“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” – Pascal, Provincial Letters: Letter XVI
I’ve had the good fortune to work with different kinds of Creators, including writing speeches at the White House under the direction of Michael McCurry, directing documentaries under the guidance of Hoop Dreams Director Steve James, and building products under the tutelage of John Lilly. What made these people excellent wasn’t just their ability to create, but their ability to reduce. They weren’t afraid to cut lines, chop clips, or axe features if it trimmed the final product down to its Essence. Achieving Essence is more of a discipline than an art, and here are three things that I’ve learned from the best:
1. Create, then Edit — but not both at once. Most of us edit while we write. Our cycle looks something like this: write 1-3 sentences, evaluate/adjust, and then write another 1-3 sentences. This means we’re constantly context-shifting between Creator and Editor, which prevents either role from being truly excellent.
Near the end of the Kerry presidential campaign, when we were in full-court press, I was often asked to produce end-to-end speeches in under 30 minutes. Initially, I would go through the painful cycle of write-edit-write, but by the end of the 30 minutes, I was totally flustered, with a lack-luster product in hand. After seeking advice from advisors to the campaign, including my personal hero and Kennedy-speechwriter Ted Sorensen, I changed my approach. I spent the first 10-15 minutes just writing anything and everything that came to mind within the scope of the topic (e.g., healthcare). If I wanted to tweak something, then I’d literally write the sentence again — no Delete button allowed. After allowing myself an undisturbed chunk of time to Create, I’d spent the next 15-20 minutes cleaning up the cruft and polishing it into something reasonable. Sound inefficient? Well, the results were astounding. I was able to write higher-quality speeches in less time, with a much more confident state of mind. By the very end of the campaign, I actually welcomed time-pressured work, because I had a system: create, then edit — but not both at once.
2. Build half, not half-ass. I’m a supporter and fan of Eric Ries and his Lean Startup movement, but startup teams often miss the nuance between cutting scope and cutting quality. I’ve been guilty of this. After joining Groupon, I set out to build a loyalty product for the business. There were lots of features that could be potentially be in scope — currency, levels, leader boards, etc. — and I made the mistake of trying to do it all at once, instead of carefully focusing on the small set of stuff that was truly essential to solving the problem. The result was an overwhelming welcome experience, and in the digital world, much like the physical world, you only get one chance at a first impression.
Adding non-essential features to a product is like adding irrelevant scenes to a film. My friend Oren Jacob, now CEO of the ground-breaking startup ToyTalk, tells me about the agonizing process him and his team at Pixar would go through to find the right ending point of a film like Toy Story. It’s tempting to add an extra special effect or a punchy scene, but doing so can completely ruin the rhythm of the entire film. To achieve Essence, you want to challenge every new addition with a filtering question: is it truly core? If not, it can probably wait or be axed altogether. Jason Fried says it well: “build half a product, not a half-ass product.”
3. Discipline your schedule. You can’t achieve Essence without focusing your own time on what’s essential. In a productivity-obsessed world, it’s easy to create and execute on massively large task lists. But it takes discipline to filter your list to what’s really important, even if that means having fewer opportunities to check things off. After having my first child a few months ago, I’ve been trying to get more disciplined about breathing and visualizing in the mornings. It helps me be a better father, but also helps me to look at the day ahead in retrospect and think about what’s really core — really essential. When I compare those thoughts to my actual to-do list, I nearly always find items that are non-essential and have very little to do with what’s important. That stuff gets de-prioritized or removed altogether.
I’ve observed different kinds of excellence throughout my career, and believe that the common thread amongst the best Creators is their ability to cut to the Essence. Luckily for the rest of us, finding the Essence is a discipline that can be learned.