Time to Greatness

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.


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.


  1. FamilyLifeBoat 13 years ago

    It takes enormous effort to create something, anything. And it is a lot of fun, at least sometimes, enough to keep going anyway.

    But as soon as you’re done, everyone is like, “oh, your finally done? Here do this.” Not even an attaboy. All they do is push paper too. Talk a out demotivizing.

  2. Author
    Dave Seah 13 years ago

    I’m finding some things are fun, and somethings are desirable and NOT fun, but nevertheless yield a sense of accomplishment. Right now, I’m finding the hard stuff not particularly fun on rewarding. It is boring but necessary, or it requires massive time and resources that I don’t want to spend, because the reward is intangible at this moment. I think this post was about how to get a hold on it so it wasn’t completely demoralizing.

    There’s a rule of thumb in video game design that a fun game is one that challenges you right on the edge of your ability, training you to handle more and more. If the video game is too challenging, then it’s no longer fun. If it’s not challenging enough, then it’s kind of boring.

    In real life, finding that edge of where your ability is matched by challenge is more difficult without an attentive teacher, and when the challenge isn’t well defined enough to HAVE a teacher (because it’s new, or it’s just so unique to what you want to do), then it’s up to us to define the challenge level for us. A second problem is that there is no guaranteed reward for meeting the challenge; in a video game, you at least get to see the next level, and there’s the usual loot or reward that makes you tangibly more powerful: a new sword, for example, or a new area becoming open to you.

  3. Jane Huett 13 years ago

    This makes me think of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits posts on living without goals – his focus has become less on the destination and more on the journey. If praise of your achievements is unlikely and if results are not guaranteed, focusing on the journey and making that as good as possible seems a good plan. Remain focused, but open to new opportunities and unexpected directions…

  4. Amanda 13 years ago

    The thing is, for any kind of major project (not like a blog post, say, but a recorded song, or a book, or a website), it’s going to take a 50:1 ratio just to make any kind of product at all. Which can be highly demotivating if you were hoping for a 2:1.

    But if you’re going to spend 50 hours on making a crappy product, you may as well spend 100 hours to make a fantastic product.

    It’s easy to imagine that if it takes 50 hours to make a product that’s 1% as good as you wanted, then it must take 5000 hours to reach 100%. But the last 80% of quality is actually as easy as the first 20%.

    That was more coherent in my head, but hopefully you can make sense of it.

  5. Al Pittampalli 13 years ago

    Great post, David. The Cult of Done manifesto tells us we should laugh at perfection. It’s a ghost. But it’s true, everything we engage in takes more time than we initially think to make great.

  6. Greg 13 years ago

    ((resources-to-create) < ((time-to-use|productivity-increase) * number-of-people-using)) | (personal-reward > resources-to-create)

    …in an ideal situation. So something that does take a lot of effort to create should ideally cause a reward for the creator, but that reward is less than the total enjoyment gained from it.

    That’s the delimiter of a creation’s success actually…if the ultimate enjoyment times the large number of people who do enjoy/use it is greater than the effort it took to create, then it’s a successful creation. If it doesn’t meet that criteria, then the reward to the creator must be significant enough that it doesn’t matter if anyone else uses it (art for the artist’s sake, for example).

  7. Yvonne Root 13 years ago

    You always make me think with a bit of a shift David. I like that.

    Here is the thing. I spent an entire afternoon yesterday working on a chapter of a home study which is set to come out soon. As I awoke this morning I realized I had chased a rabbit that was scrawny and not worth catching.

    I had already decided that most if not all of the chapter was going to be sent to oblivion and a do-over was in order. You and those who’ve commented have given me a bit of an insight into how my mind must be set before I proceed.

    Here, could you please hand me the telescope back. I think I had it turned the wrong way yesterday. I’m about to change my perspective.

    Oh, and the Thanksgiving dinner is sometimes out of a box around this house. Lazy or practical?

  8. Gary 13 years ago

    Thought provoking for sure Dave. For those of us pursuing our own paths, whether we be artists, musicians, craftsmen, and even coders, producing anything of real accomplishment takes serious work, or perhaps better said by Arnold; no pain no gain.

    There are virtually no workarounds to this simple anecdote, as nomatter how much you may also assess and rework the process of your design-to release cycle for efficiency improvements. In reality, the sheer bulk of what you actually trying produce, as say a real product in the marketplace, is rife with perhaps performing yes thousands of truly annoying and exhausting tasks that are needed to get you to your end goal, thats just how it is. The same as it was for Arnold, thousands and thousands of rather simple motions that were most of the time, physically painful, all to achieve the goal of perfection.

    What makes the real difference therefore in blazing your own trail, is discipline. Without it, without that fuel or that stick-to-it-tiveness to even do what we dread or dance around for whatever reasons, we simply won’t make it.

    The realized benefit of practiced discipline, is the development of tacet knowledge, where perhaps hundreds of sub-conscious thoughts and actions over time are being refined automatically even without actually realizing that we are doing it, even often while we are performing the mundane. Tacet knowledge refines your talents, and gives you energy, and inspires confidence and the right attitude towards the next flurry of tasks ahead.

    So there is good news in this journey, and this is what this journey is all about really. Perhaps the greatest realization of success, should you accomplish the goal, is not that you achieved the goal, but rather you were able to overcome and perservere through all those countless things you needed to face to get there. Once you can reflect upon success in that way, nothing you set your mind to in the future can stop you.

  9. Scott W 13 years ago

    In times when I am caught in this loop of creation and perfection madness I think of the mantra, Perfect is Great;Done is Better.