What Nobody Told You About the First Draft


Image: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash

“When you get an idea, don’t hold it,” architect Vittorio de Feo said.  Recalling his master’s quote in Why Architects Still Draw, Paolo Belardi adds that when you get an idea, not taking action right away risks destroying the idea’s vitality. Sketch the idea immediately; draw impulsively, and transcribe unconscious energy from the brain to the paper by doing so.

Like Belardi, author Natalie Goldberg praises the power of first thoughts as having “tremendous energy” which is what underlies her freewriting exercise (don’t stop writing, for an allotted amount of time or number of pages). She explains in Writing Down the Bones that the power of the very first thought is that each of our internal self-editors haven’t had a chance at “squelching” them yet.

While this principle makes sense, it’s not so easy to put into practice. First thoughts are not always our friends. Sometimes, they’re irrational, selfish, and impulsive. Moreover, expressing first thoughts publicly  is a terrible idea. With the viral potential of the Internet, each of our actions hold greater potential than before. A simple example: dumb tweets can hurt a lot of people (and are subject to public shaming).

From childhood we have been conditioned to think before we speak, to consider  other people’s feelings, and how we may best say something. In a non-peer reviewed survey of 11,000 mothers, Popsugar reports that “No,” was the 7th most popular first word. Too often, most of us say, “No,” to our first thoughts, immediately thinking more about it before expressing it. This is a byproduct of self awareness and self consciousness, two forces necessary to get along with other people; but, taken applied to creative work, both of them suffocate the ideas with most originality and potential.

It’s easy to get paralyzed by these two factors, amongst many others; that’s why so many great ideas stay stuck in people’s heads. The remedy is simple: find a safe, private, place to store your first thoughts.

Create A Safe Place to Perform First Thoughts

Producer Rick Clifford recalls in Jake Brown’s Tupac Shakur: 2Pac in the Studio that when Tupac was recording All Eyez On Me, he wanted spontaneity and to record his verses in one take to keep “the feel.” While Tupac may have used a different word for it, his insight bears resemblance to Belardi’s and Goldberg’s descriptions of first thoughts (“vitality” and “tremendous energy”).

Tupac and his collaborators used a variety of methods to make this happen. For example, he would record in no more than four takes, and leaving spaces to fill in mistakes. Outlawz member Napolian recalls Tupac’s words, “Whatever you lay, we keepin’ it, go on to the next song. We don’t have time to play, we don’t have time to be on the song for 30 minutes.” In this context, the first take can be seen as a sort of performance art.

This type of constraint and speed could cultivate intensity needed for great creative work. Performance artist Marina Abramović describes her process, writing in her autobiography Walk Through Walls, “… to achieve a goal, you have to give everything until you have nothing left.” U2 lead singer Bono describes in his tribute to Frank Sinatra, “The Big Bang of pop music telling me it’s all about the moment, a fresh canvas and never overworking the paint. … Fully inhabiting the moment during that tiny dot of time after you’ve pressed ‘record’ is what makes it eternal. If, like Frank, you sing it like you’ll never sing it again. If, like Frank, you sing it like you never have before.”

Allow Yourself to Improvise

After a disappointing commercial debut release, recording artist Gucci Mane would go on to start freestyling with a similar improvisational method to Tupac’s, starting with No Pad, No Pencil. Despite the similar approach, Gucci Mane’s goal was slightly different from Tupac’s; inspired by Lil’ Wayne’s prolific approach to mixtapes, he wanted to make enough music to “flood the market” as well.

Those that choose not to listen to their first thought, and wait, not only lose the vitality of the thought; the momentum might turn into drag. In The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas quotes William James’s “Habit” chapter in Principles of Psychology, in which he says, “Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on any emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain… When a resolve or a fine glow of feeling is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit it is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.”

Make your first draft following the rules of improvisation; accept your and other people’s ideas, expand upon them, and forgive yourself when your idea didn’t live up to your expectations.

Draft Quickly, Edit Slowly

Once you get an idea, bring it to reality as soon as you can. Scope down the idea to as low fidelity as possible (i.e., a tweet instead of a draft, a music loop instead of a complete production, a sketch instead of a painting/schematic, etc.). Only after your initial burst of thought is complete, should you allow the editor inside yourself to speak and criticize, and not a second sooner.

Many first thoughts have the outlines of potential, but most of them will not be the best version of the product. Even if you buy into Tupac’s value of spontaneity, and approach the first version of your work like performance art, there is no reason you need to make your first version the absolute final. Sorting through your work, and ensuring that you release only the best, is a surefire way to start your legacy and make a higher quality product.

But always keep in mind, as Belardi writes, there’s something powerful about a sketch or drawing. To borrow his metaphor: Inside a little acorn are the complete plans and potential of the tree. So it is with architecture, the total potential of the building is encapsulated and complete inside each first sketch.

Why the “Best” Way Is Your Own Way

Advice from James Cameron, on Not Taking Advice


Image: Tim Bogdanov/Unsplash

For years, I have been a hoarder and disseminator of advice; and I only found advice worth taking by measuring the success of the giver. It wasn’t the most critical way of thinking, and I figured if I found what successful people did, I’d also be able to achieve the things they did. And whenever I inevitably couldn’t figure something out, I’d feel the urge to throw in the towel. “If I can’t figure out how they do it, it’s not worth doing at all.”

I get the sense I’m not the only one; articles on successful peoples’ morning routines, their diets, how they’re making money on TikTok, are all still popular. I would still be fixated on looking for advice, if I hadn’t come across a quote that changed my life…

Other People’s Answers Might Work for Them, but Not You

On a visit to a small used bookstore, when I came across Syd Field’s Four Screenplays. Flipping through the book, I found an excerpt from his interview with James Cameron that completely punched me in the gut:

“People ask me how do you get to be a film director,” Cameron continued, “and I tell them that no two people will ever do it the same way, and there is nothing I can say that will help you. Whatever your talents are, whatever your strengths and weaknesses, you have to find the path that’s going to work for you. The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer.

If you have to ask somebody how to be a film director, you’ll probably never do it. I say, probably. If that pisses you off, and then you go out and say, ‘I’m going to show that Jim Cameron; I am going to be a director,’ that gives you the kind of true grit you need to have in order to go through with it. And if you do become a film director, then you should send me a bottle of champagne and thank me.”

The irony is not lost on me; I’m sharing someone else’s advice, encouraging whoever reads it not to ask less advice. Nonetheless, that’s the value of a quote; it changed my life in a matter of seconds.

If we look at the possibilities of trial and error, and combinations of tactics, there are endless possibilities for what might work. Those people just happened to ones that worked for them, in their time. Even if I could ask them (and I did), and get an honest — and accurate — answer from them, the knowledge didn’t change my  life the way I thought it would. I was making my own bed of Procrustes, twisting my activities to fit into their personality.

Advice and Knowledge are Dynamic; Take Them Not as Answers, but as Propositions

More importantly, advice evolves; a lot of people experiment, improving their processes whenever they see a potential better way to do something. Artist Mike Winkelmann, also known by his art name Beeple, says in this Reddit AMA, “[If] your process isn’t changing, you’re not taking advantage of the [latest] tools. [In] this industry that is dangerous.”

That applies doubly to a lot of different industries, writing and marketing for certain. So even if someone told me their most powerful tactic, it would just be a snapshot of what they know at the time. If they went on to find something even better any point after I asked them, I’d be left in the dust trying to apply what they were doing.

Like me, you may still find yourself wanting to — or sometimes obsessed with — finding out how people excel, and learning from their experiences and insights. Perhaps we should make a resolution to let our curiosities lead us, but not to let them limit us. We can choose to treat other people’s advice, successes, and cautionary tales as propositions; it’s not meant to be followed to the letter, and we can choose to accept it or not.

It’s on each of us to apply the advice and experiment with it. You’ll know if they work because they feel natural; they may be challenging, but you believe in it, and you’ll find the attempt rewarding. Neurologist and author James H. Austin says that this type of personalized action exposes you to a new type of chance; one that can provide you with opportunities that others, without your temperament or preference, would not come across.

In an age where everybody can access and follow the same advice, doing something you would do might be the most unique and competitive thing you can do.

To Make Better Creative Work, Aim for Acceptable, Not Perfect


Image via: Quang Nguyen Vinh/Pexels

Perfection can be a complex, philosophical, topic. My current stance: There is such a thing as 100%. If you’re into films, you know Roger Ebert gave four stars to great movies. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was ranked by the Rolling Stone as the #1 album of the 2010s; just a few years after he told the world that album is proof he knew how to make perfect. The possibility of making perfection is out there.

Perhaps one of these perfect works might even be the reason we got into creative work in the first place. As a person making things, the vision of perfection is enticing and, sometimes, all-consuming. Whatever craft you’ve committed to, it’s your life’s work, so it makes sense to take it seriously.

While perfect work can be inspiring, it also sets unrealistic expectations  of the messy creative process. Poet W.H. Auden says it best, in his Introduction to Nineteenth-Century British Minor Poets, “The chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor.” If Auden were reviewing West today, as he did other poets later in his career, he might point to West’s contribution on the terrible I Love It, the pre-Charlie Heat version of Facts, or West’s decision to include so many skits (and New Workout Plan) on the otherwise flawless College Dropout.

For decades, UC-Davis distinguished professor of psychology Dean Keith Simonton has studied creative geniuses. He’s produced over 400 research items, and tens of thousands of citations.

Having studied hundreds of people’s creative output through history, he notes that most creative geniuses have plenty of misses for each breakthrough hit. As such, in his book The Genius Checklist, he suggests that putting all of your energy into a single item of work, and betting it’s going to be a hit, is a high risk strategy.

Rather than betting so heavily on a single piece of work, Simonton recommends making a lot of work that meets ”minimal standards, without optimizing all criteria for success.” Simonton uses the word “satisficing,” jargon borrowed from behavioral economics, which means each work just needs to be acceptable; not necessarily optimal (or “maximized”).

In other words, if you were making music, spreading your effort to make 20 good songs is better than putting all of your effort behind one. But, making 200 songs that meet no standards won’t have a high chance at making an impact either. (Otherwise, Matt Farley would’ve swept the Grammys for years!)

Why Acceptable can Lead to Perfect

In The Genius Checklist, Simonton disagrees with the saying, “Practice makes perfect,” but proposes the alternative; “Practice just allows you to stay competitive in a game of chance.” This type of chance might bear resemblance to what James H. Austin called the Kettering Principle in his book, Chase, Chance, and Creativity.

The quote attributed to automotive inventor Charles Kettering goes, “Keep on going and the chances are you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down.” The premise  is, as Austin suggests, that “unluck runs out if you keep stirring up things so that random elements can combine, by virtue of your and their inherent affinities.”

As mentioned earlier, putting out a large volume of work does not guarantee breakthrough genius work. One key step is to define what standards  you intend your work to meet; your criteria, or as Bill Walsh might call it, your Standards of Performance.

If you have no idea where to start, you’re in luck: successful people often share their criteria. For example, if you look into criteria for writing, Auden put out his criteria for major poets, Robert Caro shows some of his thought process in his book Working, and Mary Robinette provides feedback for editing articles. If you want to emulate Derek Sivers, he shows you how. Same with Paul Graham. You could also study any other writing you like, and learn how you can improve. The idea is to set your standards for quality, and then produce and release a lot of work that meets it.

Change the Goal from Perfect to Done

Before he founded Makerbot, Bre Pettis worked with his partner Kio Stark on the Cult of Done Manifesto, in which they praise completing work as “the engine of more.” There’s some academic evidence to support this observation; in this study of 30 students, published at School Psychology Quarterly, the authors observed that problem completion can be a reinforcing event, and improves perception of the assignment. In the realm of software, Linux creator Linus Torvalds released his team’s work often — even daily — to keep his developers motivated to continue working.

If your brain is wired to get motivation from completing tasks, satisficing can help optimize for personal energy, as Dilbert creator Scott Adams might put it. At the Harvard Business Review,  authors Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer observe that making even just a bit of progress is highly motivating.

The opposite of satisficing — “maximizing,” or aiming to create just one piece of perfect work — can produce the opposite effect, often draining our energy. While an inspiring goal, perfect comes with a heavy expectation; it can lead to procrastination, anxiety, and paralysis.

Even amongst the examples of perfect work that exist, there’s a degree of survivorship bias there. Only a few of the perfect works were premeditated; many others lucked into perfection, amidst a lot of misses. Let’s also keep in mind the millions of perfect ideas existing only in people’s minds, that will forever remain invisible to us.

People will Remember the Good Stuff

One final consolation is, people have a tendency to remember your best work. Even though Thomas Edison filed and won over a thousand patents, his legacy is built on just one.

In more recent memory, less than a decade before I wrote this piece, Donald Glover received a 1.6 for his commercial album debut, Camp, as Childish Gambino. That was just a few years before he would win over five Grammys, and become the polymath artist we know today.

Tina Fey, a mentor of Glover’s, writes about this in her memoir Bossypants, “Yes, you’re going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever—your golden nuggets. But you’re also going to write some real shit nuggets.”

It’s this attitude and approach to making both the shit, and the gold, that Simonton advocates as well. Perfection is not achieved necessarily through relentless tinkering and tweaking the same thing; rather, you can allow perfection to happen from time to time, as a result of constantly putting out work that meets your own standards.

Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you

“Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.” — Byron Katie

I originally heard this sentiment in a Tim Ferriss podcast. I’m guessing he got it from Katie. Or maybe he got it from actor Jim Carrey’s commencement speech, where Carrey says, “When I say life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you, I really don’t know if that’s true. I’m just making a conscious choice to perceive challenges as something beneficial so that I can deal with them in the most productive way.”

Walker & Company founder and CEO Tristan Walker says the most important lesson he learned was from a conversation he had with Tyler Perry, where Perry said the “trials we go through and the blessings we receive are the same thing.” Walker elaborates in an interview with CNN, “Those trials are lessons you can learn from, and those learnings are blessings. That advice has stuck with me for quite some time.”

Ironically, it’s when you believe these things the least that you need them the most.

Obstacles come up for everyone. It’s not about deluding yourself or lying to yourself, but about reframing these obstacles as coming up for your benefit — not your inconvenience. Like Carrey says, you probably won’t know if it’s true. There’s a psychological term for reinterpreting the meaning of things, “cognitive reappraisal.” In this case, in order to use your obstacles to your advantage, you can reframe them as lessons.

Elizabeth Bernstein writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Performing a cognitive reappraisal isn’t turning off your negative thoughts—that is almost impossible to do without replacing them with something else. It is also not about turning untrue negative thoughts into untrue positive ones. The goal is to reframe your thoughts constructively, so they are based in reality.”

  1. Be aware of your reactions


A lot of people go through life just on a wild ride, letting their habits and emotions react to situations that come up. The first step to reframing is to become aware of how scenarios like problems or obstacles trigger your emotions. You catch yourself in a certain thought pattern, and work backwards — what triggered it?  For me, I flick myself with a rubber band whenever I notice the pattern, just to become conscious of it.

Once you catch on to your patterns, figure out the preceding events that triggered them. More importantly, think about why you responded a certain way. You will discover your beliefs about yourself. Most people’s reactions to obstacles are resistance, which leads to annoyance, frustration, despair, futility, or anger.

  1. Explore your reaction

Your reactions and beliefs lead to your actions, which have the potential to reinforce or change them. Imagine an obstacle that doesn’t just affect you, but your peers, colleagues, or rivals as well:

  • Reaction: “This process is so stupid.”
  • Explore: “Maybe some process is stupid, but there’s a reason it exists. Why does this exist?”
  • Reframe: “You might have to just grin and bear through it, but you might also be able to figure your way around it if you can just figure out why — and who the person is behind this process, and how to befriend them.”

Maybe you were recently passed up for an opportunity:

  • Reaction: “They’re out to get me! I know it!”
  • Explore: “Really? This person has nothing better to do than to spend their time and energy out to get you?”
  • Reframe: “Ok, even if they’re out to get you, are they the only person that can give you this type of opportunity? If they are, can you convince them to give you a second chance? Why are they acting so maliciously?”

Or, you failed at something or were rejected by somebody:

  • Reaction: “I’ll never be good enough.”
  • Explore: “You’ll never be good enough for the rest of your life? Even if you practiced for a decade?”
  • Reframe: “I’m not good enough yet, I probably will be in the future. I’ll also get better at finding the opportunities that fit me. I’m uncertain when and how and that scares me.

You don’t have to end your train of thought at a frustrated response to the obstacle. That’s where most people stop. Instead, if you think further about it, so you can create a solution and move past the others — using the obstacle as a way to get ahead of them.

  1. Imagine how you would advise a friend


Most of us are our own worst critics. We’re much harder on ourselves than we are on everybody else.

Moreover, it’s tough to advise yourself in the heat of the moment. That’s why friends can be so helpful — they can advise us from a much more objective perspective precisely because they don’t feel the ways we do. Author and behavioral psychologist Chip Heath recommends when you’re dealing with obstacles, pretend like you’re advising a friend.

If you have trouble exploring your reactions, write them down and pretend that your friend gave them to you. Bernstein writes, “Imagine that you have a friend who is exactly like you in every respect. Give him a name. Then pretend he is telling himself the same destructive thoughts you tell yourself. How would you refute him? What evidence would you give that his thinking is wrong? Listen carefully to what you are telling your friend. Write it down. Take this to heart.”

Ride with life’s ebbs and flows, not against them


You can choose to believe it or not, but trying this experiment makes things easier. Every obstacle that comes up is happening for you, not to you. When you let it go and stop resisting, you can spend more time actually getting things done.

Martial artist and filmmaker Bruce Lee writes in Striking Thoughts, “Remember never to assert your self against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but to control it by swinging with it.”

How to stop overthinking and make magic happen


The line between thinking and overthinking is a thin one. It’s hard for anyone to discern where they are relative to it. Err on the side of action, and build momentum. Sometimes, you have to dumb it down.

There’s no shortage of sayings, like, “Done is better than perfect,” or, “No time like the present,” or, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” They’re all really getting at the same thing. Don’t think too much. Take action today.


Actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger writes in his autobiography Total Recall, “You can overthink anything. There are always negatives. The more you know, the less you tend to do something. If I had known everything about real estate, movies, and bodybuilding, I wouldn’t have gone into them.”

Similarly, Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso says, “I often say my naiveté early on in my career worked in my favor.”

More information doesn’t necessarily make for better outcomes or planning. Author Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.”

Don’t let your brain get ahead of itself. Don’t consider everything that could go wrong or right. Just focus on learning what you don’t know, creating a couple of tentative plans and milestones, and taking action. You will learn and adapt as you go.  

Here are three ways to defeat your inner overthinker while still using your brain just enough to succeed:

Ask questions


When you’re first starting anything, there’s pain in the form of friction. Some of this is in the form of information gaps. And while Googling is the simplest and easiest solution (and probably the most annoying thing I could tell you to do), a 15-30 minute conversation with another human being can be much more effective than Google.

When you’re talking to peers or experts, they can interpret what you’re wondering or asking much more effectively than Google and provide answers. They can also expose you to “unknown unknowns,” the things that you don’t even know you don’t know. After all, you can’t look for something you don’t know exists.  

Apple founder Steve Jobs says, “I’ve never found anyone who’s said no or hung up the phone when I called — I just asked. And when people ask me, I try to be as responsive, to pay that debt of gratitude back. Most people never pick up the phone and call, most people never ask. And that’s what separates, sometimes, the people that do things from the people that just dream about them. You gotta act. And you’ve gotta be willing to fail, you gotta be ready to crash and burn, with people on the phone, with starting a company, with whatever. If you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.”

Figure your actual question, and frame it properly. If you’re going to email a stranger about it, make it a pointed question that people can answer in 2–3 lines.

Author Ryan Holiday writes, “Sure, questions can be a sign that you don’t understand what’s going on. Which is why…if you don’t understand…you absolutely must ask. Before you start, before you say yes, before you try to convince yourself that hope is a strategy and you’ll figure out it out as you go.”

Break it down into steps


Author and The New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook talks about how he breaks 5,000 word articles into five 900 word segments. You can do the same with all sorts of problems — break your huge goals and visions into smaller milestones, and work towards those.

Sometimes, even within milestones, you can break those down into phases or weekly plans or metrics that you need to accomplish in order to make progress.

Think with your hands


My friends Humayun and Robleh blew my mind when they said, “Think with your hands.” I know I wrote it in the title as well. That’s because it perfectly articulates the idea. A lot of thinking isn’t necessarily done in the peace and quiet of a cabin, or in the meeting room with people. The best thinking can be carried out when the brain sees things and starts piecing them together, and this is done through taking action.

Star Wars creator George Lucas writes, “Don’t tell anyone, but when ‘Star Wars’ first came out, I didn’t know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you’ve planned the whole thing out in advance. Throw in some father issues and references to other stories — let’s call them ‘homages’ — and you’ve got a series.”

When Kanye West announced his company Donda, digital and design studio OKFocus built a fake product and website for it. This publicity stunt could’ve totally gone wrong. Instead, OKFocus starts working with Kanye West and his friends just a few years (if not months) after the stunt.

It’s so hard to plan for that sort of thing. And they didn’t. OK Focus co-founder Ryder Ripps says, “We try to do one of these kind of projects a week just to keep our own spirits up and have fun. That’s the main objective, and prove to our future clients that we’re good at the Internet.”

Take action, and start things without knowing where they’re going to end up. Just fire, aim closer to the right direction, fire again, and so on. However, you must make sure to rise up from the action, to stop dumbing things down, at some point so you keep calibrating and making sure you’re moving in the direction you want to move in. The dots only get connected in hindsight.

Dumb it down

One day in the wild is worth a month in the lab. Catch yourself paralyzed by thought. Break the inertia by dumbing things down and taking action in spite of your hesitation. After all, of all things to do, one of the dumbest ones would be not to do anything.

You should only compete with one person: yourself


Source: The Mushroom Kingdom

It’s easy to compare yourself against other people especially as they flood our screens with images. But when you compete against other people, you judge yourself based on their values and metrics. The problem with this is even if you win, you only do something that’s important to them, not you.

Life is a competition, but it’s not a race against anyone else. Rather, the real journey is only against yourself and unrealized potential. This is what Jay Z means when he raps, “I look in the mirror, my only opponent.” There’s also the famous adage (often misattributed to Einstein), “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


Jay Z for L’uomo Vogue

Similarly, Kanye West says, “It’s not about the competition. It’s about competing with yourself. That’s why when I play video games, I like playing racing games instead of fighting games. Fighting games are won by beating someone else down. Racing is a matter of figuring out your technique and driving as fast as you can – and that’s how my life has been this year.”

Rather than competing against the next person, you can chase your future self. Matthew McConaughey chases his ideal self, ten years in the future. He says, “Every day, every week, every month, and every year of my life, my hero is always 10 years away. I’m never going to beat my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not! That’s just fine with me, because it keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.”

The most important part of competing against yourself is the ability to set your own values and metrics. You choose the goals that fit you best, and what you really want to compete on — and what you don’t.

And, yeah, sometimes you lose. You might do worse than you did before. Some days, it’s just enough not to take a step backward. And others, when you least expect it, you bound forward.

Either way, when you compete with yourself, you won’t be lured into other people’s competition and their values. Move forward but only evaluate yourself based on meaningful things. Smile, nod, and then forget it when other people try to entice you into competing. Only you can decide what really matters to you.

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.

Source: http://thehowardtheatre.com/assets/ferris_1.jpg

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.

Source: http://www.ruthlessreviews.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/fb4.jpg

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.

Source: http://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/2d889aa34be5e489ef19a7ee9eb72a4a-650-80.jpg

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 Stickk.com 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.