Work and the 1%

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“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” – Thomas Edison

That’s a quote just about everyone’s heard. On the drive home tonight, we were listening to a Radiolab podcast entitled “Help!” One of the segments had Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, talking about how she finds inspiration. She has a bit of a weird view of it, that there are all these ideas floating around out there, and in some way, you work to earn the right to be the recipient of that idea – the one through whom it finds its way into the world.

It sounded a bit frou-frou, but the thing that I really liked about her expression was the fact that you earned the right through work. She brought up the Edison quote, though I think she mis-attributed it, but said that the thing that bothered her was that inspiration and perspiration were basically comparable things, and you could compare them percent-by-percent. Her view was that you get 99% oyster, 1% pearl, and I thought that was a pretty elegant way of expressing it.

Again, though, for me it comes back to the work.

There are certainly moments of inspiration. What I still consider my Best Idea Ever(tm) started out lying in my bathtub staring up at the ceiling. Other moments where lightning struck? Walking my dog as the sun set. 2:15 in the morning, waking up completely out of the blue. Scrambling to justify a mostly-different much-worse idea while explaining it to someone else.

These feel like moments of brilliant instantaneous inspiration. But they’re not.

(…and yes, I realize I’ve been using a lot of italics recently. Mostly because I’ve switched from *emphasis* to emphasis, since I felt the asterisks were really annoying. The italics probably are, too, but it’ll take a while to work that out of my system.)

Inspiration isn’t the beginning. It’s the end.

Or at least, it’s the end of the beginning. That moment where you get that brilliant idea? It’s a moment of synthesis – where a handful of different concepts finally fit together, where your brain’s been cranking away on something in the background and it finally is ready to present you with the result. It’s the result of semi-subconscious work that you’ve been doing.

It’s the result of flailing around with bad ideas. It’s the result of doing the experimentation. It’s the result of trying all kinds of things, of iteration, of failure, of minor successes cascading into major ones, of excitement, despair, struggle, frustration, and then finally, understanding.

You can’t get to that moment of inspiration by waiting for it to happen. It’s not a thing that floats by and waits for you to just reach out and grab it. It’s something you chase, you scramble for, you bite and claw and scratch to pull kicking and screaming out of nothing. For me, a lot of times that moment of synthesis happens when things are quiet & calm – when my brain’s had some time to relax & work things out. Sometimes it happens in the midst of a desperate struggle when I realize something’s wrong but can’t coherently express what it actually is. It happens at all kinds of different moments, and when you’re lucky, you can grab onto that idea and realize that it’s the one you’ve been waiting for. But “waiting” isn’t really the right word. Because inspiration isn’t about waiting for anything.

It’s the reward you get when you’ve put in the work.

4 thoughts on “Work and the 1%

  1. Definitely an inspiring read and a nice reminder.

    For me, I too am a games designer, developer, producer – I wear all those hats you protested in another thread. What saddens me though is that apparently Google and the public have forgotten that there are other game genres out there and just as popular besides video and console games. Any google search for “game design” nets thousands of pages focused solely on computer games, mobile app games, console games and none on any other style of games.

    My brand of game design is real world gaming. Real world, real time, real people, real interaction, missions, tag, chase, hunt, war, all sorts of coolness that gets you off your butt and doing something, and I am a late, late bloomer with technology. Only subsequent to picking up a smartphone in the last month (literally), have I become insanely enamored with augmented reality and the location based games and I want to do that.

    I have zero idea how, or where to even begin to figure it out..but the idea of “hiring a team” and shelling out millions is nonsense, and it’s not going to happen in real life. I don’t even know any tech devs anyway so my goal for myself is rolling up my sleeves and learning as much as I can on how they make those, what’s involved, learning that and then getting something rolling – using open source resources or easily available, quick payoff solutions.

    I have been inspired. For sure.

    I just shake my head and steel myself for the hella amount of work in front of me in this endeavor! Unless, of course, you and your team of Ten would like to do the tech stuff for me at nominal expense, to eventually take a cut later…isn’t that what kickstarting is all about? ;-p

  2. There’s no need to hire a team & spend millions of dollars to get started. There are all manner of simple development tools available. The key is to start with something you know you can finish. Pick a really, really simple project – simple to the point where you think it’s almost stupid, and then just make that. You’ll learn the most by doing something from start to completion – after all, that last 10% takes 50+% of the time.

    You’ll be hard-pressed to find an external dev team to help you make your ideas for a cut of the proceeds. For the most part, the value of any idea is in the implementation of that idea, and most teams have more ideas than they know what to do with. ;) So take the time, start simple, and work your way up. Good luck!

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