The unpredictability of success
No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.
Emma Coats (storyboard artist at Pixar)
I've been learning acting for a bunch of years now. Things seem to be going pretty well. I finally decided to kick up my acting hobby a bit and start getting more serious about auditioning and finding roles. So I took a 9 week monologue class recently, as doing monologues is invaluable for auditioning.
Each week we'd perform a new monologue. So each week I'd work my ass off preparing the next monologue for class. I'd work it and work it. Memorizing the material was the easy part since I practiced it so many times. After one week of working so hard on a particular piece, I was feeling great about it. This should go over well in class.
The opposite happened.
The piece was a dud.
Instead of, “Nate, that was awesome. Great job.” It was, “Nate, this was way too much like the last piece. You need to find material that stretches you into different places than we've seen you before.”
Instead of performing the piece a second or third time to improve it in front of the class as we typically did, she had me sit down after the first go of it.
I walked away from that class feeing pretty spent and dejected. Why'd I waste all week on this?
But the lesson I continue to take from these moments is that when I sit down with a proejct, especially a creative one like writing a blog post or creating a new piece of software that might turn into a business, it's very difficult for me to predict how successful I'll be on a particular creative task.
But what I can predict is that the work won't be in vain.
I'll get some use out of it.
I don't know how. I don't know when. But the work eventually leads to something.
Maybe it's something that becomes more meaningful and useful than the original. Maybe it's something that helps me improve one of my crafts. Or maybe it's just something I can tell a story about to help someone else.
Whatever it is, it's something I'm proud of.
I remember seeing some terrible theater with a friend in high school. I wasn't happy. I didn't have a lot of money to spend, and I wasted it on this?
He reminded me that even really bad theater and acting is very useful to watch, if even for the mere fact that you learn what not to do. It also helps you appreciate what it is about good theater that makes it good.
And just last week, I got to use a bit of knowledge I learned on some code I created years ago that very few people used. But now it's helping power a current project many, many more people will get to experience.
And that crappy monologue I did?
Turns out that class forced me to look for the most radically different material I could find, which I wouldn't likely have done if I had gotten some pats on the back for my original performance. Which led me to an encounter with Marlon Brando's monologue in front of his wife in Last Tango in Paris (nsfw, probably). My expectations were a lot lower in performing this one, but the material was awesome. I thought I'd give it a shot. I worked that thing for weeks. I ended up performing it on stage for a student showcase in front of a bunch of family and friends of students. At the end of the night, a stranger walked over to me and told me it was the best performance of the evening.
So as you work on your creative endeavor: your startup, your book or even your next blog post, and if there's a moment you feel stuck and unoriginal, just remember…
Much of your output is going to suck. And some won't.
I'm sure you won't be able to predict.
What I can predict is that it'll lead to something awesome.
P.S. And if you liked this, you'd probably dig following me on Twitter for more: here.