Your book has a birthday, Cheryl Strayed writes in a letter from Tiny Beautiful Things, you don't know what it is yet.
A lot of people ask me if I'm writing a book. Family, friends, readers who email me, random drunk people in bars. There's a widespread assumption that all writers are, at all times, straining to write a book. That it's the ultimate goal.
Except the answer, for me, is no. I'm not writing a book. Not directly anyway. Sure, I toy with ideas. I collect research. But I'm not writing a book. There's no secret manuscript or Scrivener document.
Not because I don't want to. I do, more than anything. It's what I dream about when I'm staring out of a train window, or right before I fall asleep, or when I picture my future self. Like a smooth pebble, I carry those words from Cheryl Strayed with me everywhere. I return to them again and again, a reminder that any day of the year could one day be that birthday.
And it's not because I'm lazy. I don't procrastinate. When it comes to writing, I'm disciplined. These days, I research, write and edit the equivalent of an entire book each month for work. I’m not one of those people who claim they want to write yet never practices - it’s all I do. Literally.
For a long time, I wrote 200 words a day towards my ‘book.’ I’d finish work, then open Scrivener and type a couple of paragraphs. I figured within a year or so I’d have my first draft without much effort. Except, those 200 words a day added up to nothing. Or less than nothing, because they made me feel like crap.
So I stopped. I put away the book that wasn't a book. I didn't know why and I felt like a guilty fraud. Then I came across these words from Epictetus:
Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don't stop it. It hasn't come yet? Don't burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. Act this way with children, a spouse, towards position, with wealth.
And it started making sense. I started to think about playing the long game. I started focusing on the groundwork. On writing a lot and learning a lot. Reading the books. Doing the thinking. Having the experiences.
Some days I feel like everything I am learning is a wrecking ball, smashing the paradigms I learned in school. It leaves me to rebuild my worldview from scratch. When I say that I have learned more in the six months since leaving formal education than I ever did in it, I mean that. I owe this new found sense of the long term to those words, to the banquet metaphor.
At the same time, I acutely feel what I think of as The Gap. The agonizing space between where we are and where we want to be. Ira Glass talks about this as the result of good taste. Mostly, The Gap is plain annoying. I get moments where I'm writing and I start waving my hands around, mouthing words as I try to figure out what I'm saying. When it comes to writing a book, I see The Gap and I see how long it will take to get there. As much as I try to give myself deadlines, it's going to be a spatial journey and not a temporal one. The pain of The Gap is what propels us to clock up our 10,000 hours, to keep working to bridge it.
This is the hard part of playing the long game: recognizing when we aren't ready to do what we want to do. Then continuing to prepare for it. Sitting at the banquet, waiting without burning up from desire.
Recognising that your book (or whatever thing you want to create) has a birthday. Any day could be the day you will one day celebrate as the anniversary of the thing you will be most proud of. The thing you are dying to create. The thing that will be your legacy. The part Epictetus missed is that most of what we wait for won't just get handed to us - we have to prepare for it even as we sit there.
Think of all the hair pulling and alcoholism and stress which could have been avoided throughout history if we could know when what we want will get passed to us. But we don't know when the birthday is, so we continue to flounder, thinking it will never come. Or worse - we forget that won't be the end point, that there will be the next milestone to chase afterward.
It's hard. It's hard to balance ambition and the desire to do things with the desire to do them well. It's hard to slow down, to focus on what we're doing now, to keep ego out of the equation. It's hard to figure out how to time things, without getting locked into mediocre stasis.
It's hard to know what everything is adding up to. I'm sure I'll look back on this time once I've done my 10,000 hours and everything will make sense. For now, it often feels like unstructured thrashing. The other morning, I woke up with a start at 2 am, freaking out over an incoherent email I sent three months ago. I remember lying awake, feeling physically sick, going over every damn word of that email and cursing myself for sending it. It took an hour for me to calm down and go back to sleep. That happens a lot. The next day I woke up with the worst case of imposter syndrome, thinking of something I wrote weeks before and why did I think I had the right to write that? What do I know about that? Or I find myself pacing my apartment, hugging my cat until she gets irritated and bites me, panicking over a headline someone else chose or an edit which clashes or a fact I didn't check.
I know this is all adding up to something and that neurotic perfectionism is a useful driving force. The problem is the great unknowability of the future. It's so hard to know when the time will be right. Somehow the only solution seems to be doing something each day to bridge The Gap. I have to constantly remind myself to act like I'm at Epictetus' banquet, that I'm not even twenty yet, that these years are for cutting my teeth.
Jack Kerouac decided he wanted to be a writer at 17, but On The Road wasn't published until he was 35. Before that, he had written other books which received a tepid reception and are forgotten. It took seven years of traveling, literally being on the road, filling journals and drawing links between ideas before he had what it took to write a masterpiece. His early attempts to explain the cultural shift he perceived were exhausting failures. When he did find his own voice, the book exploded out of him in a single three-week marathon typing session.
We’re quick to talk about the hard work it takes to make something, or the glory after it is finished. Less obvious is the time before either of those stages. The years spent building the groundwork necessary to even start working. The years when The Gap is enormous and insurmountable. Those years are always there even if people claim they aren't.
The narrative fallacy leads people to smooth away those years. Everyone pretends they knew what they were doing. They claim they had a plan. They justify it. 99% of the time that's not true. It's just hindsight bias turning confusion into coherence.
For as long as I can remember, I have grounded myself by thinking the opposite of that Cheryl Strayed line. When something significant happens, good or bad, I remind myself that before I know it, a year will have passed. Then five, then ten. However terrible or amazing it feels now, how will I feel in the future? Or when I'm going through something unpleasant, I keep in mind that one day it will be a year from the day it ends. Does that seem so bad now? It gives me perspective. Looking at both ends of the timeline - the distance from what we crave and the distance after it - makes it somehow easier to play the long game.
Speed is good. Breaking things is good. Shipping it is good. But it's about the effective speed for the situation. As Nassim Taleb points out, driving 250 miles an hour in New York will get you exactly nowhere. When it comes to the most important things - those that require solid foundations and a degree of mastery - there is no option but to go at the right speed and wait for someone to pass the plate.