Offer up the First Pancake
Pancakes and creative work have something remarkable in common: the first attempt is always rubbish. Often called the "sacrificial pancake", or "the one you throw away", the first one is a test. Whether a little too hot, too cold, or too much flour, it never turns out right.
The problem, of course, is balance, and not enough of it. When we start anything for the first time, we try to find our bearings and establish control of the situation. The problem though, is that there are too many variables at play, and we haven't yet grasped a sense of the action.
So too, with creative work. You may have a thread of an idea, a hint of a plan, but its nascence is overwhelming. There are so many "what ifs", and not enough definitives. You may be able to feel the branching possibilities, or the aura of something more, but you remain painfully unsure of how to get there. Often this is where many start criticising themselves and just stop.
Instead, it can help to focus on the process. When we make pancakes, we don't focus on crafting one perfect example — we usually create a stack. This is process versus product: focusing on the act rather than the goal. The mind likes process, as it doesn't induce stress by tying ourselves to an outcome that isn't guaranteed.
In the book Art & Fear, the authors recount a "gambit" employed by a University of Florida lecturer, which illustrates this well. The lecturer divided the class into two distinct groups, one of which would be graded on the quantity of what they produced, while the other would be graded on the quality of their work. Once the work had been completed, and it was time to grade, the lecturer found that the highest quality work had been produced by those focused on quantity. The group focused on quality had spent much of their time thinking about the work, and had little to show for it.
The "iterative" quality the authors describe is what makes focusing on process so effective. Particularly too, the importance of learning from mistakes. This is deliberate practice in action: a thoughtful method for success by focusing on the improvement of every step.
A simple method which engages many of these points is downloading a pomodoro counter, my favourite of which is the Forest app. This encourages you to work in 25 minute increments, with 5 minute breaks, allowing you to count your "process" (your trees/pomodoros) rather than criticise your product. Pair this with a dedication to marginal improvements over time, and you've developed a sustainable practice for creative success.
What I like about process over product is how cultural forms of it have become encoded in society. The first pancake rule, for example, derived from an 18th Century Russian proverb, encourages us to discard our assumptions of early perfection. This acceptance of failure is critical for motivation, self-confidence, and building momentum towards later success.
If we can be kind to lumpy dough, then we should bring the same attitude to our own creative efforts. Start by offering up the first pancake.