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Fake Rocks, Salami Commanders, and Just Enough to Start

MaxFunCon: Merlin Mann on Doing Creative Work (via TSoYA)

Here’s the audio from a short talk I presented a few weeks ago at Jesse Thorn’s awesome1 MaxFunCon in Lake Arrowhead, CA. The talk is subtitled, “With All Due Respect to the Seduction Community2, and it contains my typically NSFW use of, well, words, I guess.

It’s about how to get started—just started—with any project that really matters to you.


Foam Barriers (and Granite Fears)

It’s difficult to talk about how to get started with a project without addressing why it can feel so difficult to get started in the first place. And, as I said in the talk, I think this often comes down to perceived barriers. Barriers to even the most modest kind of starting. Barriers that seem entirely real, external, and immovable.

But, why “perceived?”

img-fakerock Thing is, when you really put your back into it, and push against your barriers a bit harder, they often turn out to be nothing very substantial at all. More like fake foam boulders that just look lifelike because they’re illuminated by the unreliable light of fear. See, fear’s the really hard part.

Yes, the barriers give you a theoretically dignified toupee for carpeting over your neuroses, but the underlying fears are still unspeakably real. And, you totally know it.

So, just humor me. Think about something you’ve been really excited to make or do.3 Maybe something you’ve been thinking about starting for weeks, months, or even years. Dance lessons? Short story? Web comic? MAME cabinet? Tree house? Doomsday laser? Excel spreadsheet?4 What stops you?

Remember now, we’re not talking about finishing a project or even making something that you know will be the greatest thing ever made. Just starting. What’s the barrier for you?

Well, at least in my experience, if you’re honest enough to push past those sensible, well-worn consolations of generalized procrastination and unrelenting “busy-ness,” you’ll discover how many hang-ups trace back to some dumb, shameful fear. Yeah, I know. Crazy hippie talk, right? Still.

Any of these sound familiar?

  • Fear of Apathy. “I can’t start this until I’m positive the work will never become dull or difficult.”5

  • Fear of Ambiguity. “I can’t start this until I know exactly how it will turn out (as well as the precise method by which I’ll do it).”

  • Fear of Disconnection. “I can’t start this until I’m totally up-to-date and current on everything.”

  • Fear of Imperfection. “I can’t start this until I know the end product will be flawless.”

  • Fear of Incompletion. “I can’t start this until I’m already done with it.”

  • Fear of Isolation. “I can’t start this until I know making it will never be lonely.”

  • Fear of Sucking. “I can’t start this until I’m already awesome at it (and know that even horrible people whom I dislike will hail me as a genius).”

  • Fear of Fear itself. “I can’t start this until I’m guaranteed that making it will never be scary.”

There are probably a lot more, but these represent a few of the greatest hits spinning on my own particular jukebox.6

And, sure, there’s a lot of overlap, or if you prefer, design redundancies. Because once you let one fear hang out with you, it starts bringing all its buddies along to the party. And The Fears are a tightly-knit, mean-spirited posse who egg each other on and love nothing more than trashing your house while you sob in the guest bathroom. Fears are total dicks.

Then, There’s That Talking Lizard

To make matters worse, when it comes to strictly creative endeavors like making art7, your regular, old, garden-variety fears find an enthusiastic ally in the entirely rational, if philistine, voice of your Lizard Brain.8

Listen for it, because that voice speaks so often and with such consistency and unquestioned authority that it can begin to sound like common sense—even intuition. It’s the voice that sees you thinking about making something, then calmly, firmly reminds you where you’re going wrong, wrong, wrong:

  1. Grow up. “You already have plenty of things to do with your Real-Life Obligations without wasting time dicking around with some doofy ‘art’ project. That’s for kids and people with sandals in California.
    So, stop being childish.”

  2. Eat your vegetables. “Even if you cannot be talked out of making something, remember that those Real-Life Obligations all need to be completely taken care of before you even consider trotting off to pretend you’re David Foster Wallace.9
    So, stop having fun.”

  3. No one notices and no one cares. “Why bother? Even if you were talented and interesting (which you’re not), you know no one will notice if you never make anything at all. Because no one really cares. Including you.
    So, stop trying.”

  4. Your time’s passed, Li’l DaVinci. “Seriously, look at yourself. If you were ever going to be anything other than what you are or make anything other than what you’ve already made, you would have done it years ago. It’s too late now.
    So, stop evolving.”

See? What’d I say? The lizard’s a dick, too.

But, honestly, do you ever hear yourself providing a running commentary on how much you suck? Giving yourself a spirited anti-pep talk? Sure you do. I do. Everybody does—including people who produce unbelievably, unexpectedly successful work.

It’s not that successful and productive people don’t see those same barriers or feel that same fear—it’s just that most of the good ones have figured out how to either accept the fears as a natural part of the process, or they just choose to ignore each fakey barrier the second it appears.

And, that is precisely what this starting business is all about. Putting aside every “reason,” and announcing to your Lizard Brain that it can either evolve or suck a nut.

Not that this is easy. But, you know that, right? Exactly.

The Switch Flips

Think about the times you’ve tried to get started, but things just weren’t happening for you. What wasn’t right? What were you feeling?

Could be lots of things,10 but I’ll postulate one theory on how a lot of us knowledge-worker types get derailed at the point right before we really get started. At the point when we’re most susceptible to an attractive nuisance.

So, imagine the place where you go to make whatever you make. Could be a studio, a library, an office, a cafe, living room, or what have you. You’re sitting there. And, of course, you’re not doing Real Work for your Real-Life Obligations. You’re trying to make something new and perhaps wonderfully unnecessary. “Something useless,” the Lizard Brain whispers, “That no one will care about. That you won’t finish anyway. That you’re too busy to do….”

You’re now shamefully staring at your blank page or an empty canvas or a fresh Compass install or that unpopulated Excel spreadsheet. And your poor mind is already feeling like a lost duckling. You’re desperately casting about for something to save it—if not a big idea or the muse of “inspiration,” at least something that you really know. Something that you can get the hook into. Something that’s…important.

That? That right there? That is the enemy, my friend. That fear of your own inability and of the triviality of your non-work is so toxic. Because it opens you up to insane anxieties about what’s happening outside the studio or the library or office or the cafe or the living room or the what-have-you.

It’s all those fears tearing ass like a colony of E.O. Wilson’s ants. In growing numbers, they’re on to the scent of your anxiety, so now they can build new and customized barriers in record time.

Then, in what can amount to a split second, a switch flips. The Lizard Voice has gotten too loud to be ignored. You’ve come to what you believe are your senses, and you feel compelled to escape this Elysian dream world of nonsense and feelings and unfinished thoughts and “what the hell was I thinking?” After all. You’ve got real shit to do, right?

Ah. Those three horseman of the maker’s apocalypse have come to your rescue: the unknown, the ambiguous, and the incomplete.

Better go check email. Might be something “important.”

The Opposite of That Thing

So, are you getting the perverse irony at work here?

Given that your fears know you too well, they can capitalize on any uncertainty that they know you’d find intolerable. So, even a surprisingly trivial matter—so long as that matter might represent items unknown, ambiguous, or incomplete to you—can suddenly seem extremely important and will swiftly divert your attention from the cool stuff you’d like to be doing onto….oh, whatever that other stuff might be. Better find out.

And, yes, I’m waving at you here, email inbox.11 J’accuse, you horrible little troll.

But, you’re getting it, right? How the Lizard Brain lies and you believe it because it’s easy to believe?

When your resolve melts—when that switch flips and you’re pulled away from a generative kind of anxiety to be thrust into the more caustic and strangely addictive anxities of “real life”—you’re giving up a precious part of your real “real life” in exchange for security of the familiar. Problems you understand. Anxieties you’re comfortable being anxious about. Busy, busy, busy.

Problem is, all of this becomes like chugging saltwater.

Drinking saltwater is a terrible idea. Because it makes you thirstier than you were before you started drinking it. So, you have to drink more saltwater. Then, that makes you thirstier still, so you end up drinking more saltwater. Which makes you also drink more saltwater. And so on. Until you die. Still thirsty.

Ditto empty email checking. Ditto anxiety about anxieties. Ditto every other Lizard Brain impulse to solve a perceived problem by amplifying the thing that’s actually causing the problem.

Tolerance: Bulwark Against Fakey Barriers

If making anything substantial really matters to you, you’re going to need to take the cure. And, the antidote is nasty, difficult, and tastes way worse than saltwater. The answer? You do the hard thing. No matter what it takes. You stick with it at the time you’re most tempted to run away.

Like I said in the talk, developing those invaluable tolerances (the tolerance for ambiguity and the tolerance for sucking) requires the exercise of some very small muscles. The muscles are super-hard to locate, and once you do find them, they hurt like a bitch to exercise. But, doing that exercise repeatedly will pay you back ten-fold.

Because that next time you’re in the studio or the library or office or the cafe or the living room or the what-have-you, and you start to feel the fears building barriers, you’ll know what to do. And you’ll know how to do it. Because you’ve done it before.

There’s no trick here, guys. No system. No diagram. No hack. No tips, no webinars, and no Digg-able bulleted lists. It’s simply work.

You sit, you work, you tolerate. Then you do it again.


Enough. Just for Now.

I’m not sure whether this is precisely relevant, but as I’ve been working on the “Large Writing Project” I’d mentioned in the talk (more on that soon), a particular phrase keeps going through my head:

How do I know what I need to know…for now?

Not, “I can’t start this until I know everything about everything,” or “I can’t start this until I’m 100% up-to-date on every aspect of my life” or “I can’t start this until my skills, tools, expertise, and experience are flawless.”

Just really asking yourself how you know whether you have enough of anything—be it information, tools, skills, or coffee—just to literally start. Just start. Not forever. Just for now. Start.

So, how about instead of waiting for the perfect conditions, maybe try thinking about this stuff in a kooky, opposite way:

  1. Assume there will will always be tools that are better than the ones you have now.
  2. Assume that events in the world will continue to happen or not happen regardless of whether you learn about them immediately.
  3. Assume that you understand and control an embarrassingly minute percentage of the universe.
  4. Assume that none of this matters if you’re determined to make something you care about today.

You already have everything you need. It’s all there. And it doesn’t take sandals, or perfect pitch, or iPhone 4.0, or full-screen mode, or a ★★★★-star reputation on the seduction community forum to get started. Or re-started. Or re-re-re-re-started.

Seconds Away

Your Lizard Brain is absolutely right when it tells you that most people won’t notice if you don’t make something, and that a lot of people won’t particularly care if you do. But, how you choose to respond to that existential kōan will say a lot about your potential as both an artist and as an engaged human.

Because, if you’re relieved that universal apathy provides legitimate cover for eight blissful hours of “managing email,” then you’re in luck. Every day for the rest of your life. Punch out.

But, if you’re like me, you may find you’re invigorated—even challenged—by all that bigger ambiguity. By knowing that, at any time, you might be seconds away from starting something amazing that seemed impossible a minute ago. Even oddly prepared to drop the lizard crap whenever the need arises.

Weird to think how insanely different your day could be today. Purely depending on what you do in the next 10 or 15 seconds. If that switch gets flipped in the right direction, then stays there.

What can you tolerate? What will you start? Now.

See? You’ve got enough of everything you need. You’ve already started. Now just keep going.


  1. MaxFunCon. Seriously. This was the best conference I’ve ever attended. Don’t have the space here to say everything I’d like to say, so I’ll just say I agree with Adam, Matt, and some other enthusiastic folks. ↩

  2. The Seduction Community. How to trick ladies into having intercourse with you. ↩

  3. Make or do. On that index card with the “notes” for my talk on it, you’ll see the spanish word, “Hacer,” which can mean either “to make” or “to do.” I’ve always liked the idea that making and doing are very closely linked, especially for creative types. Plus, I enjoy an irregular verb with a silent “h.”  ↩

  4. Excel spreadsheet. I have no idea why poor Excel is my default array item whenever I have to mention something that’s not a fruity art project. What I really mean is “something practical that’s not all arty.” I actually like Excel a lot. Well. I like Numbers a lot anyway. Starting is interest-agnostic. ↩

  5. Fear of Apathy. This is one of the central, giant themes in Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory—that we do our best work (or, as he puts it, “live optimally”) when we are highly challenged by work in which we’re highly skilled. Apathy, on the other hand, is what we get from the dreadful combination of low skills and low challenge. Check out this cool diagram.  ↩

  6. Jukebox. In (7, Bird by Bird), the wonderful Anne Lamott talks about having a jukebox in her head that plays all the greatest hits of her past failures. As it happens, I have the same model. ↩

  7. Making art. Yeah, I know. We’re not supposed to talk about making art. It upsets people because it sounds all fancy. Screw that. I think one definition could describe art is anything you make and care about that nobody but you really needs. Which necessarily makes it important. ↩

  8. Lizard brain. Nah, I don’t precisely mean the amygdala, and I’m not (neurologically) talking about the actual reptile brain. But, I do suspect that a lot of dumb self-talk has roots in whatever parts of your mind are diligently trying to protect you from bear attacks. ↩

  9. Footnote note. You know who loved him a footnote? Yep. David Foster Wallace. ↩

  10. Lots of reasons. Lordy, there are so many reasons you might have trouble here. Including wrong timing, wrong modality, wrong mood, wrong setting, wrong “focal length”, wrong expectations, wrong preparation. But, be careful that you not use that as a checklist for not getting started.  ↩

  11. What’s an Inbox, anyway? Y’know, increasingly, I believe those three adjectives (unknown, ambiguous, and incomplete) tell us much of what we need to know about understanding why inboxes can be so difficult to keep away from. Much [*cough*] more on this coming soon. Ellipsis. ↩

Recommended Reading

[1] Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. 1st ed. Image Continuum Press, 2001.   [ISBN | Worldcat | Amazon]

[2] Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. 1st ed. Holt Paperbacks, 1998.   [ISBN| Worldcat| Amazon]

[3] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, 1998.   [ISBN | Worldcat | Amazon]

[4] Fiore, Neil. The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play. Revised. Tarcher, 1988.   [ISBN | Worldcat | Amazon]

[5] Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Expanded. Shambhala, 1986.   [ISBN | Worldcat | Amazon]

[6] Hart, Jack R. A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work. Anchor, 2007.   [ISBN | Worldcat | Amazon]

[7] Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1st ed. Anchor, 1995.   [ISBN | Worldcat | Amazon]

[8] Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Grand Central Publishing, 2003.   [ISBN | Worldcat | Amazon]

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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