed, right?

This paradox applies to our bodies as well: Though some of our cells are with us for life, our skeleton gets fully replaced every 10 years. Every cell in your bones is less than a decade old, but you probably don't think of your skeleton as being particularly younger than the rest of you. It's essentially the same one you've always had – it just got larger with the rest of your body as you grew up.

Reflecting on our cells' transience reminds us that we are an expression of the universe, both physically and spiritually. For a brief period of time, matter flows through us, and every time we wake up, we face the blank page of a new day.

So, how do we best fill that page?

Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham suggests that we should simply "keep the channel open":

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.

If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium. It will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it open clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

In other words, by concentrating on your universal expression, you can ship your work each day with greater ease.

Saturated Markets

If you ever feel like something isn't worth doing because it's already been done, look no further than Houston, Texas, where you will find a Starbucks across from another Starbucks.

If you're like me, you might find this unbelievable. But comedian Lewis Black has been there, and Redditor u/CharlesDrake has photo evidence:

If this little corner of the world can support two Starbucks, then isn't anything possible?

Google was the 24th search engine. Can you imagine what the history of the internet would look like if Larry Page and Sergey Brin had looked at the other 23 search engines and gave up before starting because online search had already been done?

Even in a saturated market, there's alway room to improve something, or at least to provide your own unique expression of it. (Or in Starbucks' case, the market may not be as saturated as you think it is!)

Jon Stewart was recently asked why he chose now to create his new show in a world that is full of Daily Show-style topical satire programs. He replied, "Imagine saying to someone who plays guitar, 'Lotta guitarists out there, man.' There’s no question, but this is a song I want to sing."

Go sing your song.
Start another search engine.
Open a Starbucks across from another Starbucks.

It's all been done before. Don't let that stop you.


All knowledge is self taught, because learning anything requires us to actively engage in the educational process.

Learning cannot be done to us or for us.

Our culture likes to confuse education with learning. The former is a certificate – a stamp of approval from an accredited institution. It's a way of branding ourselves to prospective employers.

Learning requires us to lean in and ask questions. It asks us to do more than simply memorize information – we must also synthesize that new information with what we already know.

So when someone says they're self-taught, maybe they don't have a relevant school transcript to point to. But they've read books, watched YouTube videos, done tutorials, asked questions in forums, failed over and over, and built up enough confidence in their knowledge to say, "I am capable of this."

You don't arrive at that point just by attending a class lecture.

Technology and Culture

In the late 1970s, nobody wore headphones outside. A Japanese company wanted to change that.

In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman, and suddenly, the act of listening to music was no longer restricted to your home or a noisy boombox outside. You could privately listen to whatever you wanted everywhere you went.

The problem Sony faced was that wearing headphones in public at that time would have been considered odd, which meant Sony's new product needed to change people's behavior, and therefore our culture, in order to succeed.

Any new technology needs to have a clear value proposition, but this is especially true for one that asks people to go against the grain of social expectations. Consider how products like the Segway and Google Glass failed to find a mainstream market. They lacked a clear use case and therefore faced an uphill battle getting people to act differently in public.

Fortunately for Sony, its chairman Akio Morita understood that there is a dance between disruptive technology and culture. If you want to change the culture, the story of your new product needs to be clear.

When engineers brought Morita a prototype of the Walkman with a recording function built in, he told them to remove it, even though the economics of producing the device with that feature would have easily worked.

Morita was concerned that the ability to record would confuse people. He wanted the device's purpose to be clear, to maximize the probability that people would be willing to change their behavior. So, the Walkman shipped without the recording function. It's use case was simple: Listen to your music anywhere.

Today, wearing headphones in public is ubiquitous.

Our ability to create effective work relies on our understanding of how we're interacting with culture. And since technology has such an enormous cultural impact, we see the importance of this principle play out over and over again throughout the industry's history.

Author Steven Johnson, writing for The Wall Street Journal, illustrates this by drawing on his experience (paywall – archived snapshot) coming of age when the Mac was first released:

In a funny way, the Mac played the same role for me that "Catcher in the Rye" or "Easy Rider" played for earlier generations: Experiencing it expanded my consciousness in ways that took me years to fully understand. Almost all my engagements with the technology world since then—the books I've written and the websites I've created—have been animated by the basic principle that digital machines work better when they are crafted and interpreted by people whose sensibility is shaped by the world of culture as much as that of technology.

Of course, this is true not just for technology, but for everything that we make.

When our work is informed by how the world truly works – not just how we wish it would – we maximize its impact.

Hat tip to David Perell for the Walkman story.

Start Before You’re Ready

When I started violin lessons in first grade, I refused to play a recital. The prospect of sharing my work with an audience terrified me.

Eventually, my mom and teacher convinced me to set a goal of working towards a recital by the end of second grade.

I’ve been performing ever since.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always preferred to observe new things before participating. It’s a way to get a feel for the activity or experience – to make the unfamiliar familiar – before jumping in the deep end.

But observation is ultimately an incredibly limited way to learn. You can’t really excel at something until you’ve raised the stakes and done it for real.

Coding a website, for example, will accelerate your skills faster than watching someone else do it.

Teaching a concept to a friend will help you understand it better than just reading about it.

And working towards performing a piece of music forces you to internalize it in a way than practicing alone never will.

You can spend your whole life observing and preparing to do something. But at some point, you have to start before you’re ready.

Might as well start now.

Passing Time

Any worthwhile accomplishment is likely to take a long time.

Maybe a brilliant idea comes to you in an instant and takes minutes to implement. But it's likely the product of years of prep – of honing your craft and immersing yourself in an environment that provides inspiration and stimulation.

Earl Nightingale said, "Never give up on a dream because of the time it will take to achieve it. The time will pass anyway.”

A mantra to live by whenever the biggest obstacle is how long something will take:

The time will pass anyway.

This Might Not Work

Failure is always a possibility when we embark on a new endeavor. As humans, we're hardwired to want to reduce or eliminate risk. But the fact that something might not work is a poor excuse for not doing it.

In fact, many things worth going after are more likely to fail than not.

So how do we decide what to pursue? Start by comparing the potential downside with the upside. If the downside is minimal and the upside is high, you should probably do it, even if failure is likely.

Embrace the risk, then take the leap.

When you keep your eyes open to the chances you're taking, it frees you to live without regret, content with the knowledge that you made the best decision you could with the information you had.

See also: Set Out to Be Wrecked


Daily thoughts on living more intentionally and creating work that matters.
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