The Long Arc (Things I Learned While Writing A Book)

I think I’ve mentioned a few (dozen, hundred?) times over the past several months that I’ve been holed up working on an AC book. I’ve had many “long arc” projects in my life, but writing the book has been unique on a lot of fronts:

1. It is the fulfillment of a long-time dream. While I love writing in short-form, I’ve always wanted to eventually distill some of my AC work into book format. That I’m working with Portfolio, which has published many of my favorite business books, is an added pleasure. The “dream” factor has also added a measure of pressure to the process because I’ve been working hard not to “screw up” my chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do.

2. There’s much more “me” in this project than there is in many long arc projects I’ve worked on. The result is that writing became a very emotional process rather than a purely objective one. That can be exhausting over the long-haul.

3. Breadth and depth of subject were negotiable, but totally interdependent. This was a challenge because every change in scope of subject matter also affected the depth in which I could address other topics. There were very real limitations of time (due date!) and space (approximate word count) and I had to measure my efforts carefully.

So on to the lessons. I’ve really learned a ton from this process, much of it about myself and the nature of staying with passion.

1. Passion will wane over the course of a project, so clarity becomes a key determinant of effectiveness. It is inevitable that your initial passion for your idea will fade as you go about the process of bringing it into being. For long-arc projects this can be especially damaging because this “passion fade” can keep us from bringing the same energy to the later stages of the project, when we are shaping and refining the finished work, as we bring to the early ones. Scott Belsky calls this the “project plateau”, and argues that at some point most creatives become enamored with a new idea and jump ship on their current project. While I believe this is absolutely correct for early stage ideas or personal projects, once you begin a long-arc, on-demand project abandonment often isn’t an option.

What will enable you to continue on course as your energy and passion wane? Clarity. Not just clarity about objectives, which are important, but clarity about purpose. As I started feeling the wear and tear of 5:30am writing sessions and endless conversations with my wife that began with “can you stop talking about the book for a minute?” the single thing that kept my fingers moving across the keyboard was the clarity of what I was trying to do: free creative people to be brilliant every day. Reframing the project’s objectives beyond completion, and lengthening the arc of its hoped-for impact, helped me muster the energy to roll out of bed and crank out several hundred (or thousand) words each day.

2. It’s important to “stay with” discomfort. I’ve realized that my attention span has decreased quite a bit over the past few years. The other day I was listening to Pandora on my iPhone and was chided by the software for trying to skip too many songs in too short a period of time. I realized that my listening habits – which, as a musician and a lover of music, used to include listening to entire albums by my favorite artists in one stretch – have changed to the point that I often don’t even finish a song before looking for a new one. This is the unfortunate paradox of choice: by introducing choice we may unwittingly eliminate the joy that comes from learning to enjoy a process. In the golden age of radio (well, at least pre-iPod) we would sit around waiting for our favorite song to come on, and there was a minor celebration each time it did. Now we are fiber-optically wired to our favorite music 24/7. We don’t even have to wait for songs to finish. If we get bored in the middle, we can change them at our discretion. We have the ability to be in a state of perpetual comfort and to eliminate all boredom from our life.

But doing so also eliminates the potential for growth and discovery. Comfort is frequently the enemy of greatness, because it prevents us from taking risks. Learning to stay with discomfort is a huge step toward learning to steer a long-arc project to completion and stay focused even when everything inside is screaming for a new diversion. (Side note: As a patience exercise, I’ve taken up the habit of listening to Pandora exclusively for a season instead of my iPod music. I’ve discovered some great artists and found myself lost deep in thought regularly since adopting the habit.)

3. Finally, points of traction are critical over the long arc. I’ve found that placing the easier parts of the manuscript – the ones I was excited to write – strategically throughout the project made the entire process less daunting. They provided points of friction to help me gain traction and finish the book. Had I tackled them all up front, I would have had to push through the more challenging parts all at once instead of having a few easier stretches in the middle. It’s important to measure out your work and think in terms of energy, not just time.

These are just a few of my top-level observations over the past eight months. I’d love to hear how you’ve learned to deal with long arc projects in your life and work.

(As a side note, I’ve also been strategically absent from the site and haven’t been releasing podcasts as frequently. That will change very soon. Thanks for your patience.)

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