This post was co-written with my friend Duncan Sabien, a very prolific doer of things. He had the idea of writing the article in a sort of panel-style, so we could each share our personal experiences on the subject.
Malcolm: At the CFAR alumni reunion this August, my friend Alton remarked: “You’re really self-directed and goal-oriented. How do we make more people like you?”
It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer:
“I think we need to get people to go and do things that nobody’s expecting them to do.”
Duncan: When I was maybe nine years old, I had a pretty respectable LEGO collection dropped into my lap all at once. I remember that there was one small spaceship (about 75 or 80 pieces) that I brought along to summer camp, with predictable results.
I found myself trying to piece the thing back together again, and succeeded after a long and frustrating hour. Then, to be absolutely sure, I took it completely apart and reassembled it from scratch. I did this maybe forty or fifty times over the next few weeks, for reasons which I can’t quite put my finger on, and got to where I could practically put the thing together in the dark.
These days, I have an enormous LEGO collection, made up entirely of my own designs. My advice to pretty much everyone:
“First become the kind of person who does things. Then worry about which things you’re doing.”
You are who you practice being, and many people don’t practice doing self-directed things, particularly when they’re young. You go to kindergarten because the government says so… you go to piano lessons because your parents think it’ll be good for you… you pick a bunch of berries and try selling them, at your grandmother’s suggestion… you join cadets or boy scouts because your best friend did… you switch schools because your sister did… and at school there are all of these “opportunities” that you sort of vaguely know you’re supposed to “take advantage of,” so you do…
Malcolm: All of those examples come straight from my own childhood, and they’re instances where the decision I ended up making (often with a little outside pressure) was probably really good. Those were good opportunities I took, and they shaped me in really beneficial ways.
Duncan: I’ve got a pretty similar story. In fact, my parents went one level down on the scale—they didn’t much care which thing I was involved in at any given time, but they drew a hard line at the idea of doing things, period. If I wanted to quit soccer, that was fine—as long as I had a replacement activity already lined up.
But there’s an important shift that needs to occur at some point, and the earlier it happens, the better. The odds that the Best Thing To Do in any given moment will be an obvious option handed to you by someone else are pretty low. Sometimes it will be, but most of the time, following the script just makes you replaceable. Even if you’re making an impact—on your family, on your team, on your city or the world—it’s the kind of impact that, if you weren’t there to make it, somebody else probably would have.
Being able to invent your own opportunities is an important skill. When we reflect on the most interesting people in our lives—the ones who seem the most vibrant and happy, or who seem most likely to make a real difference—they seem to all have one or both of the following:
…and it seems that both of these can be acquired by just about anyone, including you (if you’re willing to put in the work). This post is mostly about the latter, though we suspect that working on Doing Things Generally is one of the best ways to build up your own “very particular set of skills.”
We know a lot of people who seem to believe that, in order to step outside of their standard options and break new ground, they need to have found the best project—some amazingly awesome plan that’s going to change everything about their lives or the world around them. Since their current ideas aren’t up to scratch, they do nothing—or rather, they keep doing the ordinary thing, sticking to status quo while they wait for divine inspiration.
But it doesn’t work like that! For starters, even if you do find the best idea, you’re unlikely to have the skills to get it right on your first try unless you’ve honed them in other contexts. And it seems pretty clear that you’re more likely to stumble across good ideas if you’re actively experimenting than if you’re just sitting around brainstorming.
Malcolm: I hold a perhaps-controversial opinion that it’s worth training the skill of accomplishing arbitrary personal goals, even if you have to work on not-the-most-amazing things to do it. It’s a useful form of practice—if you wanted to climb a mountain, you’d probably first develop your climbing skill by going up and down the same cliff-faces and trails a few times, and that would be worthwhile whether you were aimed at Everest or at Kilimanjaro.
Duncan: When I look back on the things I’ve spent hours and hours practicing, it’s not a very impressive list, in the abstract. I’m really good at putting together LEGOs, like I mentioned above. I can sew. I can write. I can film and edit video. I can build websites and simple apps. And yeah, a lot of these skills sound really broadly useful, but I didn’t get them by making really amazing things. I got them by just doing lots and lots of trivial, fun, personally fulfilling projects, and by beating my head against them until they were done.
Malcolm: Exactly! You don’t want to choose options you know are terrible. I mean, if you’re a busy person, you probably want to spend a few hours thinking and weighing before you commit to a project that’s going to take up all of your spare time for weeks. But after you’ve chosen, you want to just go ahead and do the thing. Pursue it doggedly. If you decide it’s not a skill worth having after you’ve acquired it, fine…learning to pivot is also a useful thing. But in general, people need more practice finishing things than quitting them.
Note that in addition to the choice of thing not being perfect, the result doesn’t have to be perfect either. In my experience, people have always been way more impressed by the fact that I’ve done things at all than they have been critical of the quality of the things I make. In thinking about our suggestions here, don’t see the short-term goal as being “to create really great things.” See it as “to create things at all.” Nobody really cares if you try something and it turns out kind of shitty.
It’s great to take a finished project and say “Look, world! I made this!” This is true of both partner projects and solo ones, and for artistic/personal stuff as well as technical/professional type things.
But you don’t want your motivation to hinge solely on the credit you think you’ll get. There’s a trap people fall into, where they think something will be worth doing, and they take a few steps forward and get a lot of support and encouragement, only to find that later, when they change their mind, they feel like they’re “on the hook” to finish. This either results in a sort of halfhearted or begrudging plod toward the final product, or in a big social hit when they finally give up and leave the thing only halfway done.
To dodge this trap, and make sure that you’re really Doing the Thing because you want to see it through, we recommend keeping your project-of-the-month mostly secret. Maybe you’ll share it with a couple of friends who can give you good feedback or advice, but don’t tell your closest friends, or your family, or anyone you feel pressure to impress—not until you’ve at least got some momentum built up.
You want to make it really clear to yourself that you’re doing the thing to do the thing, not doing the thing so that people see you as a thing-doer.
Malcolm: For me, the go-to example of Just Doing A Thing is the album I recorded back in 2012. Nobody was waiting around for me to make a bunch of appointments with a recording studio. I was studying engineering at the time—people knew I liked to write and sing songs, but they certainly weren’t expecting me to make a CD. And so I was focused on the product, not on appearing to be working on this album.
Duncan: Ditto for Pilgrimage, which is the biggest project I’ve undertaken so far. A few of my forum buddies knew I was trying to make a documentary, and my friends Luc and David helped me film, but it’s not as if the world was holding its breath. If I’d never made the film, or if I’d given up halfway, nobody would have noticed that it was missing from the universe.
Malcolm: I had a friend who was doing a lot of things that sounded fun and interesting on paper, but when I talked to her about them, she said it felt like literally everything she was doing was either for other people, or so that she could tell other people about it. She was pouring energy into all this stuff that wasn’t actually doing anything for her, because she was caught in this trap where she was getting points for working on it. I recommended doing something like just going out into the woods and making a little piece of art out of sticks and not telling anybody for five years. (She threw up her hands and said “But of course now I can’t do that, because then I’ll be doing it for you!” So she decided to do something totally different, and I have no idea what it was.)
Duncan: One thing that’s absolutely critical, I think, is to chain successes together. It’s easy to get a couple of really ambitious ideas stuck in your head, and then to hit the wall when you actually try to turn them into reality, and then to get this self-image of “I can’t,” or “All my ideas fail,” or “I’m not the kind of person who can do self-directed projects.” Like your friend with the sticks in the woods—I don’t know if you picked something really achievable on purpose, but that idea of just do something small first is really powerful.
Malcolm: Yeah. I usually try to pick a project that’s a bit more ambitious than anything else I’ve managed to pull off, but not by too much. Like in 2012, I’d already done some independent app-building and other month-long or season-long projects, so the idea of working on an album for a year felt both big and doable. It was the sort of thing I could actually imagine myself finishing—but only because I’d ramped up to it.
Duncan: I can remember hammering together scrap wood in my dad’s garage, making toy guns and swords. Then when it came time to start planning projects for my sixth grade class, I knew I could probably make a giant catenary arch. I learned a lot from that, and leveled up, which resulted in me eventually being able to build sturdy parkour equipment pretty much out of my own head. I think there’s a similar progression everywhere—painting, athletics, digital media.
Malcolm: And the best part is, it’s generalizable. I’m not just somebody-who-can-make-an-album, I’m now somebody-who-can-make-things-at-least-as-hard-to-make-as-an-album. The process builds on itself—Complice was easily twice (probably 5×) as hard to make as The Mind I’m Lost Inside, and it would have been a lot more daunting and likely to fail if I hadn’t had the previous experience of spending a year recording and mixing. In that way, the album is sort of…indirectly responsible?…for all the ways my life has gotten more awesome since 2012. And the album came from a smaller endeavor, which came from a smaller one, all the way back to being a kid who just…did things. If you just look at me now, the way Alton did, you see a guy who’s really self-directed and goal-oriented. But that doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from super humble beginnings. All you have to do is start, and persist, and let the growth take care of itself.
And don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.