The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. – Neil Gaiman
I rarely have a plan when I begin the process of writing one of these posts.
I do have a ritual, however, a ritual that means I never have to start with a blank page – a ritual that makes it possible to eventually post something in an hour or so.
A blank page can be a forbidding, fear inducing thing.
Those first words, that first scrawl – it doesn’t look like anything and it probably won’t be anything and you’re best off just throwing it in the bin now.
You see this happening early on in life – first your children scribble and draw without fear.
And then they start school and learn that things are good or bad, perfect or imperfect, and they worry about getting the spelling right, or the spacing right, or the pronunciation right.
And in trying to get things right we slow down, we spend less time practising and more time correcting – and eventually controlling.
And eventually correction and control kills the thing you started doing because you liked doing it.
How many children continue to draw into adulthood?
At around six, seven, eight, nine, ten – they start to leave behind childish things and childish scrawls – they grow up.
An organisation is similar to a child in that respect.
When you’re running a startup what you’re focused on is creating something – something that you believe should exist or something that a customer needs you to create.
That’s exciting work, creative work – and you’ll get on and do it.
And then your startup grows, you add people – and calls start for training, and quality and management.
You start creating processes – which go out of date almost instantly if you do any kind of innovation at all – so in order to keep the process moving you stop innovating.
Richard Feynman had this story about the space programme where mechanics had to count a number of holes across a rocket body to work out where the fasteners should go.
Feynman suggested that they paint four marks on the quadrants, because that way you would only need to count a quarter of the holes.
“Too expensive,” he was told.
Too expensive to paint four little marks?
No – too expensive to revise and reprint all the manuals.
And so children stop drawing, companies stop innovating and everyone gets old and miserable.
But it doesn’t have to be that way – if you keep a few pointers in mind.
These particular ones come from the mind of Neil Gaiman and his famous keynote address at the Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
What you should do, Gaiman says, is make good art.
Art, I think, is anything you do – and it includes writing, programming, sculpting, steel-making.
Because there is an art to doing almost everything.
Everything that adds value, that is.
This is where we should keep in mind that there are things we do that add value – things that customers need.
Then there are things we do that are as a consequence of failures in a system somewhere – things that have gone wrong.
It’s easy to see why working on the first type of demand on our time – value demand – is worth doing.
The second kind of demand – failure demand – is easy to get wrong.
Failure demand is the time you spend dealing with the consequences of a problem rather than fixing the system so the problem stops happening.
Fixing things is also an art – as Pirsig pointed out in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.
So, the first thing to remember is to make art – and make good art.
The second thing, Gaiman says, is to make your art.
Make the stuff only you can do, the stuff that excites you, the stuff that emerges as you lean make art – first copying, then adapting and then innovating – all the while creating.
But, the will to make good art or your art is not enough.
I suspect even trying to do it will actually throw you off.
What you need instead is a ritual – starting work on your art at around the same time, using the same approach, and getting on with it.
On some days your work will be rubbish.
On other days it will be good.
But at the end of a year at least you’ll have a body of work.
And you’ll know yourself better.