Magnificence and the raising of standards

Level Up (260/365)
Jilaine was a carpenter and a woodworker. Okay, most of the time she was really a lawyer – but she wanted to spend her days with sawdust instead of solicitors.

No time like the present!

Every workday Jilaine arrived home, changed out of her suit, ate some steamed vegetables and chicken, and marched into the shed to start crafting chairs. It was rare that she managed to get started before 7pm, and she had to be done before 10pm or her neighbours would probably call the cops.

Three hours isn’t a lot of time to build a chair in.

Jilaine said to herself, “Okay, I’m going to make this easy on myself. My only goal is to make chairs that are stable. They can be ugly as fuck, as long as anyone can sit on ’em and not have them break. I can do that.”

Month after month, Jilaine built chairs.

Her first chair took a week and a half to finish, and was indeed ugly as fuck, but it was stable. She drank a glass of red in celebration, then immediately started on the next one.

Month after month of diligent work, and she had more plain-but-stable chairs than she had room for. She found a men’s group that needed chairs and appreciated their unaesthetic charm, donated her creations and kept crafting.

Soon she could churn out two chairs a week in her own little assembly line, and her designs were attractively simple instead of clunky. A mountain resort made an order for their conference room that had Jilaine skipping into her office to quit.

Now Jiliaine was a woodworker full-time.

Instead of three hours of hasty night-time work, she had as much time as she needed. She built twenty simple stable chairs a week and Jilaine had the profound satisfaction of selling them to people who told her how they admired the craftsmanship and stability of these chairs.

After six months of simple and stable, Jilaine got bored.

She could now build simple and stable in her sleep (and had, that day when she accidentally took a double dose of flu meds).

She started experimenting.

She made chairs with engraved backs.

She built chairs that looked impossibly thin but were beautifully sturdy.

She built chairs that looked like one piece of wood. And when people saw those chairs in her workshop they gasped.

So Jilaine started building those chairs, too.

They sold faster, they were talked about far more, and they were much more satisfying to create.

But she soon realised that she couldn’t build anywhere near as many of them as the stable simple ones. They were much more difficult to craft, they didn’t always work, and they required a much higher level of craft and skill.

Jilaine experimented with building a mix of the stable-simple and the one-piece chairs, but she noticed something:

The easy chairs weren’t fun any more. And next to the one-piece chairs, they looked… well, plain.

Jiliaine grieved. She’d loved that first stable, solid, simple design! It had done so well and allowed her to learn so much! How dare she abandon it for the much riskier one-piece chair?

But then she remembered her words on the first day she locked herself in the shed. “Okay, I’m going to make this easy on myself. My only goal is to make chairs that are stable. They can be ugly as fuck, as long as anyone can sit on ’em and not have them break. I can do that.”

She had made it easy for herself to start, and that was the right choice. She’d smoothed the path to building momentum, and she wouldn’t be here now without that.

But she didn’t need to make it so easy for herself now. She was far, far more skilled and practiced. The easy choice was too easy now.

So Jilaine sat down with her bottle of red and toasted the hundreds of simple stable chairs that had gotten her to this point. And she toasted the end of an era.

The moral of the story

The best way to start is by making the victory conditions very, very easy: almost impossible to fail at. Consistent small victories build momentum, and momentum builds experience (and skill and depth and the possibility of bigger victories that feel just as easy as the first one).

But eventually you have to increase your victory conditions.

You must continue upping the challenge to stay aligned with your growing skills.

Otherwise, the easy victory becomes boring. Stale. You start to stagnate and half-ass it. No joy, and probably less cash, too.

If you have work that used to put you in flow, that once felt magnificent but now feels oh-so-pedestrian, then you need to review your standards. Put them up in tippy-toe reach and watch how your work comes alive.

The practical demonstration

Anyone who’s been reading along with me for awhile knows that I am Jilaine.

When I started my first website, almost two years ago, I had one very simple standard for writing articles: it had to be useful.

Whatever I wrote, there had to be a very strong potential for someone to gain a benefit from reading it: maybe the know-how to get some task done they’d been avoiding, or the realisation that they’re not alone, or the opening of a new possibility.

A few months later I got Serious about building my website and starting writing daily articles. For ten months I wrote every single day, with only one pass-fail standard: it must be useful. (I also wanted it to be entertaining, but it didn’t HAVE to be. Any budding comedian knows the pain of the, “Hey! Quick, say something funny.” bear-trap.)

I took my first ever break from daily writing while I was in Vegas for BlogWorld, where I took some time by the pool to think about what I really wanted for my business, where my most magnificent work was, and how I wanted to be changing the world.

This website was the result of that thinking. I went from daily articles to two a week. I started telling fairy stories about marketing. I kept experimenting.

I’ve started reliably producing articles that people are still telling me about and sharing four months later. I’ve finally gotten consistently reliable about knowing in advance which articles are great, and which are decent. (I got there, Liz! Thanks very much for your help.)

But those articles take a lot longer to produce. They require much more idea-percolation, and about three times as long to write as a useful article. Right now, I can’t do more than one a week. I’ve been trying to fill out the rest with decent, but it’s just not satisfying any more – to either of us, I think.

So from now one there will be less articles. I’m aiming for one every Tuesday (that’s Monday for a lot of you), but if I don’t have anything that meets my new standard to deliver, then I won’t write anything at all.

My old standard: must be useful.

My new standard: must be transformative.

We’ll see how that goes.

*raise a glass of Diet Coke in a toast*

The practical demonstration, part two

My standard for creating and launching offerings has been “Just get it out there, already.”

And when I was teeny tiny and shit-scared, that was good enough.

I made my very first product over a weekend and just put up a link. Zero promotion. I had Gotten It Done, and that wasn’t a small thing. I sold one three weeks later, and I was thrilled! Look, ma, I’m in Business!

But I’ve been in full-time business for more than a year, and I’m still essentially using that “Oh hell, throw it up there and see if anyone buys it,” standard.

And that’s not good enough. I make FUCKING AMAZING offerings, and to short-serve them by not giving them the resources they need to thrive is wrong. Dumb and wrong.

I don’t know yet what my new and higher standard will be – I’m still working that out. But I do know that the new resource I’m launching in just a few days – there’s a completely monster amazing teleclass, you should check it out – will be the very last time I use this standard.

*deep breath*

Wow, that was scary and hard. And that’s a good thing, my darlings: I’d hate to be settling for less than magnificence.

Are your standards too high for where you are? Too low? It’s the work of a minute to adjust ’em, and the work of three to tell us about it in the comments.

Creative Commons License photo credit: andrewrennie