Time to Greatness

I’ve been contemplating just how much time it takes to do anything worthwhile. By worthwhile, I mean something I’ve made that I can feel pretty damn good about. The following is some thoughts about the disparity between the amount of time needed to consume and the time needed to create.

You’ve heard of the food chain, right? Humans are at the top of it, consuming whatever we feel like eating. Somewhere below that are bears, mountain lions, and other predators. Below them are many more smaller mammals that eat still smaller critters like bugs, which eat other smaller bugs that eat plants, and so on down to the bacterial level. We at the top eat delicious steak, largely oblivious of how many millions of organism-hours went into its production.

The chain that is on my mind these days is the product consumer chain, which is sort of like the food chain in that the consumer is at top buying up all the big-screen TVs they want. Anyone with a handful of hundred-dollar bills can instantly bag himself one of these electronic beauties without much effort at all, in a transaction that takes just a few minutes. There were, however, an incredible number of actions that had to occur before you could plunk down your money and load that TV into the back of your van, not to mention the ongoing R&D and industrial development that occurred to even make the existence of a large screen possible. Millions of hours of effort, perhaps, condensed into a few minutes of transaction.

The consumer mindset is one of our default expectations, a byproduct of having grown-up in a time of material plenty thanks to relentless consumer-oriented product development. Convenience combined with low cost-per-unit of production has robbed us, I think, of the proper mindset that goes into the making something new. The general rule of thumb is that it takes more time to produce something than it does to enjoy it. For example, it takes several days to prepare the traditional American Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner, but it takes about 30 minutes to stuff yourself into oblivion. There is a disparity in the amount of time it takes to create versus the amount of time it takes to enjoy.

If you’ve ever had a telescope and looked into the eyepiece, you’ve experience how far-away small things can be made to appear much larger. If you have even the slightest bit of curiosity in you, you’ve probably looked into the “wrong end” and saw how the telescope worked in reverse: near things can be made to look like they are very small and far-away. And so it is with the “product consumer chain”; its inverse shows you all the effort it takes to create that one heightened experience.

It’s easy to understand the value of the consumer chain when you’re a consumer: you get something cool for not a lot of time and effort.

  • From a utilitarian perspective, we would call this productivity: the ability to create more results from less effort than what was required before. If I can buy a device that allows me to do more in less time, I’m happy.

  • From an artistic perspective, it’s more like a heightened state of enjoyment. For $10.00, I can go watch $150,000,000.00 worth of blockbuster movie, over the course of about 90 minutes. For $60, I can play 40 hours of great video game that took maybe 100 people two year’s worth of time to create. For the cost of a museum ticket, I can walk into a gallery and look at hundreds of paintings that took the artist a lifetime to create and two lifetimes of obscurity after death, before being swept into five hundred years of storied art criticism and debate, and finally displayed for my pleasure in an air-conditioned box.

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p>As someone who has been constantly moving from the consumer mindset to the producer mindset, I’m discovering the difficulties of changing my expectations with regards to time. It’s like looking into the wrong end of the telescope: what should be NOW and IMMEDIATE looks so far away.

Everyone I’ve mentioned this to recently has gotten really depressed, but I’ve actually felt somewhat relieved. It DOES take a long time to produce something. Distilling the stuff of raw experience into something that stands out is supposed to take a long time. There’s no getting around it. You might get lucky and find some great shortcuts, or stumble upon something that can serve as the vehicle for your grand idea, but when it comes to making your own, special, unique part of it…it’s going to take a while. A long while. My back-of-the-napkin calculations tells me that truly exception work has a ratio of “hours expended” to “hours consumed” of about 100:1 (a great piece of personal design) to 1,000,000:1 (a huge movie). You can make something decent with a ratio as low as 2:1 to 10:1, I think…it’s going to be better, anyway, with any concentration of effort. However, the truly epic / classic achievements are going to take longer. Much, much longer. There’s all the fruitless time spent trying to figure out where to go. There’s the blind alleys and false starts that eat up time. There’s that ugly first draft that didn’t work, and the following ten drafts that almost, but didn’t quite work, before you got to something that suddenly comes to life. Or not, so you move on and try something different. One hundred hours goes, and you’re a month in. One thousand hours, and you’ve served time for half a year. Ten thousand hours, and 5 years of your life have passed on by.

If you’re feeling really depressed by that, this might be one reason why you are a procrastinator-perfectionist. We’ve already glimpsed what the possibilities are supposed to be, and we intuitively aware of just how much time it’s going to take. Perfectionism, naturally, requires either the development of immense talent or endless repetition: it feels like an infinite (or at least practically infinite, compared to consumer-style desire to want things instantly) amount of time.

Perversely, knowing that there’s a hypothetical 100:1 to 1,000,000:1 ratio of effort-to-experience means that I can cut the amount of production time by just shortening the experience. A great 3-minute pop song might take, then, anywhere from 300 minutes (5 hours), 3000 minutes (50 hours), 30,000 minutes (500 hours) up to 3 million minutes (50,000 hours) to perfect, hypothetically speaking. This presumes that the time spent is applied in an engaged and inquisitive manner, and you are being ruthlessly honest with yourself whether you’ve achieved “greatness” or not…

But I don’t really know. I’m considering it because I’m finding it takes a LOT of time to produce anything anyway. This was bumming me out, but I think it’s better to take it in stride and keep moving and keep my eyes open for unforeseen opportunity. The trick perhaps to keep trying to close the loop and complete a cycle, so you can assess what you’ve learned. If you’re just keep working without trying to complete something, you will not have manufactured the anchor you need to assess your progress.