How average first drafts become extraordinary

The myth of great art is that it’s created through spurts of inspiration, genius, and epiphanies. This isn’t always the case. Rather, great art can evolve from what seems like very ordinary, average, rough drafts, often created during very ordinary moments. Not unlike an agile sprint or a lean startup, artists will then get feedback, iterate on their drafts, and take it to the next level.

When Kanye West released his debut album “The College Dropout” in 2004, it earned him ten Grammy nominations. He would win the Best Rap Album award, where he gave an unforgettable victory speech. “Dropout” would go on to sell millions of copies.

West’s mixtape, “Freshmen Adjustment 1,” consists of tracks recorded before his debut album, “The College Dropout.” However, I only heard “Adjustment,” a few years after I listened to “Dropout.”

There’s a song entitled, “Self Conscious,” which contains two verses that would appear on his single, “All Falls Down.” I remember watching the video for “All Falls Down” at my friend’s house after school. I started following his work much more closely after that.

West’s vocal delivery on “Self Conscious,” is not as strong as the one on the final “All Falls Down,” and the beat is entirely different. But it is very curious. I imagine that he thought these two verses were good, but the song as a whole wasn’t. He spent some time creating a new beat to match the caliber of the two verses.

The product of his effort would be early version of the reworked song, “All Falls Down,” on the “Adjustment” mixtape. It features a sample of Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity.” The sample never cleared, and West would enlist singer-songwriter Syleena Johnson to sing the hook in the “All Falls Down.” In contrast to “Self Conscious, ” his delivery on the early “All Falls Down” is much closer to — but not quite — his final “All Falls Down” on the “Dropout” album.

It’s difficult to imagine that “Self Conscious” would receive the level of recognition that “All Falls Down” has. “All Falls Down” would hit #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on May 22, 2004 and get nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 47th Grammy Awards.

Great art like “All Falls Down” doesn’t require a “Eureka!” moment, an epiphany, or a huge jolt of inspiration. Sure, this happens sometimes for some artists. It’s partially true of the verses in “All Falls Down” too, which West says he wrote the verses to in 15 minutes in an interview with the New York Times. But that would be nothing without West being dissatisfied with “Self Conscious,” finding and creating a new beat, and enlisting the help of Syleena Johnson to create the final “All Falls Down.”

Not all of West’s verses get written so quickly. His wife, Kim Kardashian West, has said he wrote 90 bars to wrap up “No More Parties in L.A.”

West’s example is probably the most prominent as proof of this point: great art can emerge from an average first draft. It takes effort to mine the gold from most good ideas. Hard work can turn what seems like average work into great art.

That’s not to say that there’s gold to be mined in every idea. Nor is great art simply produced by throwing random things against the wall without planning or consideration. Artists are relentless and tireless in their re-working of the original draft. Great art is then moulded through critical thinking, collaboration, and experimentation.

When I first noticed this thread, I thought to myself, “What a relief!” I would certainly not consider myself a particularly talented writer, nor did I grow up writing constantly. But my parents did raise me with a very rigorous work ethic. Between the ages of 6-16, there was day school and weekend school. I remember my Saturdays being filled with Chinese school in the morning and math class in the early afternoon. Despite how much I hated — and was terrible at — sports, Saturday mid-afternoons were spent practicing basketball. Friday nights were spent swimming or at floor hockey.

I want to debunk the myth that the only way to create great art is through epiphanies and inspiration, and that we must sit around and wait for them. Rather, great art is not just born randomly from inspiration. It can be constructed through rigor, patience, and perseverance. As West would say in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, probably to the delight of both his greatest haters and fans, “I would say my determination is way higher than my smartness.”

The myth of epiphanies

Great art is appealing and resonant in part because it’s extraordinary. It seems so far beyond the creative ability of mere mortals. There’s a lot of mystery that shrouds the creative process. There’s a good reason for that. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner says in “Getting There: A Book of Mentors”:

I remember studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in high school. According to Coleridge, upon waking from a deep, opium-induced reverie, he recalled a vision and immediately wrote the 54 famous lines. But when we started doing the poetic analysis, it became clear that there was no way this poem came out all at once. It has this amazing structure. We learned from letters and notes that had been discovered that it was likely Coleridge had not only worked on “Kubla Khan” for several months, but that he also sent it to friends for feedback.

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.

Artists deliberately, and consciously, hide the extraordinary effort it takes to make their masterpieces. There’s a word for this type of concealing, sprezzatura, which author Seth Godin describes as, “being able to do your craft without a lot of visible effort.”

There are also artists who believe in the impulses of the brain. Authors Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg were famous for their adage, “First thought, best thought.”

With this combined narratives of effortless sprezzatura and “first thought, best thought,” art can be equal parts confusing and intimidating. No wonder so many people believe that art requires flashes of genius and “Eureka!” moments.

There’s also a practical reason that artists don’t discuss their process. This part is much more straightforward. Essayist T. S. Eliot writes, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” And the late innovator Steve Jobs says, citing Picasso (perhaps inaccurately), “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Sometimes, artists find inspiration in each other’s work, or they subconsciously process and re-express common elements. And sometimes, they deliberately rip off other works shamelessly, duplicate the art, without even trying to put their own spin on it. But regardless of intent, imitation is a byproduct of the process. Painter Salvador Dali says, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

Weiner and this generation of artists are much more open with their sources and process. This type of transparency generates mixed reactions. Here’s a clear example of what happens when you’re open with your influences. Enter writer Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective and screenwriter for Magic City. Author Rich Cohen writes in his article for Vanity Fair:

Nic was at first startlingly open about his influences, extolling writers and books that stood behind Cohle’s soliloquies. Laird Barron, John Langan, Simon Strantzas, Emil Cioran. He urged fans to read Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow and Karl Edward Wagner’s “The River of Night’s Dreaming.” He seemed to play with the legend of Carcosa, a mythical city first chronicled by Ambrose Bierce. He cited the horror writer Thomas Ligotti, especially the book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, all of which gave the show pedigree, a mystical sheen. He’s since become touchy on the subject, Ligotti fanatics having accused him of too much borrowing. It’s a bullshit charge. You can’t steal a cast of mind. But when I asked Nic about influences, he bristled. “I tend to be influenced by places as much as anything,” he said. “You look around and notice details and it starts to form a world and then you find characters to inhabit this world.”

So this transparency clearly points out how art is made, and the artists’ influences in that work. There’s less guesswork and ambiguity. They can also judge how the artist borrowed from other people. Or they can cry out when they feel the artist (Pizzolatto) ripped off another artist (Ligotti).

It’s also unclear whether consumers of art actually appreciate the transparency or not. Perhaps they prefer the mystique that comes with the art, the magic of not knowing how something was created.

No wonder artists want to keep their creative processes to themselves. The method. The secret. The sauce.

Artists like Jay Z have been known to go into the booth almost immediately after hearing an instrumental, without writing a single word down, and deliver the vocals that will end up on the final version of his track. Tupac would do something similar. According to The Studio Years, rapper Big Syke says, “He never went back to the same song twice, when that session was over, the song was done too… Because he’d write his shit on the spot, then go in that motherf–ker, and drop it in one take, and you’d be like ‘Woah! Woah shit!’” Bun B has spoken about how long it takes him to write his best verses, “Probably fifteen, twenty minutes. No longer than any other rhyme I’ve written.”

Yet in Beats Down, Money Up!, West says, “Jay Z might take ten minutes (to write and lay down a lead vocal, and)…who’s to say that, in the ten minutes, it isn’t perfect? But when I hear the word perfectionist, I think of someone who burns the midnight oil.”

So what happens to the artists that don’t — or aren’t able to — create genius work on demand? What happens to the ones that choose to — or have to — burn the midnight oil, the ones that have to tinker endlessly? What do they even do during that time?

The unmagical truth: a lot of drafts

Author Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird By Bird, “[Perfection] will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

Artists who believe in epiphanies tend to get writer’s block. This is how it works: The writer gets inspired. They tell people about it, they get more excited, and they realize it’s going to be the one that changes their life. They might even try writing it down. But it’s not quite there yet, and it looks shitty.

They know from this draft that it’s not going to change their life. So they take a break and try something else, but they’re still dreaming of the idea and building it up in their heads. And they get scared that the idea really isn’t as great as they thought it would be, so they don’t execute on it — or they work on it in private, frustrated that the gap between their expectations and their reality is increasing.

The concept of the shitty first draft is so important. It’s much easier to paint on a canvas with an imperfection on it than it is to paint on a purely blank canvas. The possibilities are too endless. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams says, “I find that I am most happy when I have boundaries.” The key is to improve on the shitty first draft over time. The vision will come to life, as long as you work on it relentlessly.

Musician John Legend writes 50-80 songs per album. Writer Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different versions of the ending to his book, “A Farewell to Arms.” Writer Ray Bradbury advocates aspiring writers create a short story every week, in the hopes that not all of them can be bad. That’s a lot of drafts.

Lately, the most obvious public example would be Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo.” By no means is the initial draft of “Pablo” shitty (I loved it on first listen and still listen to that version), but West’s updates to “Pablo” are undoubtedly for the better (Jon Caramanica covers details in the New York Times).

Then there’s also the numerous demo tracks, like the original pre-”Pablo” version of “F.M.L,” which features West rapping unworded syllables over the track to fill in the audio space, and both The Weeknd and Travi$ Scott on the hook.

There’s also The Weeknd’s “Inside The Dangerously Empty Lives of Teenage Girls,” where he shares early versions of “Loft Music,” “What You Need,” and, “The Morning.” These tracks all end up on his first, and breakthrough, mixtape, “House of Balloons.” (“Girls” might be named after this Maclean’s article.)

The early version of “Loft Music” in “Girls” doesn’t have the beat switch up that makes the song so memorable in “Balloons.” The differences in the two versions of “The Morning” are particularly undeniable. In “Girls”, The Weeknd distorts his voice and doesn’t quite have the raw sound that the final version in “Balloons” does.

The processes of the Weeknd and Kanye West fit into a different type than the processes that Jay Z and Tupac use. Author Malcolm Gladwell would label Jay Z’s and Tupac’s rapid breakthrough method as one more similar to Picasso. It typically works after long periods spent consciously or unconsciously assembling a coherent vision.

The Weeknd’s and Kanye West’s methods more closely resemble those of Cézanne, in which they execute over and over again, refining a final product from rough first drafts. And so, for artists like Cézanne, the Weeknd, and Kanye West — and I would argue, for most people — inspiration is not so much a romantic, simple, “Eureka!” moment. Epiphanies do not come to most of us, and we can’t tell when they do. Rather, great art is gradually moulded through constant revision and iteration. In this case, inspiration can be considered a fuel — perseverance, and determination — to keep the artist centered on making great work.

Gladwell explores the Cézanne method in depth in this podcast, he brings up the example of singer-songwriter Elvis Costello’s “Deportees Club,” which evolved into “Deportees.”

Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” might be the one most people are familiar with. Yet as Gladwell explains, it’s not a cover of the original “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen, but a cover of John Cale covering Cohen’s version. It took 15 years for “Hallelujah” to catch on.

This is yet another interesting spin on the Cézanne method, one that involves iterating on other people’s art. In some ways, this can be considered using other people’s work as first drafts for something greater.

Giving and taking from other people’s work

If the line exists between inspiration and “borrowing”, and ripping off someone’s work, it’s a thin one. Perhaps it’s one of plagiarism, where rip offs don’t change a thing and simply spit it back out with their name on it. It could also be one of taste, where rip offs aren’t as authentic as the original. I remember hearing someone laugh, “We do a lot of R&D. And no, that doesn’t stand for research and development. It stands for rip off and duplicate.”

This type of thing happens all the time, but in plenty of different circumstances. Consider how Supreme’s logo is relatively recent adoption of artist Barbara Kruger’s work from a few decades ago. Or, Appleton Monthly copying Madison magazine’s covers. Or Kanye West hiring Marco Brambilla to create the “Power” music video after seeing Brambilla’s “Civilization” tableau. Or West using Vincent Desiderio’s painting, “Sleep,” to create his “Famous” sculpture and music video.

Also consider West’s favorite song, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” “I don’t know if anyone has done my songs better,” Dylan said of Hendrix’s cover. “He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day,” Dylan tells the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995. Dylan also writes, “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way. I liked Hendrix’s record, and ever since he died, I’ve been doing it that way.”

In more contemporary terms, consider the mysterious and mystical rise of the Weeknd. His initial mixtapes featured racy photos of women and a strange design that he became well known for. “In the beginning, I was very insecure. I hated how I looked in pictures. I just fucking hated this shit, like, crop me out of this picture right now. I was very camera shy,” said the Weeknd in an interview with Complex. “People like hot girls, so I put my music to hot girls and it just became a trend. The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it. No one could find pictures of me. It reminded me of some villain shit.”

I thought that decision was really lucky and unusual, until I learned that Chic had done it for their debut album, “Chic.” (Roxy Music also hid their faces for their “Country Life” album cover.) I have no idea whether the Weeknd and his creative directors knew of this, but it seems almost impossible to tread in territory that hasn’t been explored before.

The 48 Laws of Power author Robert Greene writes, “Learn to use the knowledge of the past and you will look like a genius, even when you are really just a clever borrower.”

Today, in the age of reference tracks (e.g., Drake and the reference tracks from PartyNextDoor, Quentin Miller, and such), many artists can be considered “clever borrowers” and curators. Selection is a different skill than synthesis, but still a challenging one. But with so much content to select from, perhaps it’s one more relevant in today’s art.

Robert McKee writes in Story, “When actors compliment each other, for example, they often say, “I like your choices.’ They know that if a colleague has arrived at a beautiful moment, it’s because in rehearsal the actor tried it twenty different ways, then chose the one perfect moment. The same is true for us.”

Save all your drafts


Kanye West’s Glastonbury stage (2015)


Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour stage (2016)

The iterative nature of the Cézanne method reminds me of my time at Xtreme Labs. I saw how great technology products were actually made firsthand, not through one huge “Eureka!” moment or a long run in a silo, but through weekly sprints, feedback, iterations, and gradual improvements. It was unexpected, but not entirely surprising, to see this happen in the art and creative worlds as well.

Now, I write all my ideas down and carefully organize them. I write drafts and let them sleep for a few weeks before picking them up. I rewrite rigorously. I recommend you do the same. It’s hard to tell, especially early on, where the gold is hidden. It takes days, weeks, months, and sometimes years of mining to figure it out, refine it, and get it prepared for the world.

What a shame it would have been if West released “Self Conscious” impulsively and prematurely, before the world had an opportunity to hear “All Falls Down.”

Why you should work on one thing at a time

I grasped one of the my important productivity insights when I worked at Xtreme Labs: the importance of doing one thing at a time. Our VP of Engineering, Farhan Thawar, was a proponent of “monotasking,” and he warned against multitasking and distraction.

Professor Gloria Mark from the University of California, Irvine, told Fast Company that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after an interruption. Think about how many 23 minute chunks get wasted when you rapidly switch between tasks as you’re multitasking. Farhan called this time cost, “context switching.”

Similarly, not only does the distraction eat up time on its own (e.g., a funny five minute video), but it also takes time to drag your brain back up to speed on what you were doing before. Taken too far, it can become an addiction.

Imagine not feeling overwhelmed with tasks at work each day. Not only will you get more done, you’ll also feel better doing it. Here are four lessons I picked up along the way to get a lot more done:

  1. Group tasks into themed days for batch processing

Categorize your tasks and bundle similar ones together. Your brain can think about, and execute on, them easily in rapid succession. This is how Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and Twitter, runs both companies simultaneously. His schedule, according to this interview with Techonomy Media:

  • Monday: Executive team meetings, 1-1s with management
  • Tuesday: Product
  • Wednesday: Marketing, communications, and growth
  • Thursday: Developers and partnerships
  • Friday: Company culture and recruiting

As Dorsey says, unavoidable interruptions will inevitably come up. You can still adapt to interruptions and prioritize. But theming your days serves as a simple reminder of what you’ve allocated your time towards, and how you should allocate your energy based on that. Or, if you can’t theme by day, theme each hour or two. (For example, you can batch email responses, meetings, reviews, etc.)

  1. Schedule longer periods of uninterrupted time

Bushnell Keeler, the father of my friend Toby, always had this expression: “If you want to get one hour of good painting in, you have to have four hours of uninterrupted time.”

— David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

Five one hour blocks might make for the same “amount” of time as one five hour block, but you can get a lot more done with the latter. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham calls this the maker’s schedule.

Whether you’re writing code, making decks, designing mockups, or anything else, set large chunks of time aside to make. If you want to get started with this on a smaller scale, try a 25-minute uninterrupted block of time (known in the productivity world as a pomodoro).

You’ll save a lot of time that was previously consumed by context switching. Make sure to set a clear goal (or clear milestones) you want to achieve by the end of the block of time.

  1. Write everything down and organize it

As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things… So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search.

— Shelby Foote, in an interview with The Paris Review

Author David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Write things down so you can easily trigger memories and thoughts from your brain. If it’s something urgent or important, send an email to yourself. Make a to-do list every morning. Carry a notebook with you.

Sure, sometimes I feel like the guy from Memento. But in addition to better focus, it’s about feeling good about your work as well. I don’t have to worry about things I might’ve forgotten, and I stress myself out trying to remember every little thing I had to do. Instead, I’ve built a system outside of my brain to keep track of things.

  1. Live in airplane mode

Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things . . . fail because we lack concentration—the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?

— John D. Rockefeller, Titan

Text messages and emails might seem harmless, but they can drag your attention away from the task at hand. Set your devices on airplane mode (and use an app like Freedom on your laptop) and put it in a closed drawer or in another room. Efficiency and workflow consultant Edward G. Brown calls this strategy a “time lock,” and estimates personal productivity shoots up 40 to 60 percent after colleagues agree to use them. Author Neil Strauss calls it the Ulysses Strategy.

And, if you really do want to check Facebook and Instagram, batch it up in your day instead of snacking on it throughout (see point #1). I usually check Facebook when my day winds down and my energy is lower.

One bite at a time

Your work doesn’t have to feel like an endless treadmill of tasks. You can get ahead of it. If monotasking all day sounds like a huge departure, start doing it for just an hour a day. Block off the time from email and messages, and use it just to concentrate on your work. Choose the fulfilment of monotasking over the short pleasures of multitasking, and you’ll feel better for it.

How the U.S.A.’s first billionaire destroyed the myth of hard work (i.e., “hustle”)

The lazy, concentrated, approach to work that made John D. Rockefeller

I attribute my good condition to my almost reckless independence in determining for myself what to do and the rigid adhering to regulations which give me the maximum of rest and quiet and leisure, and I am being richly paid for it every day.” — John D. Rockefeller Sr.


Work ethic (i.e., “Hustle”) is important to any type of success. But work often seeps into many parts of our lives, following us into our inboxes at home and cell phones. Some of us might feel we don’t do anything but work. And that’s fine, because work is evolving. Today, we define ourselves by our busyness, and we search for both money and meaning in our work.

It’s a romantic idea, one closely tied to our thirst for ambition and rising through the classes. Our society sees exhaustion as a status symbol. But there’s a difference between feeling productive and actually being productive.

Good work demands consistency and longevity, both of which rely on something other than more action. Good work requires rest.


As a young man, Rockefeller frequently burned the midnight oil in the office. However, as pressure mounted and he began tackling larger problems, he knew this type of work ethic wasn’t sustainable. Instead, he would take the opposite approach — an aggressively leisurely one — on order to ensure longevity. Biographer Ron Chernow describes Rockefeller’s schedule in Titan:

He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner. To explain his extraordinary longevity, he later said, doubtless overstating the matter, “I’m here because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.” By his midthirties, he had installed a telegraph wire between home and office so that he could spend three or four afternoons each week at home, planting trees, gardening, and enjoying the sunshine. Rockefeller didn’t do this in a purely recreational spirit but mingled work and rest to pace himself and improve his productivity. In time, he became something of an evangelist on health-related issues. “It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling, and go along at an even pace and keep from attempting too much.”

Instead of multitasking and trying to do a million things at once, Rockefeller worked slowly and believed in the power of concentration:

Much of the time, he was closeted in his office, where he had oil prices chalked on a blackboard. He paced this spartan office, hands laced behind his back. Periodically, he emerged from his lair, mounted a high stool, and studied ledgers, scribbling calculations on pad and paper. (During meetings, he was a restless doodler and note taker.) Frequently, he stared out the window, motionless as an idol, gazing at the sky for fifteen minutes at a stretch. He once asked rhetorically, “Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things . . . fail because we lack concentration — the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?”

Rockefeller adhered to a fixed schedule, moving through the day in a frictionless manner. He never wasted time on frivolities. Even his daily breaks — the midmorning snack of crackers and milk and the postprandial nap — were designed to conserve energy and help him to strike an ideal balance between his physical and mental forces. As he remarked, “It is not good to keep all the forces at tension all the time.”

Good work doesn’t necessarily require constantly pulling all-nighters every week. Mark Burnett says in an interview with Esquire:

If you are the leader, you don’t have the right to say things like “Ugh, didn’t eat this week I was so busy.” “Haven’t slept.” I look sideways at those signs of bravado, which are intended to make one feel that the person is working so hard. I don’t think that way.


Ironically, the key to better work might be to work less. Instead of spending countless hours grinding, focus on conserving your energy and concentrating when it counts the most. Don’t let games of bravado or a culture of “outworking” someone with more hours get to your head. It’s all an illusion. Do your work during your best hours, and take time throughout the day to rest and relax. You’ll get back to work refreshed and produce better results, and you won’t feel like you overexerted yourself.

Take care of yourself. Your work will be better for it.

Don’t wait until you feel more confident. Action comes first

There’s a quote often attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” Something like this might your mind as you watch as these other people, chin up, assured, relaxed, almost effortlessly do exactly what you wanted to do.

The reason many of them are able to tap into that confidence is because of the parts you didn’t see: they spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, even years, practicing and perfecting it. They don’t broadcast it on Facebook or Instagram, but they know it’s there. As Mindy Kaling says, ”Because confidence is like respect; you have to earn it.”

No matter how bold or confident someone might seem, you can bet they didn’t start off feeling that way. Everybody gets butterflies. It’s what you do during the moment it feels the worst, when you feel sick to the pit of your stomach, your brain scrambles a mile a minute, you can barely breathe, and your knees are shaking. If you decide to stay and wrestle with it, it’ll make it easier for next time if you hang in there. It won’t make it easier this time.

Since action is the only cure for confidence, here are some ways to make action easier:

Move within seven breaths

You know what you need to do — send an email, put your hand up to ask a question, etc. — but you doubt this will turn out well. Your anxiety spikes. Your brain will try to talk you out of it by any means necessary. It will tap into every single fear or value you have and spin it against you.

  • “What will everybody think if it goes wrong?”
  • “Oh, you’ll end up with nothing, just like almost everybody else who tries.”
  • “You think you can win? Who do you think you are?”
  • “It’s not appropriate, the timing isn’t right. Wait.” (Okay, this one might be true sometimes, but certainly for only a small portion of the times you use it.)
  • “You don’t feel like it. You’re tired. Go home!”
  • “You’re not the right person to do this.”
  • You could do this if you wanted to, but you don’t care about this.”
  • “The opportunity is too far out of your reach.”

Relax, give yourself some time and space to think a little and breathe. Then do it anyway. The late samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo writes in Hagakure:

In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly.”

When your mind is going hither and thither, discrimination will never be brought to a conclusion. With an intense, fresh, and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.

Whenever Reddit user Draconax doesn’t want to do something, he counts to five. Then he does it. Much shorter than seven breaths, for those of you who don’t like to wait.

When in doubt, err on the side of action. Choose, or others will choose for you.

Watch someone else do it


There’s something really fascinating about watching someone else do the thing you wanted to do. Author Robert Greene explores the idea of mirror neurons, and how we learn by watching:

The natural model for learning, largely based on the power of mirror neurons, came from watching and imitating others, then repeating the action over and over. Our brains are suited for this form of learning. In an activity such as riding a bicycle, we all know that it is easier to watch someone and follow their lead than to listen to or read instructions.

Not only watching someone literally go through the motions of it actually educational, but it can be inspirational. You remember, this task isn’t so impossible.

No matter how distant the goal seems from your current place, it’s been accomplished before throughout history, probably by a lot of people, and they’re human beings — just like you. Tsunetomo writes Hagakure:

It is spiritless to think that you cannot attain to that which you have seen and heard the masters attain. The masters are men. You are also a man. If you think that you will be inferior in doing something, you will be on that road very soon.

If you feel inertia, just watch someone else do it on YouTube. Visualize yourself doing it. Let those emotional forces propel you.

Get support


It’s much easier to change and take action you have support. Surround yourself with people who make it easier for you to do this — some of them might be doing it themselves, but a lot of them might just be cheering from your corner. Consider a story about Nicki Minaj, one of the most popular artists in the past few years:

Enticing big-name rappers to add a couple of bars to your tracks, or securing a guest spot on one of those rappers’ songs, is the way to build fame in hip-hop, and Minaj proved herself to be adept. She garnered guest verses from hip-hop royalty, including Lil Wayne. But her manager at the time, Debra Antney, who was born in Jamaica, Queens, before becoming an Atlanta hip-hop matriarch (and also the rapper Waka Flocka Flame’s mother), says, “Nicki was the timidest little girl you’d ever want to see in your life — she was so broken up, but she was so determined, all in one breath.” Timid? “I used to have to scream at her: ‘You’re not going to sit here and cry, you’re not going to let nobody shut you down, that’s what you’re not going to do,’” she says.

Enlist the help of your family, friends, mentors, and coaches. Meet with them regularly to talk about progress. If you have none of these, use something like where you put your money where your mouth is.

Everybody starts and restarts somewhere

It feels impossible when you’re starting, and there will be points where it still feels impossible. But you can choose to remain inert or to build even just a little bit of momentum

Don’t let your lack of confidence be an excuse for not doing what you came here to do. Put on some exciting music, and push onwards.

The only way to build confidence, and believe, is to try something, learn from it, and do it again. If it’s important to you, focus and beat it into submission no matter the difficulty or odds.

Consider your conveniences

You’re running late for a meeting. You push the elevator button. Ugh, the closest one is still 23 floors up.

You reach into your pocket. You pull out your phone. Peter sent you a message. Ahhhhh. What did he say? You slide the screen and check.

Peter: Hey, I got some tickets to the Jays game tonight. Want one? Let me know ASAP, so I can find someone else if not.


The elevator gets here. You walk in without looking up. You switch out of Messages into Calendar and see if you have plans. Damn, you were going to meet up with another group of friends. No Jays game tonight. Or should you bail on your friends? You switch back into Messages, and you —


You look up. It’s your floor.

You walk out of the elevator.

What were you doing here? Ahh, you were headed to suite 200, right?

You walk in and tell them you have an appointment. They tell you to have a seat. You sit down and have a look back at your phone. You see a notification appear at the top of the screen, which you were about to reply to Peter. Oh shit, it’s from your boss. You glance at it.

From, boss: “Fwd: Urgent — ”

“Hey, great to see you!” You look up.

“You as well,” you manage to grin. What was your boss’s email about?

Oh shit, wait. So, this client is the one who is pleased with the work but concerned about lateness. What are you going to tell him? And what did your boss forward you? And shit, Peter still needs a response. Agh!

You are a creature of habit. Whether you benefit from them or not, habits are habits. You can shape them and mould them to your advantage, or let them run rampant and give in to your habits. Charles DuHigg breaks habits down in what he calls habit loops, and Nir Eyal breaks habits down in what he calls the Hook Model. They’re pretty similar, except Eyal’s specifically covers technology.


Source: Forbes

In this opening situation, it started with the trigger — you pull your phone out of your pocket when your brain is bored, like when you’re waiting for an elevator. You take action and check it because you crave stimulation and distraction. Hardware, software, telecommunications, and social network companies make it extremely convenient for you to pull a ridiculous amount of information because, as my friend Robleh says, your “usage is oxygen” for their companies. Sometimes your brain gets rewarded with an invitation, a text message you’ve been looking forward to, or an email with exciting news. Unfortunately, as this small example indicated, a lot of times the information might not be what you looked forward to. Instead, it might overstimulate your brain, leaving you stressed out and overwhelmed.

You’re about to walk into the meeting. While not an emergency meeting, there’s still something at stake, and it requires attention. It might’ve been better if you didn’t read your email and learn about that thing your boss sent, or that Peter needed an urgent response — despite it being an invitation, it still adds to the load of your mind.

You give in to these conveniences because they’re designed to be fun. Your routine of pulling out your phone has led to many rewards — exciting discoveries or laughs, or at least distraction — so you’re tempted to check it whenever you are bored.

Your carelessness with conveniences means companies will heavily influence what you do with your time. When you do what’s most convenient, you lose control. In this case, you lost control of your brain, time, and energy. If you’d decided this ahead of time, you could have spent the two minutes waiting and clearing your mind to prepare for this meeting and even briefly plan for it. Instead, you got a sneak peek at an email that stressed you out, and don’t have the time to see the whole thing. Subconsciously guessing what it’s about, or bracing yourself for the news, will also distract you.

Similarly, procrastination happens because it’s so convenient to procrastinate. Instead of taking five minutes to plan your day, it’s easier to indulge in the infinite number of distractions just two clicks away.

Friendships fade because it’s not as convenient to talk to friends on a daily or weekly basis.

The best gym is whatever will actually fits into your routine and gets you to exercise. This is typically the most convenient one.

And that’s why you should rethink the idea of convenience:

Instead of doing what’s most convenient — which usually aren’t the best choices for you at the moment — you should pre-decide the best choices are in most situations and make those decisions more convenient. For example, instead of pulling out your phone when you’re bored, practice a relaxing breathing exercise. Or fast forward five minutes mentally in order to think about the task you’re about to partake in, and engage yourself.

Make decisions before you arrive at the last minute. If you wait to be spontaneous, you will give in to convenience. As Greek lyric poet Archilochus writes, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

It’s not an unplanned accident that companies make their products more convenient. Companies have to make their products convenient in order to acquire users, They also make their products more addictive in order to retain them. This is a cold fact. This is how advertising has worked for decades (see The Power of Habit). Armed with data on consumer behavior, they’re just figuring out how to do it better now.

Here’s an insightful quote by Atari Founder, Nolan Bushnell:

“I’ve always thought legal addictions are a great way to create a business. Starbucks is a wonderful example.”

Companies design their products to make sure you can check them very quickly, and that you invest in them. Want to switch from Office to Google Docs? Well, have fun re-uploading all your documents! Want to go from Facebook to Peach? You’ll have to bring all your friends with you — good luck!

Considering your conveniences means identifying what you’re making easier for yourself, or what you’re rewarding yourself for doing, every day. It means being conscious of the habits you’re building and how you’re investing your time and energy. This works for habits you want to build as well. For example, if you want to read more, make sure you have books on hand and time carved out to read.

You should also consider what entertainment you want to make deliberately inconvenient. For example, I always logout of Facebook, and I didn’t install the Facebook app on my phone (or Instagram) until recently. Some of my friends can control themselves, but I can’t. I also use an app called Freedom, which doesn’t let my computer access the internet between 7AM — 10AM, so I can get my writing or thinking done in the morning.

Some other things I learned from people:

  • I turn on airplane mode whenever I’m about to go to bed, so I don’t get disturbed. I have started doing this throughout the day as well.
  • I haven’t tried this for my conveniences, but I plan to use a rubber band to snip myself whenever I check my phone mindlessly. It makes me more aware and mindful of usage.
  • I turn off all my push notifications.
  • I try to keep my phone in a drawer when I’m doing deep work — out of sight, out of mind.

It’s the same idea of keeping junk food outside of your house. If you know you’ll have to travel to the grocery store in order to buy junk food, whereas there are healthier snacks like fruits or vegetables in your house, you’ll increase the likelihood that you eat healthier because it’s more convenient.

Track your habits, but more importantly, track your rewards and how you’re conditioning yourself.

Because that’s how habits, and futures, are built. It’s how potential is recognized. One day, one convenience — or deliberate inconvenience — at a time.

Considering our conveniences is about harnessing our natural tendencies to do what our best selves want us to do, and using our laziness and procrastination to keep us from the things we don’t want to indulge in.

Creative excess leads to creative success

There is no substitute for creative waste. It’s a part of the process

I’m listening to Pharrell speak with NPR when he says he doesn’t know where his hits come from, or why they were hits in the first place. They just work. He laughs and calls himself the Mr. Magoo of music.

I find that difficult to believe at first. He has a lot of hits (starting in the late 90s). Pharrell is quiet, and behind the scenes, but he is an iconic artist. He’s telling us that he doesn’t know where his hits come from?! Fuck outta here. At least give us some hints.

Then I listen to the Travi$ Scott and the Weeknd leaks, and I’m starting to get it. These leaks are unusual as they’re not a premature leak of an official release. Rather, there are a lot of demos and unfinished tracks. They’re not easy listening, but they are really insightful into their creative process. I hear a verse of Tell Your Friends on one of the leaked Weeknd tracks.

On one hand, technically, these demos are a waste. They are a waste of expensive studio time, artist time, and recording, since they’re not final products. On their own, they’re not good enough to see the light of day, and that sucks. Consider how John Legend writes 50-80 songs for each album, and the final 10-12 that actually make it.

But on the other hand, this “waste” is vital to making a great final product. This excess that nobody will ever see is crucial to the process of creating, refining, editing, producing, and launching the final product. This excess is what provides the substance, insights, and sometimes even raw material for final versions.

This is why it’s so hard to demand an ROI on art and creativity, and why it will almost always be impossible to control and plan for.

These artists are really talented, and gifted, at what they do. But seriously, there’s also a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. In the leaked demos from The Life of Pablo, different artists appear on versions of songs that don’t make it to the final. Travi$ Scott is on FML. There are also completely unused demos, like, “The Mind is Powerful.” Similarly, Kendrick Lamar is on All Day.

Mainstream artists preserve their longevity by experimenting with their content and creative just as much as amateurs do. And waste is an inevitable part of experimentation. Not every song is going to be a hit. Not every article is going to go viral. Not every book is going to be a bestseller. Not every design experiment will work.

A lot of times, ideas don’t work. Sometimes, artists outsource this experimental process to their labelmates or signees. Or, they take someone else’s ideas, and provide mainstream exposure for that previously obscure artist (see Kanye’s Father Stretch My Hands Pt. II which propelled Desiigner’s Panda to Billboard #1. Panda came out originally in December 2015, and was re-released in February 2016 to coincide with Kanye’s The Life of Pablo).

But not every one of them is going to fail. Chance is on your side when you experiment and release more. Even if most of your creative experiments suck, it’s unlikely that you’re going to mess all of them up. As Ray Bradbury writes, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

A lot of people overthink their projects. I love what my friend tells me: “Think with your hands.” Don’t get trapped in your mind. Think with your voice, your paintbrush, with your software of choice. I think with my hands, eyes, keyboard, pen, Google Docs, and iA Writer.

I often feel guilty about my random sessions when I spend hours going down rabbit holes on Tumblr or Reddit, but the stuff I read or watch or see or listen to at these times provide me with new references. I connect really random dots after, and that wouldn’t have been possible without “wasting my time” looking at this. It’s research, but it’s fun. Research is labeled monotonous and boring so often that we forget that research is supposed to be driven by curiosity. Research is not an excuse to procrastinate, but it is a cost of being creative.

You can’t control what will resonate and what won’t. But you can put something out there, learn from it, and do it over and over again. If you feel uninspired or blocked, you can talk to people, or write with a pen instead of a keyboard, or see what other people do when they get blocked.

You only see one headline for each of Upworthy’s articles, but writers draft 25 headlines for each article. The other 24 are wasted, but that magical 25th one which draws in readers would not have been possible without them. Unfortunately there’s no shortcut to getting that great headline. As you get better, you might be able to do the same with 20 or 22. But there will always be creative waste and excess.
Embrace waste, churn out quantity, and have fun.

Choose or others will choose for you

The old saying goes, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” Or, more appropriately, as Madame Gao tells Wilson Fisk in Daredevil:

“Man cannot be both savior and oppressor, light and shadow, one has to be sacrificed for the other. Choose, and choose wisely, or others will choose for you.”

No matter what you do, it’s never easy to choose. And there’s no end to the decisions. There’s never a clear direction or a silver bullet. Everything comes with drawbacks and benefits, neither of which are apparent. Everyone has advice for you, but few people understand context. You’re unsure about your appetite for risk, and how much you value the reward. Worse yet, sometimes your brain prefers one path, and your heart wants to choose the other.

A few years ago, I listened to a startup founder talk about competing with Amazon. He made this point that sounded crazy to me at the time: His company didn’t optimize for accuracy, they optimized for speed.

Even if his company made the wrong decision, they would be able to go back and correct the mistake faster than if they had spent time analyzing and trying to make the “right” decision. That was how they could go toe-to-toe with Amazon.

I love talking to people in transition (career or otherwise), but most of the time I just listen. I don’t have much advice to offer, but I do ask them questions that I hope could help them figure out part of their identity and who they want to become. Some of them figure it out, and some of them never do.

The difference between figuring it out — or not — seems to be in the simple act of making a decision. The latter group comes up with hypotheses about who they want to become, what skills they want to master, and what opportunities they want exposure to. The former group decides they don’t like something, but can’t decide on what their next move is. They’re paralyzed by the unknown and opportunity cost.

The latter group is not more noble than the former, by the way. Sometimes they’re more courageous, but oftentimes they’re also just more dissatisfied or more desperate for change. They’ve been forced into it. Some people call this emotional leverage.

So two years whiz by, the former group are stuck in the same place but feel even more pressure to make the “right” decision. They’ve “thought about it” for two years, so they should be way better informed, right?

That hardly ever happens. Instead, that decision-making process gets even more unpleasant and debilitating. This time it’s easier to avoid because their lives grow. For example, they start seriously dating, or get married, or start a family, and their personal lives get a bit more layered.

Imagine if they just tentatively guessed and made the decision to quit and try something different a year or two years ago. They take some time to figure out their worst case scenarios for each decision, and what they would do to bounce back to the status quo, (which they’ve proven is tolerable).

Within one year or less, they would know if they were happy with their decision or not. And they’d be able to pivot from there, either going back to the status quo (which they’d likely appreciate more), or they can cross off this possibility and try one of the new ones. They’d learn about themselves. (But never confuse activity for achievement. And be bold but please, please, don’t be impulsive.)

Even if you don’t decide, you’re still making a decision. You’re defaulting to the status quo. And that default choice is rarely ever the best one. It’s not going to expose you to any more good luck, and it’s probably not going to make you much happier.

How others choose for you

Occasionally, people (like managers, mentors, friends, or significant others) literally choose for you. But if they’re smart, they bribe you (e.g., your manager persuades you to pick up a new skill to fast track a promotion). Some of these choices turn out to be good ones, but they’re better if you just make them yourself and you understand why.

As other people bribe you, you get really great at your job, but you’re not sure why. Whether you like it or not, you become more like the people you work with. Your values become theirs because you didn’t define yours earlier.

You wanted to figure it out, but it was difficult and confusing so you never decided. And without deciding, you couldn’t make that first decision and try.

You inadvertently let others choose for you, and you’re chasing this ephemeral undefined “success”, because you never chose to define who you wanted to become what success meant to you earlier. You never guessed what might bring you more happiness day-to-day. And you have no idea what that even means, because you never tried to figure it out.

Whatever the tough decision is on your plate, decide who you think you want to become (and who you don’t), and what you think success means to you. You can always revise it as you learn more. Make a change based on this decision.

Let it simmer for a week, figure out the worst case scenario and how to bounce back, make a decision based on your best guess, and commit to it for 3-12 months. See what happens. You’ll learn what you didn’t consider and you’ll make a more informed decision next time. And your decision could uncover things you didn’t know about yourself, dramatically improve your quality of life, and it’ll make your next decision will be easier and smarter. Move before you’re ready.

How music taps into your creative gold mine

Two strange creativity chargers: Songs on repeat and movies with the sound off

A few years ago, I procrastinated on my homework by reading books on productivity.

Yeah, it was weird. (Another topic for another day.)

One of the productivity systems I noticed was David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I don’t really use the full system these days, but I remember one key point from it: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

I started writing down each of the things I needed to do. Today, I use a combination of my calendar, a spreadsheet, Trello, and an accountability group, to keep track of my tasks and things I need to remember.

But more importantly is that first part: “Your mind is for having ideas…”

The brain is a connection machine. It’s why so many people that do work that’s considered creative, like music, have unusual associative relationships. For example, Nile Rodgers’s brain produces music constantly. Like many musicians, he has synaesthesia — music makes him see things. This type of cross-wiring of the mind is the gold mine of creativity.

As it turns out, the rest of us might can also cross these senses. Perhaps not to the strength and degree that a hardcore natural synaesthete might, but we can still tap into our brain’s associative relationships.

Why do Kanye West and Kid Cudi watch movies with the sound off?

This type of cross-wiring relationship is most clear to me between making music and movies. It reminds me of how Kid Cudi describes his music process in The Star:

“When we were recording, there was always sci-fi movies on in the background. We were watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A little bit of E.T., even. Apocalyptica…it’s something that Kanye did, and something I borrowed from him. I mean having a movie playing, like with no volume, we just watched it, and you actually start to look at the cinematography, and get ideas because you notice things that you never really noticed before.”

A concrete example from Kanye:

“I watched The Holy Mountain on repeat while working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His sensibilities drove me to make my most progressive work to that date. Simply put, Jodorowsky is a prophet of creativity. For those who know, the mere mention of his name commands respect.”

Mac Miller even made an album entitled, Watching Movies with the Sound Off.

Not only is music part of a warmup, something that primes your brain for great work. It’s also an inherent part of the process. One that will influence the thought and synthesis process. Similar to Kanye’s dimmer switches, it drowns out all the background noise in your head, and frees you up to just focus on making and expressing.

A lot of artists and creative types turn to different rituals (or drugs) to focus and spark these associations. The goal of these rituals, or these background tools, are the same: to enable artists to create with pure intention and full expression.

It’s not just the background movie or soundtrack. The physical environment also changes the ways we think. I try to change it up as much as possible. I need the stimulation. But, I’m not saying it needs to be extravagant or sublime. Roald Dahl wrote in a hut.

In a creative block? Change your music, or your environment

There’s always been an interesting relationship between music and writing. In Dr. Frank Luntz’s Words That Work:

“Great language has exactly the same properties as great music,” says Aaron Sorkin, the brilliant writer/creator of the hit television drama The West Wing. “It has rhythm, it has pitch, it has tone, it has accents.”

Eddie Huang talks about this in his an interview with Miss Info, where he talks about picking one song — whatever he felt like for the day — and putting it on repeat. Ryan Holiday and Michael Lewis do this, too. Tim Ferriss also watches TV with the sound off.

As a writer, I’m inspired by other people and conversations. But the act of writing is inherently a one person activity. Even ghostwriting means interviewing someone, then walking away with a transcript, thinking about it, and writing alone. That’s why the physical environment matters even more for writers.

Environments are a product of the media in it. TVs and speakers provide an opportunity to tweak important parts of the environment. Clothes do, too. (Kanye would make everyone wear suits in the studio.)

The brain is a connection machine. You can’t expect creativity to come pouring out on demand — you must prime the machine and warm it up.

Movies with the sound off, and soundtracks on repeat

By setting up your environment, you also enhance your writing. You enable your subconscious work its magic with associative relationships. By immersing yourself in great content while you create, you improve the likelihood you’ll produce great content. Like my friends at Tiny Hearts say, “You are what you eat.”

The Case for Working Relaxed

I’ve long considered Pharrell Williams and Kanye West two sides of the same coin. Pharrell, the zenned out, laid back, happy-go-lucky, type of artist (reminiscent of Rick Rubin in how relaxed he is). Kanye is the polar opposite — manic, outspoken, angry, upset type of artist. Some might say that there would be no Kanye without Pharrell (Yeezy has said this himself), but I don’t think that’s true.

Please keep in mind that I don’t know either of these guys personally, and that I’m just judging based on impressions from their personas.

There’s no doubt Pharrell is a pioneer. Music would not sound the same without the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. He influenced fashion with BBC and Bape. He’s done some amazing stuff. His work with Daft Punk on Get Lucky is great. I fux with the N.E.R.D albums, particularly that one track, Breakout. (So great!)

And yet in the back of my head, I feel like Kanye did so much more because he went a lot harder with what he was working with. Kanye’s journey is still fortunate, but clearly Ye had to struggle a lot more throughout. Putting in years of production work before getting signed as a rapper on Roc-A-Fella. Even then, having to fund his own first music video to get Roc-A-Fella’s support as he was about to drop College Dropout. Pharrell had two very successful groups pretty early in his career, one of Kanye’s failed (the Go Getters) while his other sorta succeeded (Konman Productions became G.O.O.D. Music). Through G.O.O.D Music, Kanye introduced John Legend, Kid Cudi, and Big Sean to the world and took Pusha T’s solo career to that next level.

Then again, Pharrell helped make those great Clipse tracks and Jay Z tracks that we love. Pharrell also went through his fair share of struggles, I’m sure — In My Mind gave us that crazzzzzy Ye x Pharrell track, Number One. (Listening to that as I write this, and it’s still so good! Maybe even better than when I first heard it.) But overall it flopped, and so did his solo artist career. Must’ve been tough.

In hindsight, I don’t think Ye is necessarily more innovative than Pharrell though. I just appreciate Kanye for his courage. Ye plays to win, to be number one. I don’t think Pharrell plays to compete, he just does it because he loves making art — music, fashion, design. Pharrell rides the wave very well. Kanye rides waves too (as he has said before, “There is no sport without the wave, so I have to wait for it. If the waves are high, then we’re gonna have a fun day. If the waves are low, then you just stay on the beach.”) but he’s not afraid going against the current. Pharrell just wants to make clothes — independently or with major backing, but Kanye only wants to make clothes on a world stage.

I respect them both immensely, but I’ve long since been a Kanye fan in my heart. I’ve long made the case for Kanye to my mom while she would like Pharrell a lot more (“He’s more humble”). I would deliberately watch Kanye’s Yeezus era interviews to rattle me up and make me angry, which made me want to work. It worked, and I was focused a lot of the time I was working, but I was also constantly dissatisfied with my own output and work ethic. Not happy with where I was at. Not being able to enjoy the process. I was able to produce more work, but I didn’t really enjoy the process of it. In hindsight, that kinda defeats the purpose.

In my mind, Pharrell is so much more digestible, so much less antagonizing, and so much more low-key. He almost feels too vanilla. I used to hate that about him, but that shouldn’t be held against Pharrell. He’s not being fake. That’s actually just who he is and how he decides to carry himself. I’ve grown to actually appreciate it a lot, because self-control is a skill and it also shows huge self control. I can relate to it, because I’m not super aggressive all the time — by default I’m probably less competitive and more relaxed, less solo and more collaborative. I like to be liked and I like making people feel at ease, but Kanye wants to challenge people.

And in writing this now, I realized Pharrell’s journey wasn’t that much easier than Kanye’s. If I were Pharrell, I probably would have felt threatened by Kanye’s meteoric rise and production work, but Pharrell loved it. (Here’s Pharrell listening to one of my favorite Kanye songs, Never Let Me Down. What a great, genuine, reaction. I want myself to react like that to friends’ successes moving forward.)

Pharrell’s journey seems like much less of a roller coaster. A lucky break getting discovered in high school by Teddy Riley and plugged into the industry. Great bands and bandmates. But I’m sure I probably just don’t know about it yet, I haven’t done the research I have with Kanye.

There’s a difference between complacency and comfort, and being relaxed. You can work super hard, venture out of your comfort zone, and still be relaxed. Still be level headed. And, when you’re relaxed, you ironically might produce better work than if you were all uptight and rigid.

I first stumbled on this idea a couple of years ago, when I read Bill Murray’s advice on relaxing yourself to get the best work done:

You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed, no matter what it is, whatever your job is. The more relaxed you are, the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized the more fun I had, the better I did. I thought, well, that’s a job I could be proud of.

Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? says in an interview with The Atlantic:

There are expectations that if you achieve some given thing, you’re going to be happy. But it turns out that’s not true. And a large part of that is due to adaptation, but a large part of it also is that you see this mountain in front of you and you want to climb over it. And when you do, it turns out there are more mountains to climb.   

I’m not sure I have the energy or emotional capacity to be like Kanye all the time. I find the Pharrell (or Rick Rubin) approach more interesting, relaxed but focused and accepting facts and riding the wave when it’s there. Look, I’m not saying I’m not going to start my own waves and trying to see them take off. But I’m going to start sparks and waves, and not try to predict the forest fire or tsunami. Just do it and then on to the next one, or ride this one as it blows up. That’s it.

In my muay thai class, I was learning to kick a couple of weeks ago. I would freeze before I kicked — make sure I got my stance and sequencing properly — but the teacher said just to go through it all in one fluid motion. Don’t even think about it. Relax, and do it. And that was the key. I could feel my kicks getting stronger and hitting harder. I didn’t have to rush my kick or force it. I just had to relax.

I’m still going to work hard, just differently. In fact, I’m going to work even harder, but without any of the stress or rage. Quiet, focused, intensity, and a lot of friendliness and good vibes.

It’s easier to be angrier, but it’s more effective to be more relaxed. Which is why I’m no longer going to use caffeine.

Goals without expectations, and not forcing anything. Just being real. Relaxed. Doing more and thinking with my hands.

Rust builds quickly

Sharpen your tools every day

My folks used to make me practice piano everyday. Three songs, six times each (and eventually ten) during regular season. Then, when I was rounding exam season, I’d practice each song five times perfectly. If I played even one wrong note incorrectly, or I messed up the tempo of it, I’d have to start all over. It was really frustrating, especially as I got to more advanced songs.

Every time I protested, my parents would chide me, “You’ll appreciate this when you grow up.” (i.e., “It builds character.”)


I hated it. But in the back of my mind, they convinced me — why else would I spend half an hour each day playing?

I remember them telling me those lessons cost $25/half hour. I don’t think they knew this, but I was determined not to let that money go to waste. Even as a kid, I loved money (errr, put nicely, I knew the value of it). But also remember, as a kid, 30 minutes would feel like 3 hours. Especially because I needed to concentrate and be there in person, I couldn’t just zone out and let the time pass.

Where most pianists have boatloads of talent I had maybe two drops of talent in me, and it took years of playing to even get to that. I feel bad for my teachers. I also feel bad for my folks in hindsight, because they had to listen to it. And I hated almost every moment of it.

Each day when I woke up, I would immediately think about the 30 minutes of piano I needed to endure before truly being able to enjoy my day. Some days I’d sneak out of it, but most days my parents would get on my case. I wasn’t really ever left home alone so I couldn’t lie about it, even if I wanted to.

One thing I could really appreciate about this rigour though, in hindsight, was that it instilled the concept of daily practice in me. Don’t get it twisted, I don’t appreciate learning piano itself. As my cousin ungraciously pointed out after one of my piano lessons, I could have easily developed this rigour while mastering a way more useful skill.

But since quitting piano, I’ve had no illusions about how hard I was working. Even if people thought I turned my work ethic up too much, I never thought it came close to the bar that daily piano practice had set.

My practice paid off, and I would ace my piano exams. That sounds easy enough, but I really wasn’t particularly good to start with. My teachers and folks got so gased after my exams they’d enter me into talent shows, but I wouldn’t even come close to winning. It was funny. There was no way in hell I was going to win one of those, but even knowing that, just throwing my hat in the ring got everyone’s hopes up.

One of my best friends told me years later that he never practiced (*gasp*). He would lie to his folks when they got back, saying he did it while they were out. And, funny enough, his teacher eventually started wondering how he managed to get worse with each week. He couldn’t even stay afloat. I laughed my ass off when he told me that part.

I don’t think I’ve gotten to that level of practice for anything in recent history. I remember one summer in college I tried learning to code by building a website, and I didn’t come close to making that shit happen. I would get home after dinner, drink an espresso, open up a w3c window, and then go on Facebook until I got bored and watched TV. I never took that shit seriously enough.

With piano, I improved painfully and slowly. I hated damn near every minute of it. But I still improved. My folks and my teachers forced me. Note by note, measure by measure, song by song, I would be able to play it by memory and near perfection. It was the daily practice that got me going. If I ever got away with avoiding piano for a couple of days, I would feel it when I got back to practice.

This is inherently true in everything:

Rust builds quickly. You have to practice every day to stay your best.

The most obvious example of this takes place if you go to the gym consistently. Then you get sick for two weeks. Once you hit the gym again, you’ve lost a huge portion of your gains. It’s fucking brutal. Your muscles feel stiffer the next morning, even though you lifted maybe 60-80% of what you usually do.

But you’ll see it everywhere. If you don’t play video games for a couple of weeks it takes a while to break back in. If you haven’t shot a basketball in weeks you’re probably gonna throw some airs.

I remember watching a J. Cole doc on HBO, where he laughs at how he just spent 40 minutes making a beat that he probably wasn’t going to do anything with. But then, he gets serious, and explains that it’s because he needs to stay sharp so that when the inspiration strikes, he’s rehearsed enough to actually express it properly.

I love that observation, and I’ve found it to be so true. These days I read, I freewrite as much as I can, and I write some focused stuff as well with the content canvas. All in all, I try to do write about 2,500 words per day.

It’s funny that half the battle with improving with time, is actually just not getting worse. If you’re a lead a team, you know that you’re not nearly half as good as you used to be with your discipline of choice (e.g., you used to be a great engineer, now you can barely remember fundamentals but you run an engineering team or you close engineering sales deals). Of course, you’ve spent the time mastering another skillset — so it makes sense. But my point still stands, which is because you didn’t practice the original skillset, you got worse chronically. Little by little, day by day.

Fortunately, rust can also be very easy to clear off. If it’s years of rust, then it’ll be a bit harder and at first it’ll seem damn near impossible. But you just have to move, no matter how unready or idiotic you feel. Move to clear the rust and practice through the pain. Throw numbers at it and you’ll naturally get better.

I’m writing a lot more every day now, but I’m still not sure whether this post will get more page views or not.

Doesn’t really matter though.

I’m pleased with it, which is more than I can say for some of my other posts (won’t tell you which ones). And in the end, that’s what matters most to me — to create something that’s better than what I made before. I have no delusions about it, I’m still very far away from my own expectations of myself. But I’m finally taking a step forward each week, rather than just trying to hang on.

Oh, and as for piano, the only thing I got out of it is probably my ability to type really really really fast. (I kill at All the Right Type!)

If you’re interested, check out another one of my favorite essays that I wrote.