A few years back, I used to hang out on a semi-regular basis in a fake-Irish bar (very fake-Irish; it was actually French) with a good friend. On most nights, as the foam settled on the second pint of Guinness, the conversation would turn to a theme that she used to summarize as “Why do we suck?”
For the record, my friend doesn’t actually suck. She’s awesome, and she does awesome stuff Every Single Day. However, she thought that she sucked, which is another matter. Or perhaps not.
Anyway, the concept of sucking vs. being awesome was just reinjected into my consciousness by a blog post titled How to Stop Sucking and Be Awesome Instead written by Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror, which was promptly retweeted, reblogged, summarized and recirculated by pretty much everyone on the Internet who could actually tear themselves away from looking at cat pictures for thirty seconds. Here, finally, was the secret formula that we all needed to stop sucking forever.
The first thing that I read was the summary of Jeff’s thesis, distilled down to three points: embrace the suck, do it in public, pick stuff that matters. I have plenty of respect for Jeff Atwood, but this immediately put my hackles up. The sites that reposted the piece, usually expanding very slightly on his three bullet points, made it sound like just another variant on the theme of “The reason why you fail is because you fear failure, so you don’t try.” That little claim gets trotted out in pretty much every single piece of self-help pornography that you read on the Internet or anywhere else. If we could only get over our fear of not succeeding, then everything would fall into place.
You know what? I call bullshit. I really don’t believe that we are all quivering geniuses, trembling on the brink of unleashing something wonderful but held back by our fear of embarrassing ourselves in public. I’m sure some such people exist. I think few of us fit that pattern, though.
In my own case, I can say with a certain degree of confidence that ‘fear of failure’ is not holding me back. I am extremely familiar with failure, but I don’t lie awake at night worrying that I’m about to fail. Fear that I might not succeed isn’t stopping me doing anything (except perhaps dance, gymnastics and free-fall parachuting, and I think you have to concede that the third of these is actually a pretty reasonable fear to have). I have plenty of projects that I work on, all of which are substantially lame. The reason that they are lame, however, is not because I am held back by my fear of failure and public scorn. They are lame because I am intellectually lazy and easily-distracted (ooh, look, cat pictures!). The things I make suck because I Don’t Do The Hard Work, not because I’m too intimidated by the possibility of failure to let my genius flower.
Once you move beyond the bullet points, Jeff’s piece contains some decent advice. His first recommendation, ‘embrace the suck’, is really just a restatement of the idea familiar to writers under the name of “shitty first drafts”. Don’t aim for perfection in your first version: just get it out of your head and onto paper or into code as the case may be. Then refine it from there. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that’s been tried and tested and found to work. So I’m with him there.
To illustrate the second point, the slides talk about various Internet projects and remind you that you can get pretty much all the training you need for free. He doesn’t really say why it’s good to do stuff in public - it’s presented more as if it’s a virtue in and of itself - but I can fill in that blank. You do stuff in public because that’s how you get the feedback you need to improve. You can’t see what needs to be fixed if nobody but you ever looks at it or tries to use it. Again, that’s fair enough. It’s a recurrent theme, particularly in photography or art circles: get critiques of your work and pay attention to what people tell you. ‘Doing it in public’ is just a means to that end.
Finally, ‘do stuff that matters’. To who? To you, presumably, or you won’t care enough to work on it. And to others, or they won’t care enough to use whatever you make or to comment on it. Again, that’s fair enough. You have a limited amount of time at your disposal. It should be obvious that you can’t afford to waste it on stuff no one cares about. (Should be obvious, but alas …)
So, all summed-up, his points are fair enough, but if you were looking for the magical recipe that will transport you from Suckville to Awesometown, you’re going to be disappointed. They are not the Secret you are looking for.
I can tell you the Secret, though, and it is this: Do the Fucking Work. I know a number of people who I think of as successful, and I do not believe that any of them ever battled heroically to overcome their fear of failure. They might have unconsciously followed Jeff Atwood’s three principles, but that wasn’t why they succeeded. The reason that they succeeded was because they saw something they wanted to do and they worked at it like maniacs until it was done. There is no other way.
Now I’ve spelled that out for you, you can stop reading all those blog posts and self-help books about ‘success’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘overcoming your fear of failure’. Ignore all that shit, and just go ahead and put your time and energy where it matters. Start now.