Stop Counting Pages, or How to Get Lost.
This weekend, I opened up a book that I bought a few days ago. It’s likely the thickest book I’ve ever held in one hand, carrying 1,300 pages of raw fantasy geekery of the most praiseworthy kind. It’s one of those unpleasant-to-hold-open-for-the-first-150-pages types of books, awkward in your hands when you aren’t quite close enough to the middle of the book to crack the binding and fully expose its pages. Feeling prematurely proud of this unwieldy tome, I showed it off to my wife. She gave me a particularly disarming smirk, vaporizing any of my misplaced pride and pointed out that I unnecessarily obsess over page numbers.
She’s right. When I start to read, I immediately calculate how far I’ve gone, how far I think I want to go, and how long the complete book will be. It’s a habit I’ve always had. You could say I think more about completing the book than about getting sucked in, losing myself to a good story. It seems I have one foot half in the door and the other half out if I’m always watching the page number. It’s a bad habit that has been subconsciously cultivated over years. I’ve always done it.
I also don’t finish many books.
I imagine, in my creative work, there are dozens of stories I’ve missed out on because I’ve been thinking about the benchmarks to achieve completion more than getting lost in the pursuit of said stories. Sure I’ve given my best work, but I don’t know if I always have been lost enough in my creative pursuits. A former design mentor of mine once told me that you’re only as good as your most obscure resources. He wanted me to learn to get lost, seek meaning and be concerned about more than visual appeal. Wisely, he encouraged me to find messaging that others would rarely seek.
There are an innumerably large amount of talented creators out there. We are all too pleased to believe that we can rise to the top just based on talent alone. Some will, many won’t. We frequently find the quickest route to inspiration, thinking about hitting deadlines and working fast. We all skim the same surface of an immeasurably deep ocean of information in this world, making discoveries rare and repackaging familiar experiences a norm. We gather in communities of like minds with encouraging words, hoping to be confidently prod forward so we don’t have to face the exciting but frightening fact that there are a vast number of solutions to access. Pragmatism tempers ambitions, as it often should. Our talent is wasted on shallow experimentation and quickly accessible solutions.
Yet we far too infrequently get lost. Those who truly get lost, who really get out into the world and explore on a deeper level than what they can access online in 10 minutes of searching a few key sites, are becoming few and far between. There’s an enormous opportunity for adventurous creatives who aren’t afraid of going into the unknown. Even big risk takers—the romanticized entrepreneurs who aspire themselves world changers—are often setting out with a plan and some goals in mind. They are willing to make a journey, but are often looking for a particular answer.
Great work will always operate within prescribed constraints. However, to counter those limitations it will meet challenges with a fluid and bold creative process. Habits should be supplemented with exploration. Briefs should be met with questions and challenges. Inspiration should be met with a wider range of media and environments. We should be willing to consider that a solution should be an open door rather than a closed one, opening our minds to getting lost just long enough to make whatever it is that we put out there become greater than we could have on our own.
For me, it means I have to stop counting the pages, sizing up the budgets or watching the calendar so much that it keeps me from taking a bit of time to be somewhere where I’m strategically uncomfortable.