The Mean Law of Great Work

Surprise Saturday

I used to think consistency is the only thing that matters. That, as a writer, an artist, an entrepreneur, all you had to do was stick with things. After 5 years of that, I know better.

Seth Godin wrote a brilliant little book. It’s called The Dip. In it, he shares the premise of this idea in one precise graph:

The Dip is the long slog after beginner’s luck has run out. It’s the time it gets worse before it gets better. It’s the thousands of bruised knees, crumpled drafts, and canned app updates that lie before greatness.

Most people never make it through. Clearly, consistency is important.

“A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.” - Seth Godin

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. For the woodpecker, each additional tap means progress. A little less wood to chip away. For us, that’s not the case. We can keep tapping for weeks, months, years, and the tree won’t move an inch.

At some point, consistency stops working. Your growth flattens. Your work is anemic. Just enough oxygen to survive, but not enough to thrive. Seth calls this a dead-end.

As a writer, it’s very easy to let your Dip become a dead-end. We’re terrified of irrelevance, so we’d rather keep publishing in maintenance mode than take the plunge. Suddenly, you’re in the long trough to nothingness. You start repeating yourself, your work stops spreading and, soon, it’s you and your three first fans, nodding in a circle.

The point we miss is that consistency and relevance are not the same thing. To stay relevant, you must get better. You need more quality, not just more consistency. And the more you learn, the more time you need to get better.

Often, the only way to improve quality is to break consistency.

Throughout the course of a great career, there is a slow decline in the quantity of output, accompanied by a steady rise in the quality of said output.

A great writer starts at two articles a week and ends at one book per year. A great entrepreneur operates the whole business at first, then only makes a few decisions a week after 10 years. A great dealmaker makes 100 deals in her first year, and only one in her last.

This is the mean law of great work. It’s mean because first, you need to work hard to build consistency and then, you need to let go of that very thing to keep moving up.

You can’t get that last 10%, make the jump from good to great, by sticking to your same old rhythm. You need to go big. And going big takes time. Some of my best posts to date already took a week to write. Whatever comes next will probably take more.

That’s okay. But it can be a huge blindspot that leads to mid-career failure. If we miss this shift, if we forget to take the jump, our work will slowly trickle into oblivion - the exact irrelevance we’re so afraid of.

There are many ways to fail when it comes to the Dip. You might pick the wrong one, a bad one, or run away from picking one at all. You might quit too early or quit too late.

But the worst way to fail is to quit without quitting. To trot into meaninglessness.

You’re astonishing. How dare you waste it.

Pick the biggest Dip you can find. Learn to do the work it deserves. And don’t stop until you’re through. We might only hear from you on occasion, but we know the best when we see it. And that is the only thing that matters.


About Surprise Saturday: In the long run, the only good pattern is breaking our patterns. That’s why, every once in a while, we need a shock to the system. An unexpected idea. A creative surprise. That’s what we’ll unwrap every Saturday.

Picasso said he didn’t seek. He just found. Let’s keep exploring.

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