Ship, they say. Publish or perish. Get it done. Get it out the door. Get it into the gaping maws of your hungry audience. Because shipping is what real artists do, as Steve Jobs said. Right? We’ve come to accept this conventional wisdom as the Gospel of Shipping: Better to practice your craft in public than private, the line of thinking goes.
Better to have something “out there”—a blog post, an ebook, a painting, whatever—than to keep it to yourself as you refine, tweak, polish. But is shipping always the best way to become better at your craft?
The Process of Becoming
In his last interview, Kurt Vonnegut, ever the iconoclast, said something that adds a bit of a wrinkle to the Gospel of Shipping. “You practice an art to make your soul grow, not to make a career, be famous or be rich,” Vonnegut said. “It’s the process of becoming” that matters. In today’s publish-or-perish world, his counterintuitive advice to audiences of writers borders on heresy:
Write a poem tonight. Make it as good as you possibly can. Four, six or eight lines. Make it as good as you can. Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it to anybody.
Got it. Thanks for that, Kurt. I didn’t tell anybody I was writing the poem. But I’m finished. Can I ship it now? No, Kurt answers:
When you’re satisfied it’s as good as you can make it, tear it up in small pieces and scatter those pieces between widely separated trash receptacles and you will find out you have received your full reward for having done it.
Wait, that can’t be right. What’s the reward, Kurt? No one has read my poem. Or retweeted it, or liked it on Facebook, or pinned a verse from it on Pinterest. Don’t I have the responsibility, Kurt, as a real artist, to ship it? Kurt answers:
It’s the act of creation, which is so satisfying.
For Vonnegut, practicing a craft doesn’t always have to result in a product or piece of art enjoyed by other people.
A Gift to Yourself
Practicing a craft is not only a gift to others; it’s a gift to yourself.
. It’s a gift to yourself to make something, even while fighting through the awkwardness and imperfection of making it, fumbling with some unexplored nuance or layer of your craft. Even when no one experiences it. Practicing your craft isn’t always about shipping; It’s not always about having your work consumed by others. Is shipping important? Sure. You want your work to make a difference in the world. And unless you put it out there, at some point, it likely won’t. But sometimes, it’s less about shipping, and more about becoming—becoming a better writer, a better communicator, a better entrepreneur. For me, that process of becoming better is slow going, to be honest. We all want to write to be read. We all want an audience. Here’s the thing, though: In the beginning, we have to show up even when our audience doesn’t. Question: What motivates you to get better at your work?