How Do You Make Sure You’re Doing Something Worth Doing?

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Sunday, 6.30pm

Sheffield, U.K.

One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning. – James Russell Lowell

I gave myself a break from writing of around ten days – school was done for the term, the kids were on holiday and was the end of a rather tough set of weeks. It’s been useful to have some time off if only to reflect on how things have gone so far and the differences between the way last year turned out and how this one is going. It doesn’t make it any easier, however, to figure out if anything you’re doing is right or not or what.

But, I’ve been reading and remembered a few things and observed others – and they might be worth considering as the rest of the year relentlessly moves on.

The first thing has to do with filing. Stuff just accumulates and if you like writing or drawing or using paper – the amount of material you have tends to grow over time and eventually the pile takes over and stops you from doing anything. What sort of approach should you take with material – what’s important to keep and not keep?

There’s a lesson here that children teach you. When children draw something they’re fully engaged in the process – standing there and drawing for as long as it takes. Once it’s done, however, they take off without a backwards glance. The work they do is practice work and you don’t need to keep practice work. Yes you could look at it and reminisce about all the work you’ve done but the real value is in your fingers and your brain – the muscle memory and learning you’ve taken with you. Practice work can be tossed once you’ve learned what you need to learn from doing it.

Then there’s work as an end in itself – finished work. That’s work you want to keep, work that goes in a file or is framed and stored and kept because you’re going to want to sell it or show it off later or do something with it. Finished work has value to you and preferably to someone else who’s willing to pay for it.

Then there’s a whole lot of work in progress – the stuff that you do while you’re trying to get from the practice stage to the finished stage. These you keep as long as they’re useful and then you get rid of them. Maybe you keep them for some time – old drafts, structures, things that helped you work through the problems you faced at the time. But in many cases you can get rid of them.

But sometimes you shouldn’t. And that’s usually when there’s value in being able to study the process you went through in getting from one stage to the next. The biggest problem we face is that people tell us to do and what has worked in the past for people who have created things are not always the same. There’s lot of advice and hot air out there but it isn’t always grounded in real-life experience. It’s a theory that hasn’t been tested – and sometimes you can’t test it but you can look at how it was tried out and what happened as a result. For example, agile methodologies are well known and popular but there are critics of the process who suggest that most implementations of the method have failed. How do you check something like that without studying what happened – while remembering that you can’t prove anything when it comes to the way people do things? You just have to make up your own mind.

This brings me to a challenge that I am going to have to face up to in the research and writing I do in the next few years. It would be nice to have general, magical solutions to general, all-consuming problems. But most situations are specific and what you need in the situation you are in right now will need a specific approach that balances being grounded in your reality with making sure you’re open to changes that may be necessary. So how do you think your way through all this?

Thinking.

That’s the project I’m going to be working on next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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