The worst thing you'll ever write

A former professor from my alma mater shared this article on Facebook: “ABD Company: What’s worse than getting a Ph.D. in today’s job market? Not finishing one.” by Rebecca Schuman

The article takes a good look at the challenges that can lead to an incomplete dissertation, in particular the anxiety about seeking perfection before turning in work for review. One line struck me in particular:

In fact, for a career academic, the dissertation should actually be the worst thing you ever write.

I tie myself up into all kinds of knots wrestling with tasks that need to be completed. In part, I get all knotted up because I want things to be just right.

There’s a decent chance you’ve felt that way from time to time too. What will people think if they find a mistake?

What I like about the quote above is how it gives us permission to not be perfect. Do the best work you can now, and then move on. The next thing you do will be better for it.

That doesn’t mean we don’t try to do good work, great work even. We just do as best we can now, and here’s the important part, we share that now, not after we finish one more thing. Then we get feedback—hopefully constructive, encouraging feedback—and we iterate. We improve. We get better.

I’ve seen this firsthand when working to contribute to Drupal. The times when I have put out patches, as broken and incomplete as they may be, and then worked to improve them after getting feedback, are the patches that have gotten into core. The patches that get most stalled are where somebody is working on getting just one more thing right before sharing it with the world.

I had been wanting to make my personal site better for a long time. Finally last weekend, I buckled down, got the styles to a place I thought was good enough to share, and then I launched. Doing that, launching before everything was just right, that was hard for me. After I launched, I got feedback on a couple design flaws, flaws I knew that needed to be fixed, and in short order I fixed them.

It’s entirely possible that somebody rolled their eyes when I shared the new design before I fixed those flaws. But in reality, probably not.

One of the most freeing things I read in the last year was how most people don’t really think about you at all. 99% of the time, people are wrapped up in their own problems. They have barely any time left over to think less of you because you made a mistake.

Goodness knows, those people exist. I have had my misfortune to know far too many people who seem very keen to find any mistake I have made. But you know what? Those people are pretty awful. Living a life trying to please people who are awful, that just doesn’t make sense.

Most people are on your side. If you get up to speak, or if you write a blog post, or if you do much of anything, there are a lot of people who want you to do well. Live for those people. Make them your audience. Not the trolls and the nay-sayers in your life. Not the nay-sayer in your head.

I’m working on a lot of things right now, and with a lot of them, I get hung up on this idea of getting things just right before I move forward. This site is one step to move past that. I have more to do, more content types to add, more layout styles to develop, more landing pages to create.

But tonight, I set up a nice and simple content type: post. And I set up a new set of tags with the key topics I’m going to focus on with this site. And I wrote this post.

And hopefully this post is the worst thing I will ever write. Because the next one will be better.