To do great work: embrace your limits

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Great art requires limitations.

Too little time.
The wrong materials.
Ideas that won’t work.
An accident.
Bad luck.
Clever ideas that don’t take.
Devastating setbacks.

If you look at nearly every great work of art, you will find this. In great books, music, visual art, performance art, crafts, and entrepreneurial ventures.

Yet, too often, with our own creative ideas, we pretend two things are true:

  1. That I have a unique challenge that makes it impossible for my work to thrive. Perhaps it is raising kids, a health issue, a full-time job, relationship challenges, or something else. The mantra of failure is “If I only didn’t have this limitation.”
  2. That we lack the right tools to get it done. We tell ourselves that if only we knew the exact tools that our heroes used, then we could find success. We ask brand of chair our writing heroes write in. What paint brush does an inspiring artist use. What effects pedal does the guitarist use.

These are both lies. (sorry)

Lies we tell ourselves that justify the disappointment that success in our art and craft is more complicated and takes longer than we had hoped.

I listened to a podcast the other day with someone who said that every day, he has all of these “million dollar ideas.” He described a couple with complete enthusiasm, as if he was sitting on a pot of gold.

The problem: the idea is cheap, the work is expensive: the time and energy it takes to try to make it a reality. The gumption to work through the bad luck, the false starts, the clever ideas that don’t actually work.

Today I would like to talk about how producing great work is about embracing your limits, devoting yourself to a process, and working with the tools you have at your disposal right now, even if you fear they are inadequate for the job at hand.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to frame our discussion:

The Crappiest Guitar in the World

A 2012 article in The New York Times called Jack White “possibly the greatest guitarist of his generation.” For a decade as Jack crafted music in The White Stripes, this was his guitar of choice, a 1964 plastic guitar which was originally sold at Montgomery Ward as a discount option for someone who couldn’t afford a “real” guitar — a Gibson or Fender that cost 2x to 4x this price.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 7.26.52 AM

It’s a piece of junk. It’s actually made of fiberglass, not a great material for a guitar. It’s hollow, it doesn’t have a truss rod (which ensures the instrument is in precise alignment), and it only has 20 frets (whereas others tend to have 22 or more.) It’s a poser — the pickups are disguised to look like more impressive humbuckers. They aren’t.

In interviews, Jack has talked about his belief in constraints, and how he likes to feel that he is fighting the instrument in order to make great music.

Yet, Jack has had astounding success critically and in terms of audience size and record sales. Jack says:

“If you want it easy, buy a brand new Les Paul or a brand new Stratocaster.”

What is astounding is how many people do have a gorgeous Les Paul or Stratocaster and barely learn to play it, and never follow through to craft original music that they dream of. They dabble, they half-ass it, and this beautiful tool collects dust while Jack White finds success with a 50 year plastic guitar.

For these people, the purchase of the guitar itself was the biggest — and final — step they took toward their goals. It’s akin to buying a self-help book that you never read. Or signing up for a gym membership on January 1st that you never show up for.

The tool is a tiny part of success.
The process is what matters most.

The Outdated Tennis Racket

You find examples of this throughout different professions, not just creative fields. Tennis legend Jimmy Connors stuck with an outdated tennis racket long after his contemporaries moved on to better designs.

When he began using the Wilson T2000 racket, he was a bold leader venturing out into uncharted territory.

540x405_Wilson T 2000

But quickly new materials and designs emerged as the 70s and 80s progressed that were wildly better than the steel Wilson T-2000 with it’s tiny surface area.

One instructor described why they used the T3000 (the next version of the racket) to instruct students:

“I teach with it exclusively. The small head, the [heavy] weight, it’s so unforgiving you can’t get away with anything. You’re forced to hit the ball correctly.”

Again, the limits are what Jimmy and this instructor seeks out, in order to reach their goals.

Finding Your Process

Too often, when it comes to bridging the gap between our vision and our reality, we bemoan our challenges. Our boundaries. Our limits.

And we shouldn’t, we should embrace them.

For example, this week I had two conversations with different people about their desire to run workshops within schools. Each had asked me for any recommendations of little known websites that can help them connect with schools.

My response was two-fold:

  1. No, I don’t know of any secret website that easily places authors into schools. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist, I’m just saying it’s not simple, and I was ignorant of a particular website that would do that.
  2. You are sitting on a mountain of resources to find out more about how schools place local authors into speaking and workshop opportunities: speak to people at your local schools, libraries and bookstores. Then go to five surrounding school districts and do the same. Your community likely has a number of organizations that serve kids in different ways, from Boy Scouts to churches to a wide variety of other programs. Your community is filled with nonprofits focused on education and kids. You are likely connected to lots of local parents and community organizers on Facebook already. These resources are literally right in front of you the moment you leave your house. Start there.

Can they do more? Of course: talk to other authors who have run workshops in schools. Seek them out. Ask them questions. But my point was as simple as this Arthur Ashe quote:

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
– Arthur Ashe

That alone will get you 95% further than all of the other authors who refuse to leave Google in their hunt to close the gap between their dream and their reality.

We often like to think it is about finding the easy way. The secret tips, the insider access, the tools that make it easy.

Instead, it is about establishing your own process of working within — and embracing — the limits you have.

Great work requires limitations.

What limitations are you trying to work past with your work?