PostHeaderIcon Stop Saving Your Best for Last

Posted by Dr. Pete

If I started with “I have a confession to make…”, that would be cliché, so I have TWO confessions to make:

Confession #1:

This post has nothing to do with SEO. It’s about creative work. I guess it applies to content marketing. Ok, maybe it’s a little bit about SEO. If you’d rather eat a sandwich, I understand.

Confession #2:

I am a serial, high-functioning under-achiever. In other words, at the risk of sounding like an ass, my half-assed efforts usually return 7/8-assed results. I learned too early to game those ass-fractions – during final exams in college, for example, I’d calculate exactly what I needed to get an A in the class. If it was only going to take a 67% on the exam, I’d study for 30 minutes and then play Wing Commander for six hours.

Half-Ass + Half-Ass = Donkey

1/2 Ass + 1/2 Ass = 1 Ass (Me)

Fast-forward to my 40s, and I still sometimes slip into habitual half-assery. As a marketer, I’m especially guilty of one bad habit – I save my best material for the future. When I have a really “great” idea, I add it to a list to write later, presumably because only content marketing will save us from the coming Zombie Apocalypse. Instead of wasting my best ideas, I pull something from the B list and try to get it to 88% assedness.

Why We Cheat Ourselves

So, why would I choose a method where I’m purposely ignoring my best ideas and ultimately doing sub-optimum work? I’ve asked myself this question a lot, and now that, on my good days, I’m finally breaking the habit, I think I’ve found a couple of answers:

(1) Perfectionism

When it comes to any creative block, you can bet the P-word is going to come into play. Obviously, my “best” ideas need to result in my best work, so enter the self-doubt. I could fight through it and put in twice the effort, or I could just procrastinate (the other P-word). Unfortunately, fear of imperfection doesn’t just rob you of your best ideas – it robs you of your passion in the here and now. If I’m always taking the idea I’m most excited about today and putting it on a list for later, I’ve already lost half the power of that idea. When I go to revisit it down the road, the spark is already gone.

I think that moment of passion is a lot of what makes any piece of content worth creating. I won’t claim that this post is the best thing I’ll ever write (please feel free not to wholeheartedly agree with me in the comments), but for whatever reason this particular fire was burning today. If I left it for next month, I’d be scratching out this sentence with the leftover coals.

I’m also not saying that you should never plan your writing or content ideas in advance, or that it’s bad to make a list. It’s always nice to have a back-up plan. Just don’t keep pushing today’s best ideas to the bottom of the list. Your “B” ideas can go on Plan B. Hit the A-list today.

(2) Future Glory

I suppose this is the outgoing half-sister of perfectionism – I’m waiting until my skills are good enough to be worthy of my best ideas. Only then, will the world recognize me in all my glory and unanimously declare me Supreme Commander of Taco Night (it’s a job – shut up).

Here’s the problem – only your most ambitious ideas push you hard enough to learn. If you keep churning out half-assed work, you’ll never close the gap between your capabilities and the idealized ideas in your head. If you’ve never seen radio producer/personality Ira Glass’s take on the “gap”, then do yourself a favor and watch it now…

This quote (in part 3) sums the series up, but doesn’t begin to do it justice:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

I’ll go one step further – it’s not enough just to do a lot of work. You have to take a shot at your best ideas; at doing your most important work even when you don’t feel ready. That’s how you grow and, eventually, become worthy of those ideas.

(3) Fear of Brain-drain

Finally, there’s the fear that I think all writers (fiction, non-fiction, ad copy, part-time, whatever) have – that we’ll just run out of ideas. If I use up my best ideas today, all I’ll be left with is junk, so I’d better save them up. The irony is that, the more I write, the more good ideas I generate. If I write more often, I find it easier to come up with things to write about. I can’t convince you of that until you’ve seen it for yourself – all I can tell you is this: trust yourself. Your creativity is a renewable resource, if you give it a chance.

How We Cheat Our Clients

I hate to say it, but this tendency to push our best ideas back to the future can also turn into a form of professional selfishness. My best ideas should benefit me, right? Why should my clients get them? I’ll make the same argument I did in (3) – you won’t run out of ideas, at least not in the long-term. If one of your favorites is a good fit for a client, let them have it. It’ll make you both look good, and you’ll grow as a professional. If you’re stuck on being selfish, then let me tell you from experience – showcasing your best work for a client will also make you a lot more money down the road. You cheat them, you just cheat yourself again.

How Do We Stop Cheating?

There was a great bit of history going around this week – a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to a family friend and aspiring writer. It was very honest criticism, but also a path to creative success. He cuts right to the chase with this advice:

I'm afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

So, pay the price, and put your whole ass into it. The only way to do your best work is to write what demands to be written, even if you aren’t ready. You can’t wait until you’ve got the skills, because no one will give you the chance to get there unless you make them care today – and to make them care, you have to care. So, stop shuffling your best work to the bottom of the to-do list – get out there and wreck it.

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