A few years ago I went through an incredibly difficult period in my life. During this difficult time, I had a newborn son, which made everything both easier and harder. As a parent, I spend a great deal of time reading my son various books, but during this dark time, there was one specific book that came to hold more and more meaning to me as I read it. That book was Dr. Seuss' “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”.
As I regularly read the book to my pre-lingual son, I began to take notice that it captured Truth about life. To be completely honest, during this difficult period, I got to the point where I had trouble reading the whole book to him without choking up. Sure, laugh if you want.
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winningest winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes, they won’t. I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.
I bring this up because it’s so clear to me that this humble children’s book is Great, and I want to discuss the creative process that creates Greatness. I am not sure if Dr. Seuss realized that this particular book would hold deep significance to anyone, or that generations of young people would be given this book as a graduation present. But that is exactly what happened.
Understanding the backstory of how a person creates something that is Great is a topic that I am obsessed with. Whether it is music, books, art, software, athletics, you name it, how and why is it that a work that is an order of magnitude Greater than what would be predicted pops into existence? What does it feel like to be them in their Great moment of creation?
As I have referenced on my blog before, Greatness is often banal. The creators of Greatness appear to be just as oblivious to the importance of what they are doing as everyone else is.
During my tenure in the music industry, my favorite part was getting to meet people that created truly Great music. The same goes with having the privilege of knowing many of the most interesting people in the technology business. (I am going out of my way not to namedrop here, so please take my word for it.)
What is fascinating to me is that Great creation stories all sound surprisingly similar. Something along the lines of “yeah we went in the studio and put down some tracks, and they sounded pretty good, and we had to redo a couple of things, and then when put out the album.” Disappointing, right?
David Foster Wallace wrote an essay that touched on the topic of why locker room interviews with athletes are always so terrible and uninsightful. DFW’s thesis was that the athletes are in fact 100% accurate at communicating what they were thinking and experiencing while taking the game winning shot. For example, when an athlete is interviewed and says things like “well, we just went out there to play today, and we got some good momentum and powered through the other team,” it’s not that the athlete is a moron lacking the cognitive capacity to accurately explain to us what happened out on the field that day. Rather, it’s that these interviews really, truly are an accurate description of what was going on in their head during the game. It’s our fault for expecting a compelling narrative. Our expectation of divining some deep insight into their creative process is fundamentally flawed. They were just out there doing their thing, just like they always do, and it worked.
The main takeaway that I have been able to synthesize from all of this data is this: Greatness always comes from someone with a finely honed craft, a craft honed to the point of muscle memory. In baseball, you can’t be thinking about which hand goes where on the bat, and how wide your stance is, and where your feet are placed if you want to hit a fastball. All of those decisions have to be muscle memory, and you must have a clear head that is simply thinking about “showing up to play.”
Similarly, in software, you can’t be thinking about which programming language you are using, and whether you are using MongoDB or MySQL, or whether photogrid layouts are the hot new thing or not. You will never hit the proverbial fastball if that is the sort of junk filling your head. Rather, creating and shipping products needs to be muscle memory. You just need to have clear eyes, a full heart, and be ready to show up and play.
Kid, you’ll move mountains.