Thomas Edison was a really smart guy. In case you missed it, he’s the chap who brought us things like electric light bulbs. Fine fellow.
Not only was he a glowing intellectual, he was a very bright marketer. Some say he was a better project manager than inventor. He helped shape his reputation through clever placement of his workshop, the way he talked to people around him, and how he announced upcoming projects.
Thomas Edison knew how to publish. For the time being, I’m going to call this mentality: “The Edison Principle.”
This really intrigues me, because I have some cool stuff that I want to announce; also because I think we have imitated this really smart guy to an unhealthy extreme. I think we’ve taken his mentality for inviting public pressure a bit far. We’ve blurred the line between professional presentation and possessive perfectionism.
“Edison not only wrote his own press releases, but frequently held press conferences. He would announce a dramatic and innovative breakthrough long before the invention was ready for prime time.” —37 Signals
In our over-interwoven society, we place a lot of importance on how other people perceive what we do. We’re not comfortable without some kind of input from outside sources. For most of us, perhaps this looks like wading through the Wireless Void as we publish our every moment onto the internet. I’ve certainly been guilty of an addiction to feedback, trying to glean the satisfaction from minor musings that only finished products should bring. A little editing goes a long way, which I’m still learning to put into practice.
I know comparing our times to those of Edison wouldn’t be fair. There have been too many cultural changes since then, we don’t communicate like we used to, there are more distractions, etc. While all of these are true, I’d like to make the case that we haven’t changed all that much as people, just consumers of people. We look at one another like walking billboards, inferring social status and judging states of mind based on the outward shell. We’ve always done this, but now we can tell people who we really are by exposing every moment of our lives online. Does that really bring you satisfaction?
I struggle with what to publish all the time. Do I post every idea, hoping that someone will put the pieces together? Do I only announce finished works, trusting that people will know I’m still alive and making stuff? Do I announce big project breakthroughs, like Edison did?
Can you hear that? It’s crazy talking.
Every question I just asked had to do with what other people would think about my work. It didn’t evaluate where I was going or what I was making, it just assumed there was meaning involved at some point. I don’t always do the most meaningful things.
Just because I’m working on something, doesn’t mean that it’s where I should be spending my time. It also doesn’t mean that anyone has to hear about it.
“That’s the Internet’s reverse placebo effect: you feel as though you were missing something important before you signed up for the latest service. It’s a drug for an ailment you never had.” —David Pell
Compare this mentality to the following:
“I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.” –Thomas Edison
That has nothing to do with feedback, at least not initially. The reason Edison told people what he was already doing was to get them excited about it. He didn’t invent things because they told him that they were waiting for more. He invented because it was what he did; then he went and told people so they would pay attention. It was his way to get through the long part of inventing, to reach the crescendo where he unveiled his creation. It had to be polished and complete – everyone was expecting greatness.
We live in an age where technology is thinning our skins. We’re terrified to show anyone what we really care about, while we post every passing thought and expect people to care. We’ve attached personal connections to the small things that should have remained impersonal. (Merlin Mann addressed this on a Back to Work episode.) It’s why we feel terrible about pruning our Facebook friends, not about giving weight to how they emote online.
Does that mean we should just charge forward and not listen to anyone? Should we sit back and never talk about what we do? I guess the answer to that depends on your industry, but I’m going to say “no” as a general rule.
In a society where we share every detail of our lives, we often hide the real reason behind what we do; we trade the meaningful purpose of our work for flimsy substitutes.
Why do you do what you do?
Do you work because you want to improve the area around you, to help people, or are you trying to grow up and reach a mark that someone else drew on the wall? What drives you from concept to completion?
I sure hope it’s not telling a bunch of people, acting like you need approval for each step in your process; I’m trying very hard to get away from that mentality. It’s rough. But if we were honest with ourselves, we really don’t have time to consume one another’s every waking moment. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have spent a life learning about what everyone else ate for breakfast. That doesn’t scale well. Narrowing your inputs can be a really healthy process.
In former days, people’s word meant more than it does now. When someone like Edison spoke, people listened, even if only because he had made great stuff in the past. I’m ashamed to admit that there are tons of things I haven’t done for people, even after telling them I was working on it. I was working, but not with the mindset Edison was. I focused on staying busy with moderate tasks instead of portioning time for great ones. Why didn’t the pressure of talking to people make me want to do a great job? Was it because I didn’t care what they thought? No, of course not, but apparently I cared more about other things, or I would have finished strong. Or at least a little more honestly.
…which tells me that I have no business announcing things unless I’m sure I can deliver.
This is where I usually lose focus: I can’t make great things by publishing everything. There has to be junk, first drafts, off-the-wall prose; some stuff just isn’t going to work out. That’s not what you publish, however. You publish the stuff you really care about. The stuff you want feedback on from someone other than your parents or spouse. The stuff you don’t mind seeing destroyed by public opinion. The stuff that has matured into a strong piece that stands alone, without your help.
I petition you, dear reader, to not feel like you need to publish everything that you make. Some of the greatest minds are better known for their unpublished work; we find out how great they were based on how they handled themselves when nobody was watching. If they had published every single thing they made, we would have written them off as unpolished or unprofessional. That first quote says Edison announced, “dramatic and innovative breakthroughs” not every thought or idea. There may be something there.
I recently sent some emails to some people who are really important to me. I’m finally getting to share details on projects that I’ve been working on for a long time. That’s exciting – even worthy of a really long article about work.
Regardless of what they think or say, however, I need to keep working.
I love compliments, encouragements, helpful proddings. They really make a big difference in my stamina. But I can’t run on these fumes, because there’s a lot of unknown work to be done. That means the work has to be a big part of the reward; the pressure to make something meaningful has to be a big part of that process. Each next step must be taken from the previous one…which requires walking, not talking.
How about this website? I need improve it, but it’s moving forward. I’ve re-designed this thing (literally) over a dozen times. Most of those never passed by the public eye, thankfully. If I had shown everyone each step in the process, it wouldn’t have made sense to anyone. Since I can’t live off of the praise I get from this site (return: null), I need to take responsibility for what I publish.
That said, I’m happy to move forward, even slowly. If someone decides to never re-read something I wrote just because they don’t like my theme, that’s okay with me. I’m working on it. I’d rather finish one thing than never show anyone what I do; I just can’t hold a press conference every time I change one line of code, no matter how much I’d like to. I’m still “Building Baker Street.”
If you’ve proclaimed more than you’ve published, I urge you to stop tweeting and get back to typing before you ruin your reputation with empty promises.
Maybe you’re great at this, maybe you never struggle with telling anyone anything and you have a handle on what cognitive currency you pay for each iteration. I’m going to guess that you don’t always have this one down, though. Even our hero Edison waited for news-worthy updates before going public.
Just a Suggestion
Demo your work exactly until you feel confident that you could live with it, as-is. Then, get back to work.
If you improve it, great! If they reject it, that’s okay too. If that moment never arrives, perhaps you’re too cautious about what you tell people, which probably means you’re telling them other stuff that doesn’t matter.
When that moment comes, try composing an email to your best friends, telling them what you’re working on. They’ll be happy to hear it, and you’ll have to live with what you told them. Just understand that if you don’t finish what you started, they may not listen next time. That goes for tweets and status updates too.
Make lots of stuff, edit it often, then make more and don’t tell anyone if you want. The universe will still move forward and you’ll keep improving. Don’t deify Edison’s principle of telling people what’s going on; just create more than you chatter, and be great at it.
“I have more respect for the fellow with a single idea who gets there, than for the fellow with a thousand ideas who does nothing.” –Thomas Edison
Make whatever it is that you make with everything that you have – make it count.