There’s an idea which permeates our schools, workplaces, and culture at large which goes something like this:
The more effort you put in, the more results you get out.
It’s a truism so bland and uncontroversial that it barely registers as an “idea” at all. It’s more like a scientific law, taken for granted as an unalterable part of the cosmic soup we’re swimming in. We don’t question why it’s true, and we certainly don’t question whether it’s even true at all – we just accept it, and adjust our behaviour accordingly.
If you want to make something happen, then knuckle down and put your back into it.
Now in some cases I’ll admit that it stacks up. For instance with any form of physical labour, it’s pretty hard to deny that effort correlates neatly with results. The harder you work digging a hole, the bigger the hole will be. The quicker you assemble widgets on a production line, the more widgets you’ll have. This is much is true.
However where we should be careful is in taking these scenarios and drawing direct parallels between them and intellectual work.
Whilst it may seem logical, it does not hold that we can generate more insights, more solutions, and more creativity in the same linear effortful fashion that we can dig a ditch. We cannot “try our way” to inspiration, nor to quality.
Assuming that you, like most of my readers, work in a thought-based job (rather than breaking boulders or whatever), then I expect you’ll have experienced the truth of this first hand. You should have noticed that the days when you’re really labouring, really struggling over something, are not the days when you produce the greatest returns. On the contrary, you’ve probably found that the greatest returns- paradoxically – emerge the easiest, not the hardest.
For myself, just the other day I experienced what I call a “stupid day”. I had a lot of work to do, and I wasn’t really coming up with any insights or ideas of particular value, despite putting in a lot of focused energy. The following day however I brushed aside the same issues with minimal fuss while working probably only half the hours.
To me this reveals the secret of intellectual (or strategic) work:
The less effort you put in, the more results you get out.
Or, as Charles Bukowski famously said:
(NB please don’t confuse this with my other concept about how strategy is an alternative to effort. That is about the difference between achieving goals via strategy or via force. This piece is about the mental process of coming up with ideas and strategies in the first place – not the same subject at all.)
Now I don’t mean this essay to be merely an airy philosophical musing – I’m dead serious about this as a practical piece of advice. If you have job to do which requires the generation of insightful or creative thought, then really, don’t try. It works. But there are some strings attached.
The meaning of “don’t try” is not to do a lazy or half assed job. That’s just “trying poorly”, and is even worse than proper trying. No, not trying means not trying at all – which means outsourcing the job in its entirely to your subconscious (or if you’re an ancient Greek, “the muses”).
How do you do this?
Well, there are a few steps:
- Internalise the problem. First up, you’ve got to send the issue to your subconscious in order for it to start working on it, which ideally means reading up on it and chatting it over with some people. It’s essentially a briefing process.
- Let go of it and trust it’s in good hands. After the mental “briefing”, it’s in the hands of the Gods; of the creative team at the back of your brain. There’s little point in interrupting them while they’re busy, so best to amuse yourself with something else and let them get on with it.
- Check in with them later to see if the work is ready. Once the muses have had a bit of time, you should go knock on their door to see if your problem has been figured out. The way you do this is to end your break, sit down, and start doing the work. What you’ll find is one of two things will happen. Either a) it will feel like a bit of a chore and you’ll start expending effort – in which case sorry, they’re still working on it. Or b) it will just flow out of you smoothly and pleasurably – in which case they were done, and were just waiting for you to check up on them.
- Be ready for an unexpected delivery. Sometimes your subconscious will get impatient, and will spit the solution out at you when you least expect it (the cliché would be in the shower). In such cases you absolutely must be ready to take delivery, which means having a solid note taking system which is always at your fingertips. I use Microsoft To Do for literally 95% of all my intellectual work, noting down bitesized chunks which are sent from my subconscious at unpredictable moments.
That’s the system. That’s how it’s done. It’s not esoteric, it’s not woo-woo, it’s how good intellectual work is accomplished whether you realise it or not.
At the heart of the process is the realisation that you do not do it.
Not the “you” that you commonly recognise as you anyway. It’s outsourced. You’re nothing more than a messenger boy, whose job it is to ferry the ideas from the muses in your subconscious to the piece of paper in front of you. It’s when you make the mistake of thinking that it’s the “conscious you” who does the work that you screw things up. That’s when you start trying. That’s when you start churning out garbage. There is no trying because you (the trier) aren’t doing the work, and your subconscious (the doer) doesn’t have to try at anything.
Bukowski, who literally has “Don’t Try” written on his gravestone, naturally put it more poetically than me, but the content of his advice is the same. When asked “how do you write, create?”, he answered:
“You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”
The waiting he describes is the practical part of the process I outlined above. Sit back, don’t worry about it. Have faith that it’ll work out, and every so often check in and ask “hey guys, how’s it going?”. When they’re done, you’ll know.
All great work is easy. All great work is pleasure. All great work is given to you, not made by you. And this is as true in business as it is in art, poetry, and life.
Unless you’re laying bricks of course, in which case get back to work.