Gosh, I like the Wall Street Journal a lot. I like this piece, too -
I like the whole piece, except I disagree with the conclusions.
You'd need a certain baseline to be able to do the kind of work or craft you want to do. Enough to understand the discipline. But that's not such a high bar.
If you can understand the discipline, then, is it possible to make incremental progress every single week? Could you tighten your fundamentals, study related disciplines for synergy and crossover, and experiment on the hardest problems every single week?
Really, why not?
Almost everyone sucks at almost everything when they first try it. But do they keep trying, and do they make focused effort at improvement?
If you wanted to be a writer, you could study some fundamental of writing every single week. You could study some related or unrelated field to see if there's some possible synergistic effects. And you could take a crack at doing something difficult in writing every single week.
For instance, you could re-read a part of Elements of Style or On Writing every week. Then you could go through and edit and re-write a piece that's already written to try to make it better using the newly learned rules you're adapting.
Then you could kind of scan around in related or unrelated fields. Personally, I was thinking of doing a sort of "DNA analysis" of successful writing. Have you heard of the Music Genome Project - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_Genome_Project? It powers Pandora.com.
So I was thinking, you could probably do something like that for writing, and then try to craft a written work with elements known to appeal to people. For instance, if you wished to write a best selling detective novel, you might do an analysis of when the antagonist(s) appear in the plot for the first time. You might find that 15% of bestsellers open with the primary antagonist committing their crime, 10% have the antagonist mixed in quickly into the plot, and 75% keep the primary antagonist a vague and shadowy figure until shortly before the climax.
I don't know if the pattern fits that - I don't read many detective novels - but it would be a bit of a surprise if it did. You might think, well, hey, I better either introduce the antagonist right away having them commit their crime, or keep him shadowy for a while.
Or, to use an easier example - perhaps you could wholesale adopt the use of engineering checklists into your chosen discipline? It seems to me like lots of fields don't use checklists that could benefit tremendously from them. I run this through my mind again and again - what kind of checklist could be built here? I first came across the concept of checklists being adopted in surgery from engineering, and then having surgical accidents and mistakes go way down.
And finally, can you try to do something hard in your field regularly? And ideally, complete and perhaps ship some version of it? I mean, why not?
Paint isn't so expensive.
Typing is basically free these days.
How much to do a rough recording of a piece of music nowadays? Like, close to nothing?
So you know, make a painting, or write something, or write and record a song every week. Or whatever your craft is. If you write 52 iPhone apps per year, I reckon one of them is going to be good. (Ideally more than one)
Or game designers who actually write and ship games regularly - one of them is going to be a winner eventually, no?
Well, I certainly think so. I'm working on doing important stuff. And I really think it does come down to -
1. Constantly improve fundamentals
2. Look for synergies in other fields
3. Regularly complete attempts to do significant work (and ideally ship them)
I think you do those three regularly, you're pretty likely to produce some genius quality work.
I think you're correct in all practical respects-- believe in yourself, believe in your abilities, and practice, practice, practice in an intelligent manner. Truly great work didn't get built by people who didn't work hard and smart.
On the other hand... I think the Vast majority of people who do these things fall short of the "genius-level work" label. I.e., this is good advice for anyone, and necessary for genius-level work, but not sufficient.
Another blogger I read was musing on genius, and suggested the following:
To reach the pinnacles of achievement, to be, out of the 100 billion or so humans who have ever lived, one of the few hundred individuals to be remembered by one name—to be a Mozart, a Beethoven, a Bach—does it help to have innate talent? How about ten thousand hours of practice? An intense work ethic? An obsessive personality? A supportive family? A conducive culture? Role models? Personal connections? Energy? Being in the right place at the right time? Not dying before adulthood? Sheer luck?
Few of the all-time greats were fortunate enough to have every single one of these factors in abundance, but they typically had more than a few.
Question from a reader -
You have maintained your commitment to being prolific which is made even more exceptional by the fact you are travelling around the world at the same time.
I realise your article on being prolific is about this, but accepting that I'm going to release a lot of crap before I realise something good is a tough wall to knock down. My biggest issue writing anything seems to be that it feel insufficent. Naturally no post I write has the length of Steve Yegge, the persuasiveness of Paul Graham, the content of Unqualified Reservations etc. etc. and while I can consciously accept this, there seems to be some mental block. How do you go "that's sufficient" and release it into the wild?
There's two basic approaches to being successful as a writer. The first, we could call the "Paul Graham / Derek Sivers" approach. This is where you explore a lot of ideas privately, go forward with the best ideas you have, and edit and polish the hell out of everything before you release it into the world. If you do this, and you've got talent as a writer, and you've got important ideas - then you're going to consistently only release masterpieces.
The second way is to just write a hell of a lot and know that a number of the things you write will turn out quite well, but your average quality level will be much lower. We could call this the "write every day no matter what" approach.
Six pack abs in six minutes, the 100% fool-proof method to attracting the woman of your dreams, the magic manifesto to building a six-figure passive income stream in just 5 hours a week. They’re all enticing claims to say the least, but I think on an intellectual level we all understand these types of ventures rarely live up to their hype. Why do people still fall for them though? It’s in our biology.
A nearly, if not completely universal trait among living things is the conservation of energy. Humans are no exceptions. We’ve evolved to produce the results necessary for our survival, but tend to conserve all energy beyond that. In the past this was a good thing as food wasn’t abundant, and minimizing our energy output allowed us to survive on less.
Though beneficial in the cavemen era, this characteristic has disasterous consequences in the modern world. In today’s world there’s very little we have to do to survive, and as a result the majority of people have turned into stupid, lazy, fat bitches.
It’s a pretty fucked up element of human nature, but we don’t do more than we have to do, so if you don’t craft an environment for yourself that puts evolutionary pressure on yourself to take action you’re probably going to turn into a stupid, lazy, fat bitch as well.