99 Percent of the Work is Never Seen

I was talking to a little kid the other day.  “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked.  “I want to be a singer!” she immediately exclaimed.  “Oh? Why is that?”  “I want to be on TV and Radio and play concerts!” she replied, hugging her father, whose grimly smiling face betrayed his fear that he had unwittingly spawned the next Britney Spears.

Hilariously uncomfortable as it was, this little exchange nicely summed up something that had been simmering in my head for a while.

When most people dream about wanting to do something, they hardly ever examine what it takes to get there.  This little girl wanted to sing and dance on stage, have her song played on the radio, and perform on TV.  But, and I’ll let it slide because she was only 8, she didn’t have any iead what it would take to do that.  Before she’d ever get to hear her three minute song on the radio, she’d likely have to invest 2 MILLION times that amount of time: she’d have to learn an instrument or take vocal lessons, write songs, get feedback on those songs, write more songs, play some live shows, get more feedback, write more songs, scrape together money to record a demo of those songs, pitch record executives and talent scouts, and if she’s extraordinarily lucky enough to catch one of those executives attention, she gets to rewrite or rerecord those songs until those executives like them enough to pay someone at a radio station to play them.  If she’s not that lucky, she’s got to do that promotion herself.  That’s literally going to take years, if she’s talented and lucky.  All just to get her 3 minutes of airtime.

Almost all of the work it takes to accomplish something never gets seen by the public.  I think we know this intuitively, but it’s healthy to think about.  It can take 6-8 months to make a movie, and that’s after the script has already been written.  6-8 months of planning, shooting, editing, post work, distributing, promoting, etc. etc. until a 90 minute product is released.  The prolific Malcolm Gladwell typically spends weeks or months researching a topic he wants to write about, then writes 5-6 drafts of the piece, then has his “army of high-IQ fact checkers and editors and copywriters” work with him to get a final draft.  That’s a serious amount of man hours to produce just a few thousand words.

To produce one of my large photographic prints, it takes days of schedule planning before hand, days of travel to get to the location, hours of preparation and location scouting once I’m there, anywhere from a few minutes to a few days to actually set up and wait for the right light before I can get the shot (IF I get the shot), and then hours and hours of post work before making test prints, more adjustments, then final prints.  All for just one big piece of paper to hang on the wall.

Good News

In some of the examples we’ve looked at, maybe 99% of the work is never seen.  In others, it might be 99.99%.  Of all the hours it took to produce the Bourne Identity, the audience will only see 119 minutes of it.  This makes sense: we don’t want to watch the scenes that weren’t good enough to make it into the final cut.  We don’t want to watch the stunts that didn’t work, or the lines that were flubbed.  We certainly don’t want to watch the rewrite process, or the guys in the edit bay, or the press tours.  This is also good news: this means you can screw up royally during the creation phase and no one will ever know or care.

Minimize Screw Ups by Planning Ahead

But the flip side of that coin is that you can continue to screw up without anyone knowing, driving that 99% up to 99.99999%.  The more time you spend screwing up is less time you have to create something else.

Screw ups are inevitable, but the biggest screw ups, like wasting time on something unnecessary, can usually be avoided by adequate planning.  If that 8 year old girl really wanted to be on radio and TV and stage someday, she needs a plan.

The easiest way to design a plan, especially for something as ambitious as her goal, is to copy someone’s who has already done it.  I’d tell her to look at Justin Bieber: he knew what he wanted when he was 5 years old.  He developed his talent, promoted himself on Youtube, and finally got an agent.  Turns out that wasn’t enough, because labels weren’t interested and radio stations just wouldn’t play his music.  Instead of admitting defeat, he traveled around the country in a bus, meeting every DJ he could, and charmed them into playing his stuff.  He targeted a very specific audience and relied on a grass roots campaign to realize his dream at 15.  Only after he had already succeeded did the labels jump on board.

If I were that 8 year old girl, I’d skip the traditional route altogether, and just do what Bieber did.  This is some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever received.  Someone has been there before.  Ask them how they did it.  Every successful person loves to talk about how they did it, and really, loves to help other people succeed.

Even if you’re Mark Zuckerberg, blazing a new trail, someone has been there before.  Bill Gates was there.  Steve Jobs was there at least three times.  On a smaller scale, thousands of people have blazed a new trail in their little niche.  Finding someone who has faced the same challenges you are facing, or will face, is one of the most valuable things you can do to make sure that 99% doesn’t grow into 99.99999%.

Conclusion

  • The world won’t ever see 99% of what it took to create your product
  • Create a step by step plan detailing how you’ll accomplish your goal
  • Seek the advice of those who have succeeded before to help you from making mistakes that balloon that 99% to 99.99999%
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