You Get There First: On Craft & Creativity Over Shortcuts & Hacks

The following was originally posted to the blog for Unthinkable, my podcast for craft-driven creators in business. If you're bothered by suck and want to bet on creativity, Unthinkable is your show.

Every day on my commute, I walk into Porter Square station to take the T (the Boston subway) from Cambridge and head south towards downtown Boston. When you first enter the station, you have to go deep underground to reach the tracks, so you have to make a decision each morning: Do you take the stairs or the escalator?

Now, if you’re in a hurry, you’d normally just walk down the escalator, right? Not so fast: Every morning, a small crowd gathers to board the escalator and forces you to stop walking for a moment if you want to get on. Meanwhile, to your left, people who picked the stairs aren’t breaking their stride at all. They’re already ahead of you.

So what do you do?

Do you wait your turn for the escalator, or do you continue your pace unbroken and take the stairs?

Every morning, I watch as a bunch of stressed out people weigh this decision for a split second when they enter the station. Many of them take the stairs.

Here’s what kills me about that decision: If they could have tolerated just a momentary pause right now, they’d have gone faster after that. But the problem is that this slight pause doesn’t FEEL like forward motion. They can’t think two steps ahead to see that, despite the upfront wait, the escalator is actually the better choice.

This is the business world playing out in my daily commute. Everywhere you look in the working world, you find people obsessed with short-term gains, with the spectacle of being busy. They create the illusion of making progress. Those who take the stairs right away without stopping to consider the best route have created that illusion. And it’s hard not to buy into it and panic when you’ve picked a different path. Every morning, as I’m shuffling slowly to the escalator, I watch people hit the stairs and think, Should I have done that?

But every morning, I get in line, and I take the escalator.

And I get there faster.

As creative individuals, we fight this battle every day — more than most, in fact. We’re allergic to all the short-term thinking around us. Because we study our craft and improve upon it, we wind up moving much faster than we ever thought possible. (It’s the same reason I prefer to hire writers who then learn marketing versus marketers who need to learn to write. It’s about quality, sure, but it’s also about moving faster. The marketer might portray the illusion of quicker progress because they can get the writing into the world faster, but once a writer takes on that little time debt to learn marketing, they’ll zoom past the marketer who struggles to write as naturally or freely or well.)

Said another way: Great creators of all types know that the means get you to the end, so we think about and agonize over the means. Those short-term thinkers? They tend to worship the end so much that they’ll do anything — even choose the wrong route — just to FEEL like they’re heading to the end more quickly.

Oddly enough for short-term thinkers to hear, we want to reach the same goal that they do — a thriving business, a popular blog, a huge audience, a throng of adoring fans. But the route we pick feels slower to them, just like the route they pick feels faster. But because we’re able to stomach the time it takes to be strategic, be thoughtful, or take risks, we get there faster.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has perhaps the most poignant stance on all of this: “We’re actually not focused on the numbers. We’re focused on the things that produce the numbers.”

That’s a long-term view of things. That’s the RIGHT view of things. He, like you, understands the interplay between the means and the end. If you want to reach the end faster, or get to a better end than before, you need to get better at the means. Want more sales? Create great products. Want a better blog? Write better. Want a bigger audience? Say things worthy of attention.

What do others do? Sell current products harder, game systems to grow traffic, and “growth hack” their way to new followers.

Enough. It’s not only wrong in the short term, it’s worse in the long term.

So each and every morning from here on out, when you feel stressed and rushed by your job or your peers or your boss or your industry, what will you do when you enter that station?

My advice? Don’t take the stairs. Don’t fall for the illusion perpetuated by those who do. Remember that the fastest and best route requires that momentary pause.

If you do this over and over again, you’ll eventually feel like you know a secret others don’t. You’ll be so confused when others agonize over problems that never even occurred to you. How do you come up with enough ideas? What’s the ideal word count of a blog post? Endless optimization, tips and tricks, and keyword research later — it starts to feel comical to you. Like taking the stairs when you could have taken the escalator. Because you are craft-driven. You looked at the long arc of your work and said, the way to do this better and get better results is to study the process, improve my craft, and honor it. That way, it all gets easier and more effective.

So when others agonize over all that short-term stuff, you smile.

You put your head down.

You keep creating things that are meaningful instead.

You study and improve your craft.

You do all these things that the short-term thinkers deem unthinkable.

And you get there faster.

Listen to the show that inspired this post:

Posted on May 4, 2016 .