Notes on The Practice by Seth Godin

27 Jan 2021

Are you struggling to get things done? Perhaps you’re focusing on the wrong things. Discover the power of crafting “your story.”

You may not necessarily think “productivity” when you think of Seth Godin. His marketing books have forever changed the way I think about marketing and building products and the interactions I have with customers. But it was not until I read The Practice: Shipping Creative Work that I realized he writes quite a lot about productivity, even outside of this book.

What I realized was that work is not about the outcome. What we as creators get in the end. It’s about the work and the journey. The outcome – imagining millions in sales, for example – is not a guarantee. You need the love the work in order to be fulfilled. The reward is getting to do the work, again and again. All you can count on is the work.

For me, this falls right inline with everything you want in a productivity book. An honest look at what it means to be a creative.

Here are my notes and thoughts on The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.

Who should read this book

This book is mainly for creators, people who make things for a living. But there is value here for most anyone.

Artists take chances, throwing caution to the wind with the understanding that what they’re working on may not work out. When you set off on a journey there is no guarantee that you will reach the destination. There is no guarantee you’ll reach an undesirable destination.

What we do have control over is what Godin calls “your story.”

If you want to change your story, change your actions first. When we choose to act certain way, our minds can’t help but rework our narrative to make those actions become coherent. We become what we do. – Seth Godin

The story is the narrative you tell yourself about your life, who you are, based on the experiences you have. If you have bad experiences, then your story will be negative. Have good experiences, and your story will be good.

But it is our interpretation of those experiences that matter. Someone cut ahead of you while waiting in line at the grocer? Do you think, a) what a jerk, as usual the world is conspiring against me, or b) haha! they must not have seen me, oh well, I’m sure Ive done the same a million times before.

Habit

Epictetus has similars words of wisdom.

Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it. If you don’t want to do that, don’t–but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire. – Epictetus

What he is saying is simple. Do and become.

The journey

What Godin reminds us is that the process must be loved.

Godin talks about the importance of the process. Do you create things for the sake of the journey, the work itself? Or for the destination?

The destination (IOW the desire for fame or wealth) is not guaranteed. What is guaranteed is the process. You can either love it or hate it. Work meaningfully or with haste and without sincerity.

But how does one achieve flow?

How do we get the distracting noises in our head to cease?

You can’t wait for flow to arrive. It’s never coming. You have no choice but to manufacturer it. Sit down, confront that blank piece of paper and chip away. Write one sentence. Draw one line. Just get rolling. From there you build. Build your work. Build your momentum. Packing more on to that rolling snowball.

It’s unwise to think that forces will conspire to provide a state of flow with little work on your part.

What if flow were a choice?… If we condition ourselves to work without flow, it’s more likely to arrive. It all comes back to trusting our self to create the change we seek. We don’t agree to do that after flow arrives. We do the work, whether we feel like it or note, and then, without warning, flow can arise. Flow is a symptom of the work we’re doing, not the cause of it. – Seth Godin

This line is worth repeating.

Flow is the symptom of the work we’re doing, not the cause of it. – Seth Godin

Sit down, do the work, and flow will arrive. Not every time, of course. That can not be guaranteed. What can be guaranteed is that the work will progress.

Finding your passion

It’s not hiding under a rock. Are you aimlessly searching for you passion?

It’s not it a foreign nation. Do you think traveling to unfamiliar places will reveal it?

It’s not in the mind of a wise sage. Do you believe that someone wiser than you will open your mind to it?

Nope. It’s in the work.

Love what you do. – Seth Godin

Paul Graham talks about the importance of the process, the work itself:

The reason motives matter so much in Silicon Valley is that so many people there have the wrong ones. Starting a successful startup makes you rich and famous. So a lot of the people trying to start them are doing it for those reasons. Instead of what? Instead of interest in the problem for its own sake. That is the root of earnestness. – http://www.paulgraham.com/earnest.html

He’s talking about earnestness. Sincere effort in the process.

What are your motives? Are they to work with sincerity and effort, for the sake of the process? Or is it for the outcome, the riches that await you?

Process over outcomes

We all get credit for the outcomes we offer. At work, we’re paid for the results of our actions. Achieve something for your boss and you’ll be rewarded. It’s a simple agreement.

When it comes to doing important work focusing on outcomes is shortsighted. A “good” becomes the outcome. A “good” singer goes to the top of the charts. A “good” programmer has their GitHub project forked by well known companies.

But what if you don’t win that trophy? Does that mean your work has no meaning?

If the emphasis is on the outcome, then yes, your work is likely to have little meaning.

Not true if the emphasis is on the process.

Of course, the funny thing is this:

Good processes, repeated over time, lead to good outcomes more often than lazy processes do. – Seth Godin

Get good at the process and the likelihood of good outcomes increases exponentially.

Focus on the longterm and we make smart, wise decisions.

Focus on the short-term and our choices will be “banal or selfish,” as Godin summates.

Are you burying your dreams?

A lifetime of brainwashing has taught us that work is about measurable results, that failure is fatal, and that we should be sure that the recipe is proven before we begin.

There is no recipe to follow. Not when it comes to doing meaningful work, that is. We can chose to forcibly adjust ourselves to adhere to someone else’s recipe or we can work hard on our own path, become better and better as we move forward.

And so we bury our dreams. We allow others to live in our head, reminding us that we are imposters with no hope of making an original contribution.

Why don’t you just create a masterpiece?

Here’s what Susan Kare, the designed of the original Mac interface has to say about this question.

You can’t really decide to paint a masterpiece. You just have to think hard, work hard, and try to make a painting that you care about. Then, if you’re lucky, your work will find an audience for whom it’s meaningful. – Susan Kare

Making good decisions

Focusing on the process over the outcome does not mean that you can ignore the need to make good decisions. Blindly working on a project will not solve for any problem.

In order to make good decisions, you need an understanding of the available options and the odds of them working out.

You of course desire a good outcome but that cannot be guaranteed. You can increase the likelihood that the process will be good, however.

It is worth the time and effort in getting a full grasp of your options.

Thinking of launching a new software product? It’s better not to start at the end. Start with the customer, the people you want to serve.

Immerse yourself in their world. Get an understanding of their wants and needs. Learn the vernacular. Be one of them. From there you’ll know which options are the ones that are worth working on and which can be discarded (or just saved for later).

Reassurance is futile–and focusing on outcomes at the expense of the process is a shortcut that will destroy your work. – Seth Godin

Discard 100x what you keep

An art teacher wanted to see if he could increase the quality of work that his pottery students produced. So he designed an experiment. He had one half of his class work on a single piece for the entire semester. The other half he had produce as many works as possible. So, one half had the opportunity to hone in on one piece with incredible focus and purpose. The other half, could relax and just produce tons of pieces with play and fun.

Which created the best works? The half that created the most work.

I have no way of knowing whether this anecdote is true or not as I’ve heard it numerous time from numerous people but it does hold value.

It turns out that the more one produces the higher the quality will be. One must, of course, let themselves off the hook when things don’t work out. This is at the heart of this exercise. You have to be ready to discard 100x of what you keep. IOW you have to be ready to fail one hundred times to get that one piece your after.

Here’s a photo of Drew Dernavich’s (cartoonist) discard pile:

Drew Dernavich disarc pile

You may be able to measure the likelihood of success by the weight of you discard pile. Of course, you have to be able to love creating those 100 failures just as much as the one winner.

Talent not required

The world conspires to hold us back, but it can’t do that without our permission. The dominant industrial system misrepresents the practice, pretending that it’s about talent and magic.

The industrial system doesn’t want you doing challenging work because of what it will say about them. Fall inline. Get with the program. You need talent. That’s for the chosen few. These are the mantras of the system. Misguided thoughts for a lifetime of brainwashing, mass hypnosis.

It’s all just noise. Ignore it. Talent is not required.

Skill is required, though. But the great thing about skill is that it is earned simply by doing the work.

Want to be a great skier. Then ski. Then point your skis down as many mountains and runs as possible.

Want to master software development. Then code. Push as many projects as you can imagine.

On selling

I’ve written about this before but it’s worth mentioning in this context since at some point along your journey as a creative you will need to become a professional and sell your work. To offer your work in exchange for money.

It can feel like you’re stepping over a line when you ask for your first dollar. That you’re becoming a new person, forever changed. This is true. But the change is a good one.

What’s important to understand about selling is knowing that you can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do. It’s incredibly difficult to persuade people to do things they don’t actually want to do.

Good marketing gives people permission to do the things they already want to do. It gives them permission to be who they are.

So if you are ever afraid of selling, know that if you are truly helping people achieve what it is they want to achieve, then you have nothing to worry about.

There is no such thing as a gem

Scarcity is a great motivator. The fewer items there are available the more likely people are to want it. It’s a great psychological trick.

The funny thing is is that there is no such thing as scarcity. Especially when it comes to opportunities and ideas.

Think you’ll never have a great idea again in your life? That is highly unlikely, of course unless you truly believe that.

A scarcity mindset simply creates more scarcity, because you’re isolating yourself from the circle of people who can cheer you on and challenge you to produce more. Instead, we can adopt a mindest of abundance. We can choose to realize that creativity is contagious–if you and I are exchanging our best work, our best work gets better. – Seth Godin

This reminds me of the problems with competition. Competition limits resources and reduces people to their worst. Why compete? Especially when you don’t have to. It’s ego that keeps people focused on things they cannot control, taking their attention away from where it should be.

Life itself is the process

Once I started paying attention I realized that the destination rarely matters. That the result that I was trying to achieve, once realized, rarely brought meaning or purpose to my life. It was nice to achieve in the moment but then would quickly leave me.

What matters is the process. This is life. You can not escape it.

A parting reminder

All you have is the work. Learn to love it.