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Craftspeople

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How to master a craft

This post explains how Taylor Swift, Frank Ocean, and Christopher Nolan consistently generate great work. I will break it down step-by-step.

They intuit a few principles for creating better writing, music, and art. These principles also eliminate the fear and procrastination preventing you from starting.

The principles emerge from seeing yourself as a craftsperson. A craftsperson is someone who makes work the best it can be. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan captures it in his biography:

"I had lunch with a producer a few years ago. At some point, I said, 'Every film I do, I have to believe that I’m making the best film that’s ever been made.' He was absolutely shocked by this. It never occurred to him that someone would think like that. And that, to me, was truly shocking—because films are really hard to make. They're all-consuming. Your family life and everything else goes into it for two years. So it had never occurred to me that there were people doing it who weren’t trying to make the best film that ever was. Why would you otherwise? Even if it’s not going to be the best film that’s ever been made, you have to believe it could."

Counterintuitively, it’s not output that matters most to the craftsperson. Instead, it’s honing a process that generates increasingly good output over time.

Meaning, you cannot be a craftsperson unless the process is the reward.

This is the first step toward becoming a craftsperson. This philosophy also explains happiness: Happiness isn't an end state. It’s having the freedom to pursue the continual grind you enjoy. There is no finish line.

What is a process exactly? It’s a craftsperson’s flow state wherein they exercise creativity, solve challenges, and chase perfection.

Now let's introduce the second mindset shift: you cannot improve a process without exposing it to feedback. Meaning, every process must face real-world opinion.

In short, (1) your process is your reward and (2) improvement occurs through feedback. From these two ideas, four principles emerge that guide us toward creating far better work for the rest of our lives:

  1. Start with bad then iterate to great
  2. Narrow your scope
  3. Design a process
  4. Greatness emerges from juxtaposition

I. Start with bad then iterate to great

Start by making something bad. Making something bad then iterating until it’s good is way faster than making something good upfront.

This is due to our how brains work. When making something bad, our brains are wired to reflexively identify what’s wrong with it. Is the song too high-pitched? Lower the pitch. Does the story have too many characters? Remove some.

Instead, if we try creating something great upfront, which our brains aren’t good at, we have nothing to contrast against and iterate on—so we delusionally wait for "great ideas" to hit us.

This has a big implication on how craftspeople work. When a craftsperson has a seed of an idea but is unsure where to start, they do not procrastinate by doing more research. They start by making something terrible. They amuse themselves with how bad the initial work is, because they know that their starting work is not a reflection of the finished work’s quality. It’s just a clearing of the mental pipe to let their brain begin contrasting.

In short, the path to good starts by being bad. That’s how you work with your biology instead of against it.

II. Narrow your scope

To know which direction to head in, craftspeople narrow their scope. Don’t write a movie, write a spy movie. Don’t write a song, write a love song.

Your brain freezes when facing too large of a scope. It doesn’t know which path to go down, and it worries that each is wrong. Again, we need to work alongside our biology.

The solution is to pursue whichever narrowed path excites you the most today. Chase your enthusiasm down a rabbit hole—even if you're not sure it’s the best rabbit hole. Because you only need to start with something halfway good to eventually discover something great beyond it. That’s the process of iteration. That’s what being a craftsperson means.

As my friend Joey Noble put it:

"When I started producing music, I kept buying plugins thinking that would help me 'sound better.' And I would bounce from genre to genre. Nowadays, I mostly work in three genres and I use a lot of default plugins that come with Ableton because they're great and the rest was procrastination."

Once you’ve done a good job with your constrained scope, that’s when you consider going bigger. Expand scope one genre element at a time—nailing each before broadening further. This is how good films are made. Behind every great blockbuster is a small, human story at its core—like Interstellar. Likewise, every chart-topping song has a great beat, chorus, or atmosphere at its core—a key ingredient where the craftsperson began.

A delusion held by non-craftspeople is that they should wait “for inspiration to strike.” No, you're not supposed to wait for anything. That’s called procrastination.

Craftspeople narrow choices based on what excites them today. Any direction is fine. You’ll iterate later. That’s the process.

Here’s Billie Eilish describing how she narrows.

III. Design a process

So what does a full process actually look like? Your process can be whatever works for you so long as it has one ingredient: confronting feedback.

Let’s walk through my process. First, I find a resource where many examples of my type of work exist:

In each case, I’m looking for a resource that lets me rank the best works and focus on those. On Spotify, I can find the most-listened-to songs. On Twitter, the most retweeted tweets, and so on. These metrics may not be indicative of quality, but they’re certainly correlated. They’re a great place to start.

Then I build a list of the best works and the worst works. My plan is to identify what the best ones have in common. To start, I want to imitate that. Then I identify what the worst ones have in common. I want to avoid what makes them bad.

It looks like this:

This is the process of deconstruction. It helps you master imitation, which is a wonderful starting point. If you can reliably produce good work via imitation, it means you understand the mechanics of your craft. Once you’ve achieved that, it’s easier to break free from those mechanics in pursuit of origination. Origination is how you achieve greatness, and that brings us to our final principle.

IV. Greatness emerges from juxtaposition

When you reach the highest level of a craft, say playing the guitar, it’s hard to identify all the underlying ingredients. Every second of Jimmy Page’s guitar solos is a symphony of a hundred intuited decisions. You cannot capture all those on paper and memorize them into a framework.

This is where deconstruction breaks down. The solution is to transition to high-volume experimentation. This is a number’s game where you try many things to allow for original ideas to spontaneously emerge.

What does an iteration look like? Each iteration is a juxtaposition of ingredients: you pair disparate ingredients from different works to see what emerges. For example, if your craft is the guitar, you can mix solos from different genres. If you’re writing novels, you can mix tropes from different genres. If you’re producing music, you can mix samples from genres you’d never think could fit together. Then, when an experiment produces a dopamine hit like you felt from a great work—you pause, analyze, and play with it.

This is also how particle physics works. At the Large Hadron Collider, physicists repeatedly smash particles together to see what unexpected magic occurs. When it does, it reveals secrets of our universe. (Your goals don’t have to be so ambitious.)

A craftsperson’s process, just like a physicist’s, is therefore 90% routine followed by 10% controlled chaos. The sparks that occur between the two create the magic.

The key concept in high-volume experimentation is “volume.” The number of experimental iterations matters more than the number of hours spent experimenting. Every time we receive feedback on an iteration, our eyes are opened to where we’re going wrong. When those realizations compound over time, you become an expert. (The “10,000 hours” rule is misleading. It’s more like 10,000 iterations.)

Below, musician Paul Simon uses juxtaposition to write one of the most popular songs in history. Skip to 6 minutes 20 seconds:

Throughout the high-volume experimentation process, test combinations shamelessly. Self-censoring and self-judgement are your primary obstacles here. They slow you down—preventing you from reaching a high enough volume of iterations such that magic can emerge.

Overcoming blockers

What this playbook’s principles have in common is that they help you start. But, often, aspiring craftspeople never start—because they fear failure and being unoriginal.

Well, great news. Using the four principles I’ve introduced, we can overcome this self-sabotaging reflex.

De-emphasize originality

Originality is a naive goal. It’s held by those who haven’t repeatedly created good work.

Why? Because original means previously unknown and non-obvious. If you could generate non-obvious things repeatedly, then by definition they wouldn’t be non-obvious—there’d be a system everyone else could use too.

In other words, originality is extremely hard—and it's the wrong starting target.

Consider how almost none of the top craftspeople have been able to consistently produce original work. How many blockbuster franchises did J.K. Rowling write? How about Tolkien? How about C.S. Lewis? How about Suzanne Collins? How about Stephenie Meyer? How about George R.R. Martin? They’re each known for one property—then they stretched it out for decades.

Most songwriters who produce hit after hit, like Drake, aren’t originating them. He buys tracks from other producers for millions of dollars then iterates them.

Instead of pursuing originality, your goal should be running a good process at a high frequency. Now we're focusing on something we can control. Over time, you aim for all of your work to be good, but you only expect some to be original. You don’t chase it; you put yourself in a position to capture it.

Also, do you know what’s better than being original anyway? Being better. Being more interesting, more compelling, and more impactful.

What people really want is something that just resonates. This is important to understand: you rarely change your audience’s lives by giving them something original. You change their lives by making material so captivating, clear, and actionable that—for the first time ever—they pay attention to a topic or idea they had always ignored. This is why your "unoriginal" work still has so much merit. People don’t want originality as much as they think they do. If they did, they wouldn’t watch the same superhero movies and crime shows every night until death.

That’s an empowering reality check for craftspeople: we can create infinite works that resonate because each person alive today is ignoring 99.9999% of the world’s beauty. Your surface area is infinite. Carve something out for people to marvel at.

Lean into making bad work

Along your journey, it'll be necessary to create bad and unoriginal work. That's inseparable from being a craftsperson. Because a craftsperson doesn’t care about the quality of any one piece of output. They care about iterating a process to produce increasingly better work over time.

No creator—not SZA, nor Paul Simon, nor Ed Sheeran—was born making hits. It’s delusional to think you’re the exception. Therefore, any time you're unable to start because you think you have high quality standards that you won't be able to meet, you're lying to yourself. You're actually too lazy to discard bad work along the way in order to arrive at greatness. Take comfort in knowing that when you discard bad work via a good process, the work was not for nothing—it was to improve the process. For every hit release, prolific creators try 10+ mediocre ones. Ed Sheeran made a whole documentary on this phenomenon, and few are more consistent than him.

Whereas experienced creators like Ed amuse themselves with how bad their initial work is, aspiring creators sit around dreading their initial badness.

Get feedback from those who are invested in it too

If you fear that getting feedback means being judged, find others who are also starting out. It’s hard to be judgy when all of you suck and need each other’s help.

There’s a huge number of online communities to learn anything in a group environment. And there are great teachers you can pay to learn from. They’re used to seeing bad work, so they certainly won’t judge you.

As you get better over time, seek feedback from better peers and better teachers.

Putting it all together

As a craftsperson, your first step is falling more in love with your process than your output. A great process follows four principles:

As Einstein said: "It's not that I'm so smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer." He can experiment with problems for so long because he’s a craftsperson who loves the process.

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Julian Shapiro

I try deconstructing how complicated things work. Take a look below.

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