Rough Drafts

Everyone fails. It takes skill to fail well.

“Sacred and Undeniable”

In 1974, three years before the movie was released, George Lucas’s early screenplay for The Star Wars included a character named Luke Starkiller saying bits of dialogue like “May the force of others be with you.”

When coming across this recently, I was reminded of two other rough drafts most people don’t know about. First, I thought of guitarist Darby Slick who, in 1965, wrote a song actually called “Mind Full of Bread”, a musing on giving love that was destined to be forgotten… You’ve heard this song, later released by his band Jefferson Airplane under the title “Somebody to Love”.

Then I recalled how, two centuries before both of those, Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence had us holding these truths to be “sacred and undeniable” rather than “self-evident”.

The Unseen Rough Drafts

As it turns out, underlying most of what we read, watch, listen to, etc. is a substantial unseen collection of trash. The same is true for the products we use every day, the services we pay for, the experts we quote. This is the stuff that’s shoved into the closet, the part of the iceberg under water, the rough drafts that no one sees.

Most of the books I’ve read about writing start with some variation of this advice: Don’t compare your early drafts to someone else’s finished work. And this raises an interesting question. Where are all these drafts? Why don’t we ever talk about them?

The biggest disconnect that exists between creators and consumers (in any field: businesses, content, jokes, etc.) is that the only thing that matters to a consumer is the end state. A creator will have been on a long (and often arduous) journey to get there, whereas a consumer will only see what comes out after that journey is over.

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The School of Right and Wrong

When you were a child, growing up K-12, prepping for math tests and spelling bees and state finals or SATs, virtually everything you did was assessed in binary. There were right answers, there were wrong ones, and in between there were no options.

Educational institutions tend to instill this philosophy from a young age. Students are moved up and down a single dimension of success that penalizes mistakes and rewards knowing answers up front. The primary skill we reinforce is getting it right the first time.

I can count on zero hands the number of times in school I remember being asked to revise an essay or retake a test after it was graded. It never occurred to me until I became an entrepreneur and a writer and—above all else—a parent how incredibly unhelpful this regime of “right” and “wrong” was in shaping my mind.

Here’s why: Nothing worthwhile I’ve accomplished in my life had a binary right/wrong answer. Everything took time and iteration and learning from mistakes. It took revision and revision and—when I couldn’t stand it anymore—another round of revision. No company I’ve built or strategy I’ve developed or piece of writing I’ve published ever saw the light of day without first being worked on again and again in the darkness.

Most of what constitutes adulting after our school years end is the getting of things wrong the first time (and the second time, and the third, etc). Those I know who have succeeded (however you might define that term) are not the ones who get the right answer immediately, but the ones who know how to get from a wrong answer to the right answer quickly.

A friend of mine (Molly Stern of Zando) recently shared with me some advice she gives her teenage kids. “Great,” she tells them, “I’m glad you can write. Now show me you can edit.”

Similarly, writer Samuel Beckett (not a friend of mine) famously said, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

The Iterative Magic of Failure

Common among all the voyages through uncharted waters people experience every day is an often forgotten fact: Anyone can fail. It takes skill to fail well.

In fact, one of many memorable lessons learned in my startup days is that being small and having few resources with which to absorb mistakes is not a weakness but a significant advantage. Everyone, including all of your well-resourced competitors, fail and make mistakes as often as you do; they have just as many rough drafts. It’s the iterative process of recognizing the mistakes and revising them quickly that determines success above all else.

Reminding oneself of this fact is tricky, particularly when you’re brought down by the many hurdles of creative pursuits. It’s easy to forget that when looking at finished products or books or ideas or anything else for that matter all you’re seeing is the final output.

I look at my two young kids—both of whom love creating, with words, with crayons, with legos—and I’m struck by how little our society invests in teaching children this most valuable skill. They won’t always “get it right”; in fact, much of the time, they’ll get it wrong. But anyone can fail. It takes skill to fail well.