Lessons on the Sacrifice of Craft, From the ULTIMATE Collection

In my work with writers, I constantly get this feedback: “I am overwhelmed.” Why? Because they are juggling so many things:

  • They have a day job to pay the bills.
  • They have a spouse and kids to help take care of.
  • They have a home to manage and clean, and a lawn to mow.
  • They want time to write.
  • They are trying to connect with readers and grow their platform. In this process, maybe they are trying to blog, or engage in social media, or go to events.
  • They have hobbies, friends, and other personal emotional needs. Maybe they even want to read a book every now and again.

And yet, many people feel that it is possible to do it all. That they can masterfully do everything perfectly. There is this impression is that to be a “professional” is to be in control, to have expert processes that make everything work like clockwork. That there is an easy way to balance it all, and to create something of high quality. A book; a blog; a purpose.

We feel that if we just reach a certain level, suddenly, everything will be okay. A friend said this to me the other night:

“There is no getting to. This is it.”

The implication was that in our professional lives, we often feel that if we just “get to” the next level (the next promotion, the next milestone, etc), that life will be better. Everything will be balanced. We will feel able to create work of exceptional quality and depth. Her point is that you can’t wait for that day. Life is happening right now. You need to be crafting remarkable work even under the stress of everyday life.

We strive for perfection, but it is rarely what we think it is.

I found an intriguing example of focused perfectionism recently, a series of videos I have been OBSESSED with. It is about someone writing a book, and the research she is doing for it. So I want to use these videos as a lens in which to look at what focus and perfectionism looks like, and what the trade-offs are.

Meet Aire. She goes by “Aire” or “Airedevon” online, and perhaps offline too. She has what is pretty much a complete collection of G.I. Joe action figures from the 1960s through today. It fills every nook and cranny of a large house. She is writing a series of books (7 volumes) cataloguing everything there is to know about G.I. Joe toys.

This is her living room (you can see Aire herself in the top left corner):

Airedevon GI Joe Collection

And here is an amazing 4-hour video series (broken out into 18 individual videos) where she takes you through all of it. This is just one of those videos:

She doesn’t just collect one of every G.I. Joe action figure, she collects every variation of every figure or vehicle from every country that produced them around the world.

When you watch the videos, you see her going through thousands upon thousands of figures and vehicles. She passionately points out the slightest differences in color of plastic between the Columbian version of a vehicle and the the US version; Or how one action figure is slightly different than another between the German version and the French version.

Here is another one of the videos where she shows off her non-G.I. Joe action figures, in what she calls the “toybrary” – a library of toys to play with:

The depth of her collection is astounding, and it shows a rare level of perfectionism. Many people researching a book such as this would likely interview others who have owned different vehicles and figures. They would visit these collections, photograph them, and move on.

But Aire’s strategy is different: she has first-hand experience with it all, and owns every G.I. Joe toy ever produced all at once so that she can compare them.

I love so many things about her passion, especially that she appreciates the play value of these toys. She will actually open old toys (which are very valuable) so that you can touch them and play with them. This, as opposed to many others who practically seal toys in air-tight packaging to ensure they don’t “lose value.”

There is a flip side to what Aire has created. She admits that her collecting has gone further than she would like, that it has eaten her house, and I would have to guess: lots of her time. As for the expense of it all, I can only imagine that she has some funding source for this, but I don’t want to venture a guess as to what it is. That’s too personal. She buys lots of stuff on eBay, meaning she is paying top dollar. She says the most she has ever paid for a single figure is $5,000. Her collection is worth a fortune.

She estimates that she owns:

  • 28,886 small G.I. Joe figures (which does not include figures from the 60s and 70s)
  • 10,586 of these figures are unopened

I come from a family of collectors. Growing up we had a coin and stamp business in the 1970s, a baseball card business in the 1980s, and everyone in my family has had collection obsessions over the years: shelves and shelves of “rare” items.

But I am astounded by Aire’s collection. Quite frankly, I have never seen a collection of ANYTHING that is this complete, and so lovingly put together.

As for the book she is creating, the time seems to creep away. She keeps pushing back deadlines for publishing the first volume. She is still searching for elusive figures and vehicles. She is carefully photographing each item and crafting the descriptions and context.

Do you have this level of perfectionism in your work?

So what can we take from this as writers trying to do it all; trying to find balance amid work, life, and a writing career?

My conclusion? You can’t do it all.

Choose carefully where you put your energy. Do only what matters. Forget everything else.

Double-down on some things. Is your writing a hobby or a profession? Decide this now. Today.

We like to think that craft is easily accessible. That if we just show up, we will be rewarded for our efforts. But that is rarely true. My friend Richard Nash has been putting together a limited edition book, and recently shared this feedback about how expensive, time-consuming and difficult it is to craft something special:

“What I learned from this experience: limited editions are hell! Very hard. This has taken eighteen months to put together. It has been insanely expensive. Make sure, if you try this at home, that you are collaborating with an experienced partner. The unit cost on this edition has been $142. The list price will be $250, rising as the edition sells down.”

At $142 per book, this doesn’t cover a single moment of his 18 months worth of effort, that is merely the physical expense per book, and likely paying his collaborators. We often say we want something special and unique, but are we willing to make this effort? As a consumer to buy a $250 limited edition book, or as a creator to spend 18 months developing one?

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that aggregators and social platforms such as Pinterest have become so popular. You can create a collection instantly. Just find cool stuff that others have aggregated, and “curate” it on your own board. There is an instant sense of accomplishment, of creation, and the identity that comes with that. If you spend a few hours pinning things, you suddenly have a rather impressive looking board, and feel that this represents who you are.

But to create something of meaning, to create something truly unique and special, you need to make hard choices. Often, you need to sacrifice something. Aire’s sacrifices are obvious. What will your’s be?

Curious to learn more about Aire’s G.I. Joe collection? Here you go:

Thanks to Flophouse Films for the incredible video series on Airedevon. Here are all 18 parts: