Publishing is Overrated
(definitely not an excuse to not have a publishing schedule)
Hello friends 👋
Two Thursdays ago I started this Substack. I was considering making this a weekly sort of thing, but Thursday came and went, and I didn’t have anything I felt was worth sharing yet.
That’s alright though. I like to assure myself by thinking back to some of history’s greatest writers and innovators—most did not maintain a weekly newsletter. Some hardly published at all.
Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 1800 poems throughout the 1800s. Only ten of those made it to the printing press while she was alive.
Carl Friedrich Gauss was the first to discover quaternions and non-Euclidean geometry, but never published these findings.
Franz Kafka famously instructed a friend to have all his novels and drafts “burned unread” upon his death.
What do they all have in common? Creating far more than they ended up publishing.
This post is definitely not an excuse for me to not publish more often. It is, however, a reminder that frequent publishing is not a requirement for creative success. What is a requirement? Frequent doing.
Recently, I read some words from Visakan Veerasamy that goes,
You have a far greater shot at tasting greatness and fun if you simply write as much as you possibly can, and then some
His main point? Strive to be prolific. (literally the first sentence of his essay) Publishing is great, but not nearly as important as creating, creating, creating…
No piece of work will ever be 100% finished. Some creators will release their work at 80% completion. Others will release at 99.9%. How, when, and if you publish depends on your goals. And it’s important to have goals. To quote Richard Hamming, one of the grandfathers of the Information Age,
“Those who do something generally have some kind of goals and see where they’re headed. And their lives add up. Those who don’t have just a bunch of isolated events. They did this, they did that, but nothing added up”
(from this 1995 lecture)
To sum up, know where you want to go with your work, and have at it as often as you can. Don’t worry about publishing as much. Well, maybe worry about it if you thrive off that social pressure.
Still, publishing can unlock great benefits. Beyond the obvious potential for recognition, prestige, and commercial opportunities, it can lead to more serendipitous connections and a more interesting life and career. So why didn’t the aforementioned figures publish more often?
For Dickinson, her reluctance to publish was likely some combination of being a woman in the 19th century, her unconventional style, and some self-doubt sprinkled in. Also, many of her poems were simply not written for a wider audience.
For Gauss, it was his high standards. He claimed that the initial discovery of ideas was easy, but preparing a publishable elaboration of those ideas was much harder, either for lack of time or “serenity of mind.”
For Kafka, it was a case of being plagued by self-doubt. And tuberculosis.
No one finds it easy to transcend societal norms, perfectionism, or self-doubt. Publishing anything you’ve obsessed over for days, finally letting go of it, will always be a psychological hurdle. Don’t let it also be a hurdle to creative greatness. Fill up that recycle bin with crumpled drafts. Record crappy songs no one will ever hear. Build things that will never be useful.
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
― Jacob A. Riis
Until next time,
Thanks tofor reviewing drafts of this
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