Real Artists Ship

With any project, you will hesitate when you’re about to release it. You will doubt yourself. You will tell yourself that you need more time (or money) before you ship it, or that you want to do a couple more meetings before you feel confident about it. Maybe you want to get a few more people involved before you approve it. There is no real reason for you to wait. Your work is ready to be released (i.e., it’s good enough) but you hesitate to ship.

Seth Godin says that thrashing is what happens in any project where there are more than a couple of people involved. The closer we get to shipping things out the door (facing a deadline), the more people get involved in the project, the more we slow down, and the more thrashing occurs. Of course, the more people get involved in a project over time, the longer it would take to ship. As a result, you end up shipping neither on time nor on budget.

Godin says that our lizard brain prevents us from shipping. It creates what is known as resistance — a term coined by Steven Pressfield. It speaks up every time before we ship. This is why we sabotage our work. The resistance gets worse the closer we get to shipping because of the lizard brain.

Our lizard brain is like a chicken who is hungry, scared, selfish, horny, and geared for survival. It doesn’t want to be laughed at. It cannot risk failure under any circumstance. It would happily stick to the status quo. It would rather things be compliant than to risk failure in changing it. It fears that if we ship, we may be held accountable for the decisions we make.

Every time we raise our hand, send an email, make that phone call, or make a suggestion (in a meeting), we expose ourself to criticism (we are afraid of rejection and failure).

Shipping is about doing the work and finishing our projects (on time and on budget). By the way, shipping doesn’t have to be a “product”, per se. It can be any creative work (tangible project) where you’re making art by putting out things in the world with some regularity (such as writing, music, etc.) to make a difference.

Here is why we ship (and ship often).

We ship (often) because the vast things we create will likely fail, and that’s okay. The reason that we have even a modicum of success is precisely because we keep shipping. By the way, if you’re going to ship anyway, why bother indulging your fear?

Here is what Michael Jordan has said (about shipping):

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

We ship to fail, to learn, to get feedback to improve. We are all artists, and real artists ship because we want to make a difference (change things) with our art. We are professionals who show up every day and do the work. We don’t wait for inspiration to strike, nor do we care about endlessly perfecting our work. We ship when it’s good enough. This is why I abandon my writing at some point before I put it out on my weblog (when I think it’s good enough), otherwise, theoretically, I could never finish them. We don’t do “creative work” for a living; we ship for a living.

The question we should be asking is: How do we get something that is not mediocre out the door? Here are some ideas for shipping things.

We need to learn to quiet our lizard brain; only when we acknowledge it can we ignore it. We have to get the lizard brain to shut up long enough to overcome the resistance (otherwise, it will overcome us). Only by showing up and doing the work every day can we overcome resistance. We need to commit to things, then put ourselves on a deadline. We need to expect things of ourselves before we can do them.

Getting started (on a project) can be quite challenging (due to resistance), but if you can somehow get started, it’s downhill from there. Focus on the process of showing up every day to do the work. Let that determine the outcome of your work. When you keep starting things, finishing should take care of itself.

Have a small team (that is synergistic in nature), and no team if you can manage on your own. The smaller the team, the better. Invite the critics (bosses, colleagues, etc.) early on in the process. Get feedback early from those involved, not at the last minute. Thrash at the start of a project; have lots of debate and discussion at the beginning. Make it clear that if you don’t come now, you can’t have any say in it later. This goes back to divergence and convergence. Focus on the quantity of ideas (rather than the quality). Piggyback on each other’s ideas to get insights.

Get into the habit of finishing things. When you start something, finish it. Have the mindset of “I ship…”, and build your work around it. You may not be happy with your work today, but that shouldn’t prevent you from shipping (as long as it’s not mediocre). For instance, I know I need to put out one piece every week; that’s my discipline as an artist because I’m committed to it. Shipping one piece of writing every week is challenging for me, yet I do it week after week. By the way, if you substitute writing with any other work, you’ll get the same result.

We ship things when we run out of time or budget (or both). Shipping on time and on budget requires tremendous discipline. It also requires you (and/or your team) to follow a creative process. Give yourself deadlines, then honor them; be accountable to yourself. Stop perfecting your work and ship when it’s good enough. 80% done today is better than 100% perfect tomorrow (or next week); nobody cares about the final 20%. Clint Eastwood is famous for finishing his films on time and on budget. He is a fine example of an artist who ships.

No project starts well but it begins. And we keep working at it to make it better and we ship again. When we are proud of what we ship, and we ship on budget and on time, then we get to do it again and again. Only when we ship consistently over time can we have any chance of making a difference with our art. We don’t have an opportunity to ship, but we have an obligation to ship.

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