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Getting In Gear

March 25, 2012
Old Hospital Steps, Peace River

Old Hospital Steps. At any point, some steps, a door, or a path may be in front of me. Should I think about it, or take a step forward?

Yesterday, I read some great advice from +David duChemin on getting in gear with an idea… any idea, whatever idea you’ve got today. This is something I’ve believed for a long time, but only really started to act on relatively recently in my photography. I posted some of my own thoughts on this on my Google+ stream, but I’m updating them here on the blog because not everybody is on G+… yet. 🙂

Ideas are great! They’re always beautiful and beguiling. They’re shiny and new, and never have any problems. And we can have as many of them as we want. Why? Because all ideas exist in that fake place called imagination. We’re often so much in love with the pristine beauty of our ideas, that it seems a crime to tarnish them by bringing them into contact with reality. I know I’ve been guilty of that!

We’ve all heard this phrase:

Good is the enemy of great.

The implication is that settling for something that’s less than excellent is choosing to be stuck with something that’s merely okay, and in so doing robs us of the exceptional. If we only pushed harder, if only we didn’t settle. And there’s definitely truth to that sentiment; sometimes we do settle when the right thing to do is to push forward that last little bit and really go for broke. Still, as a rule, worrying about “if only” is like crying over spilled milk. Or worse, not pouring any milk out of fear that it won’t be perfect, that the glass isn’t right or perhaps some milk might spill.

There’s a very strong counter-point that needs to be considered, to have a better balance in how to think about our creative ideas. I don’t know if anyone famous has said the following, but that’s okay — I say it. 🙂

Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

Hey, wait a second — these are our ideas we’re talking about here! We can’t sully them with anything less than the best! To make sure our ideas will work out the best they can, we look for the perfect piece of new gear, the perfect weather, the perfect inspiration, the perfect processing technique, the perfect opportunity, the perfect finances, the perfect team, the perfect location, the perfect deal, the perfect light. Really, the list of things that need to be perfect could be endless. Well, guess what? While trying to bring together all of that perfection, we’re not getting anything done. And other people who are willing to settle for “good enough” are getting it done.

Away For the Winter, Peace River

Away For the Winter. One of the best single days of photography I had in Peace River was a day I just drove out into the prairie to look around. I had an idea there were some old homesteads out there (disclosure: Dan & I had gone out scouting for a couple hours, one day). But the idea was all I really needed to go look. I got some great photos towards a portfolio I've been thinking of.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Excellence and perfection are fine goals. I know I want my photography to be as good as I can make it at any point in time. That’s part of being a professional, and taking pride in my work. But excellence and perfection are just that — goals. Targets to be honored more in the reaching and striving for… not excuses for not taking what’s in hand now, and making something of it.

Like duChemin says in his post, which you definitely should read, “creativity needs to manifest.” Learn, improve, refine and perfect things however and whenever possible. But we should do it as we go, do it on the move. Get the rubber hitting the road, because it’s easier for us to correct course when we have some energy, when we’re in motion — not just sitting at a dead stand-still.

By “biasing towards action” (that’s duChemin quoting author Scott Belsky), we also learn a lot about what’s really important, and can spend time refining the things that truly matter to our work. Software people have a lot of catch phrases. One of them is “premature optimization is the root of all evil.” What it means is, we shouldn’t try to fine tune something until we know what’s really going on, because we’re just wasting our time. Getting our ideas into contact with reality is the best way to find out what’s really important.

That’s what I’m shooting for this year. Part of going up to Peace River for the month of February was related to this. Dan Wheeler was a great contact up there, and had some ideas. I had some ideas. We had the time to do it, and a couple of other things looked like they’d line up. Could we have sat around polishing the ideas some more? Sure! And perhaps if we had, some of the things we tried would have worked out better, or we could have thought of some other things to try instead, or in addition. But that doesn’t matter. I went up, we had a blast, I met some good people. And we got stuff done. For myself, I made some great photographs, met a couple of other contacts with actionable ideas, and a new set of possibilities got downloaded into my thinking cap. I know the same was true for Dan. How? By getting our boots on the ground and making something happen.

This concept isn’t a recipe for simply throwing caution to the wind and acting like a reckless person with no responsibilities. Quite the opposite… keep focused on making work. Understanding that the reason for getting in gear is that we’re going to a destination rather than setting out on aimless wandering, by definition we start with a goal in mind. The goal likely will change. It might increase in scope, or decrease, but either way it will evolve. Maybe it will even fail. But that’s okay as long as we try to make work where even failure is a valuable learning exercise, not a fatal disaster. So frame things in terms of the work to be produced, think about what resources will be “good enough” to get started, and have an idea how even a failure can be used to rebound even better.

And then get in gear, get creating! I’ll see you out there…

Do you have an idea you’ve always wanted to try? Do you know what you’d do with it if it succeeded? Do you know what it would take to start?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. alibenn permalink
    March 25, 2012 17:15

    Excellent read. I fall into the guilty group who always looks for perfection, but thankfully manage to settle for good enough often enough when the need pushes me.

    I recall having a chat with you once while Juanli and I were in Canada, and talking about where we would live. You clearly summarised it by saying we had “over-specified” our needs.

    You may well have been right, but Scotland in August will finally reveal the truth – can we find Utopia?

  2. March 26, 2012 11:27

    Ha! How could Scotland NOT be the Utopia you seek? 🙂

    I think we all tend to fall off the balance one way or another, from time to time. And sometimes we need to actively jump off the balance to take on a hot opportunity or resolve a critical issue. But realizing that there IS a balance is important. Fundamentally, I think it’s hard to go too far off-kilter “biasing towards action” — where “action” is understood as leading to getting work done, not just being busy for the sake of avoiding critical thought or wasting time on trivia to avoid more difficult or unpleasant tasks.

    Biasing towards action inevitably leads to duChemin’s post title — “Begin”. If you don’t actually get started, nothing good will follow.

    I recall a study from my day job in IT quite a number of years ago. Back then, it was just becoming understood again (though for the first time by many) that many software projects were being completed over schedule or over budget, or were not being completed at all. One of the interesting correlations that came to light in this particular study was that projects that delivered late, generally had started later than they were supposed to. And in fact the amount of delay in delivery generally was very close to the amount of delay in getting started!

    The lesson I took was pretty clear. If you want to finish, start. If you want to finish in a timely fashion, start in a timely fashion. Most delay is useless. The ideas don’t get any better sitting in a room talking or thinking about them. They get better once real traction starts to happen.

  3. March 26, 2012 14:40

    Here’s an earlier blog post made by my friend Peter Carroll, also in response to a David duChemin-triggered moment. 🙂

    Watch the video Pete links to, where Andrew Zuckerman talks about his “Wisdom” project.

    Zuckerman raises a lot of a good, on-point thoughts about getting work done.

  4. April 4, 2012 15:49

    A fine read and food for thought, or excuse me, action. In particular, your paragraph on perfection was a great reminder for me. I notice that myself and others waste a great deal of time in resistance and distraction, doing what doesn’t matter, thereby subconsciously putting off what does matter.

  5. May 3, 2012 08:26

    Belated thanks for your comment, David. Yes, I know exactly what you mean about resistance & distraction. That’s partly why I’ve been slow on the blog the past few weeks, because I was trying to get some progress on a project.

    It’s all too easy to get sucked into all the distractions out there. And why not? They’re fun, educational, diverting, etc. But distractions by definition don’t get work done. So it’s important to maintain a healthy balance and keep moving closer to real achievement of meaningful goals. I have to remind myself of that constantly… 🙂

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