Fiction, like sculpture or painting, begins with a rough sketch. One gets down the characters and their behavior any way one can, knowing the sentences will have to be revised,knowing the characters’ actions may change. – John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist
It’s easy to look at a finished piece of work and imagine that it sprang to life, fully formed, in an instant.
But nothing has.
Everything that grows takes time, time before a seed finds fertile soil, time to push through the ground and emerge into sunlight and then more time to fix its roots and grow tall.
I can look out of my window and see three potato plants that went into the ground a few months ago.
One towers over the others, one is a medium size and the last one is struggling to grow at all.
They are within a few feet of each other, in the same ground, but they are growing very differently.
You cannot control the outcome
There are things you can control and things you can not – and wisdom comes from knowing the difference between the two.
If you create a work of art you have control over the material, the subject, the execution, the lines, the colours.
You cannot control how people react to it, whether they like it or not.
If you want them to like it then you may have to first discover what they like and then build that for them.
But even if you build something that’s based on exactly what they said you can’t control how they react.
Sometimes, when people get what they’ve asked for they find that it’s not what they wanted at all.
You can’t control that.
You can control your process
What you can do is work on your art – whatever that art is.
If you treat your career, your business, your product as an art project how would you go about getting started?
It’s too hard to get perfect lines the first time.
Instead, you rough it out – starting with blocks that position the main elements you want, go over it with a light pencil sketching out the lines and then pressing down creating the detail.
Finally, you add colour, ink – finishing it off.
Along the way you might use tools – guide lines, layout principles.
None of the approaches you take or the methods you use are visible to the person who sees the finished product, but without them the product would not exist at all.
And if you want to make something what you have to get control over is that invisible work, the work that makes it possible for your finished work to exist.
Think of it like doing multiple drafts
The romantic idea of a startup founder is that they come up with a new concept – something different.
They raise money, build a product, get a following, make a huge amount of sales and get very rich.
And perhaps that happens sometimes – but more often you find that the path an entrepreneur took was never quite that straightforward.
Take Steve Jobs and the iPad, for example.
When the iPad first came out it seemed like a bold and visionary creation that just emerged from the brilliant minds at Apple.
The idea, however, was something that Jobs had talked about decades ago and which perhaps built on ideas first articulated a decade or more before that.
Many successful businesses have been built over generations as the founders passed on their skills and creations to their children or to successors who went on to develop the business further.
It’s hard to see how anyone could start a project and on their first try create something that’s finished and ready.
It’s more likely that we all need to give ourselves time – time to try and learn and refine and improve.
And over time, we’ll create something that has value.
The challenge is focusing on the right things
When you first get started it’s possible that you have no idea how your project is going to go.
For example, when I first started this blog I didn’t really know what I was going to write about – I just knew I wanted to write and this was a routine I could follow.
When you do that it’s like throwing stones in the dark – you scrabble about find something then launch it.
Not quite sure what will happen.
After a while you start to get a sense of what’s around you – you get a feel for the surroundings.
Then, perhaps there is a glimmer of light on the horizon – the sun starts to come up.
You can see faintly now, there are shapes and shadows and the faintest outline of a target.
Something you can now aim towards, something you can hit.
In my case, that’s something like this Getting Started book project, which takes three years of writing practice and uses structuring methods I’ve learned and rediscovered along the way and has helped me work on a first draft relatively painlessly.
It’s a few months in the writing but years in the making.
And it’s probably the same with your project, with your business.
You work on gathering the capability and skills and connections for years.
And then, when you’re ready, you explode into action – you build and test and refine and improve.
You go from draft to draft until you’re finished.
Well, that’s the theory anyway.
That works if you’re operating in an area you are competent at – something you know, something you’ve taken the time to learn.
When you’re in the zone you can do stuff that looks like magic to others.
But outside that space you’re just as bad as everyone else.
Let’s look at that next before we move on.