Better Passes, Better Catches: How To Live Your Life the Bethesda Magic Way.

The year was 1996. OJ went on trial in California. Michael Johnson ran away from everyone at the Atlanta Games. Garry Kasparov lost to an IBM computer in chess.

And, probably most notable of all: The Bethesda Magic recreational basketball team was formed.

I was one of the original Magic. There are many things I could say about Bethesda Magic basketball. I could tell you that in 1999, one of our players played an entire game in blue jeans. I could tell you that for several years, more players on the team owned Rec Specs than basketball shoes. I could mention that for several seasons running, a player on our team attempted to score on the wrong basket.

I should probably also mention that we were not very good.

It wasn’t until our 15th game as a team — the final game of our second season — that we won a game by anything other than forfeit.

But we ended up playing for 10 seasons. In our final three seasons, we actually won more games than we lost. By the end, we started to actually learn things. We didn’t totally suck.

I remember that decade of rec basketball fondly. Most of all, I remember the lessons that our coach — Coach Dinerstein — taught us. He was not a very good coach, by pretty much any metric through which you measure basketball coaching ability. We all probably knew more about basketball than Coach. But in his own way, he taught us a lot about basketball.

And if I may be bold enough to say: Some of his lessons remain true today.

Master the Fundamentals

If there’s one thing that I’ll always remember about Coach, it’s that he spent more time talking about passing than any coach I’ve ever seen. Our practices were 65 percent passing drills. We practiced bounce passes and chest passes all night long, with Coach walking around yelling, “Throw better passes! Make better catches!” This was rather necessary, because when we started, none of us could pass. I was particularly fond of throwing behind-the-back passes from the high post. The problem was that nobody ever caught them.

So we spent a lot of time practicing our passes and catches. We were determined to be more fundamentally sound than any other team in our league.

And by 12th grade, we were! Nobody threw a bounce pass like the Bethesda Magic. Our passes were crisp, our catches were clean.

Coach knew that great teams start with great teamwork. The best teams share the ball. So that’s what he made us do, every practice for 10 years.

Understanding What’s Important

Of course, there’s a catch to the all-passing, all-the-time practices: We didn’t really practice shooting. So we’d pass it beautifully in games. But then somebody would be open, and we’d yell, “Shoot!,” and that player would be forced to actually heave the ball at the basket. It rarely went in. And that’s kind of an issue in a game where scoring points matters.

Ultimately, you have to know what’s most important in your quest to do the work right. If you’re a small business, it doesn’t matter if you’ve mastered social media and if you’ve got a YouTube video that’s gone viral. If your product stinks, you’re not going to be in business very long.

We were a basketball team that couldn’t shoot, and if you can’t shoot, you can’t win. This was a fairly big hole in our overall basketball strategy.

Whenever I master a new skill, I try to ask myself: How does this change the way I do my work? If it doesn’t bring me a step closer to doing better work, then I need to refocus on different skills.

Keep Things Simple

In about sixth grade, Coach decided we were ready to add set plays to our game plan. We had two plays. Coach decided that when we ran Play no. 1, our point guard would yell out the name of a fruit. When we ran Play no. 2, our point guard would yell out the name of a vegetable.

In games, our point guard was fond of yelling out, “Tomato!,” which typically led to the team running both plays simultaneously.

We didn’t score very often.

There was one team in our league, though, that ran a play well. This was kind of amazing, actually. Sixth graders aren’t typically smart enough to do anything well that requires mass coordination.

This team’s play was called “UConn.” They ran it after every basket they scored. “UConn” was the call to set up their pressure defense.

Here’s how it worked: Their entire team swarmed the ball in the backcourt until our point guard turned it over. Then they took the ball and shot a layup.

It was a stupid play. It was painfully simple. It was basically five guys running at the ball simultaneously. It wouldn’t work on any team with players taller than 5’3”.

But none of us had hit puberty. So it worked. Every. Single. Time.

Simple things can be effective things, too.


Remember to Enjoy the Work

We were not very good. And if we had taken ourselves seriously, we wouldn’t have made it past the first season.

But we loved our teammates. We loved playing together. We were happy playing basketball together — even when we didn’t win.

And while other teams were in their huddles, yelling at each other, we were goofing around in ours.

Work should be fun. It can sometimes be stressful, and agonizing, and difficult.

But if it’s never fun, that’s a problem.

We lost more than we won. But nobody ever looked at us after a game and thought that we weren’t enjoying ourselves.

All these years later, my teammates from the Bethesda Magic are still some of my closest friends. We made a hell of a team.

Were we any good? Not really.

But we were everything I want from any team I’m a part of. We had fun. We knew our roles. We played together. We learned a lot.

Although I’m not sure if any of us will ever be totally sure whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.

It’s Hard to Have a Big Ego When You’re Sleeping on the Floor.

I was at the HQ/apartment on Monday night, sitting on the floor, when I looked up and announced to my editor, Jordan:

This is the furthest along this project has ever been. — or versions of it, at least — had been on my mind since 2007 or so. But it really came into fruition almost two years ago to the day, when I worked up a pitch for something I called “Four Days in America.” It would be a story, I decided, about the state of our union, with reporting on who we we are and where we’re going. It evolved pretty quickly to Two months later, I was leaving my job to start this thing.

Then came Biloxi — solo.

Then came D.C. — solo.

Then came RJI — solo.

But right on that floor in Springfield, on Monday? At no point has ever been closer to reality than right then.

Right now, we have:

A website that doesn’t suck.
Some fans.
A team.
Some money.

We’re actually on the verge of… something!

And more good things are happening! Like: I’ll be speaking about and our new website at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention this summer in Detroit. That’s pretty amazing.

And just being down in Springfield, I can sense the excitement. The library team, in particular, is absolutely wired about our project. They’re going to be a fantastic news partner this summer.

But I always find that just when my ego’s getting a little too big, something happens to bring it back to normal size.

On Monday night in Springfield, I slept on a yoga mat on the floor of the apartment. I used a hoodie for a pillow. My bed — and bed-related accessories — won’t arrive for a few more days.

Yes, is moving along. Yes, we’re making big strides. Yes, after two years, it’s starting to feel like we’re building towards something really big.

Yes, I can even use the word “we,” because there is a we — the team I’ve put together.

But you cannot have a big head when you’re going to bed on a yoga mat, with a hoodie for a pillow.

Stay humble, Dan. Stay hungry.

The Four Types of Haters You’ll Meet. (or: Beware The Wrath of The Rainmakers!)

I’m a member of a local Toastmasters club(1), and one of our members gave a talk last week that was so good, I begged him to let me republish the key themes here on the blog. The talk was by Kenny Freeman, a Columbia, Mo.,-based communications specialist. The talk was titled, “The Wrath of the Rainmakers.” I’ve adapted his words for the blog.

So here’s the secret: If you decide to do the work and take on your own dreams and ambitions, you’re going to hit a few walls. Building something from nothing — a song, a book, a company — takes a lot of work and a lot of persistence. If that sounds hard, it’s because it is.

You will run into walls when you’re doing this work. The biggest wall comes in the form of the doubters and the haters. They are out there. And if you’re doing really good work, they will find you. They will come at you with all the hate and negativity that can shut down good work before it even begins.

Call these people The Rainmakers. These are the people who will rain on your parade — if you let them.

There are four types of Rainmakers in our world. They are:

The Pirates: These are the people who exist to steal your dreams. They see what you’re doing and want it for themselves. They’ll try to get to you with their jealousy and their anger. Ward them off. They want what you have — but they’re not willing to do the work themselves to achieve it.

The Guardians: These are your friends and family, who want to protect you from embarrassment or failure. They’re often going to try to keep you from doing things that might be risky. But in the process of protecting you, they’re also keeping you from trying something that might succeed — or at least lead to growth. They’re not rainmakers in the traditional sense — there’s no hate here — but they are holding you back. And they’re an obstacle between you and the work you want to do.

The Gatekeepers: They represent the status quo.(2) They do not want to see anything in their world change. Their life is comfortable, and what you’re trying to do will affect their routine. They want to stop you before that happens.

Yourself: There is no greater hater than the one inside your own mind. It is so easy to convince yourself of the reasons not to do something. You can crush your own dreams with self-doubt and fear.

It takes insane courage to do good work. Believing that you can do it – and do it right — is so crucial. Don’t be afraid to take the first step. It is better than no step at all.

So don’t fear The Rainmakers. They only have as much power as you give them.

Give them nothing. Just do the work you need to do. Go prove them wrong.

  1. Toastmasters is an international organization devoted to helping people practice their public speaking and leadership skills.
  2. Kenny jokingly referred to them as the “status crows,” and now I’m never going to be able to see the crows from “Dumbo” without thinking of his speech.

When You Break The Rules, You Get Into Weird, Unexpected Situations. Here’s How You’ll Know You’re In One.

These words I have heard over and over again:

Oh, I’ve never seen anything like that before.

As in the time I brought my cell phone to the AT&T store with a crack in the screen. They asked me, “Did you stab this phone with a knife?” I told them, No! What am I, a maniac?

And then I heard words I would hear many times in the years since:

Oh, well then I guess I’ve never seen anything like that before.

Or the time I was in China, trying to get the right press credential for the Olympics. I was a student and a freelancer and I didn’t live in the same time zone as the newspaper I was writing for. This made the Chinese confused. On a half-dozen occasions, a government employee told me:

Oh, I’ve never seen anything like this before.

Or just this weekend, I was on the phone with the company handling the payroll for Since all my reporters are employees of Stry LLC, we have to go through some fun government hoops to get the team paid. The thing is, the LLC is registered in Maryland. We’re doing business in Missouri. We’re not actually making any money. And my entire team has permanent residences out of state.

So, yeah, you can guess what I heard when I was trying to get the payroll forms filled out:

Oh, I’ve never seen anything like that before.

This is the kind of stuff that happens to me all too often. It happens because I am decidedly weird, and I cause trouble, and I tend to do things that normal people would not do. is one giant case study in what not to do.

With, I was told:

Don’t quit your well-paying job!
Don’t start your own media company!
Don’t go into a passion project without a safety net!
Don’t start a business if you don’t know anything about business!

And they were right. They were all right. I mean, what I did was stupid. Crazy. Possibly the dumbest thing I could’ve done.

It’s also the single biggest decision I’ve ever made, and the one that’s gotten to me where I am today, and the one that I would make every single time. Even knowing all the crap I would go through, I’d do it again, absolutely.

But I’m also aware that I operate in a world quasi-divorced from reality. There are no cubicles in my world. There is very little normal in my life.

There is — as a friend told me a few days ago — probably something very wrong with me. And maybe that’s a good thing.

I’m someone who tends to make up his own rules, and I know that I will — from time to time — run into a situation where other rules actually apply. And where I will have to obey said rules, because they have consequences.(1)

What I try to keep in mind is:

1. I believe I can get it done, because I always have.

2. Things have gone wrong before, and I’ve always come out okay.

I’m always thinking about what I’m aiming for with a crazy new project or idea. I know what I want to accomplish. I know things are going to go wrong along the way.

And I know that I will do things, far too often, that will lead people will tell me that what they’re seeing is something that they’ve never seen before.

For the most part, that probably means I’m doing something right. I’m challenging the system.

There are times when I am flat out wrong. And in those cases, I’ll be the one getting challenged on it. Advisors/friends will tell me, You actually can’t do that! And then they’ll grab me by the collar and tell me again: Dan, you can’t do that. We know you like to push the bar, but for legal/ethical/health-related reasons, you simply cannot attempt this.

Which is good to hear, actually.

“Oh, I’ve never seen anything like that before” is different. When you hear it, it means that you’re trying something very unusual. The person telling you this knows that whatever you’re doing isn’t impossible. But they also haven’t seen anybody stupid enough to attempt it before.

Often, when I hear those words, the person will look up at me and silently ask themselves: Is this guy dumb enough to try this?

And the answer is often: Yes, yes I am.

Weird? Unexpected? Yeah, it happens when you start building a world that you really want to live in.

Get used to it.

  1. For tax reasons, or because the Chinese could deport me, etc etc.

Why I’ve Decided to Shut Down

Four months ago, I launched a blog that I had a lot of promise: I wanted it to be the hub for discussion and thought among my fellow smartphoneless Americans.

And I got some amazing feedback in the time since launch, especially from students here at Mizzou. They’d see my phone or hear about my blog, and then they’d quietly reach into their back pockets and pull out a flip phone. And they’d tell me: My friends make fun of me for this, but thanks for making feel better about my choice of phone. It’s nice to know somebody else has a phone as crappy as mine.

The truth is, not everyone needs a smartphone. Not everyone needs a device that does a billion things and runs through power like Kobayashi going through a pile of hot dogs at Nathan’s.

But right now — as I explain in my final post over at Smartphoneless — I need a device that’s slightly more powerful than the flip phone I have now. So I gave in.

A few weeks ago, it started to feel inevitable that I’d get a smartphone. As I promised a few months back: If I ever felt that having a smartphone would actually help my business, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one. And I finally conceded that, yes, this phone would help

So here I am, holding my new phone. Compared to my dumbphone, it feels absolutely enormous.

My friends are celebrating this the way New York City celebrates a Yankees World Series win. A former boss, who’s spent the past five years preaching the virtues of “the mobile revolution,” will be giddy.(1)

I don’t really understand why they’re all so excited. It’s just a phone.

I will not be playing Words With Friends with these friends. I will do my best to stay away from the addictive qualities of smartphones. I’m looking into ways to protect this thing from thieves/hackers.

And no, I will not be checking my email on this new phone. That rule still applies.

But yes, I am very much looking forward to becoming one of those people who tweets about how shitty their smartphone is.

As for my old flip phone, it’ll soon go to a recycling bin near me. I’m going to miss it. It was dorky and barely useful. But it did what I wanted it to.

I’ll miss you, old friend.

  1. She already printed out my email that told her that was mobile-friendly and stuck it on her fridge.

The Importance of Believing That It *Can* Get Done.

When I was three years old, I found a red pan in my preschool classroom. I used to walk around with this red pan and pretend to play guitar on it. There is a photo of me that my parents still hang onto. I have big, fat cheeks, and goofy, green overalls, and I’m soloing away at a red, plastic pan.

As I got older, I got rid of the pan, but the air guitaring remained. When I was a kid, I was always pretending to play guitar.

But weirdly, I never actually learned to play. I tried the recorder in third grade. Mom offered to let me play clarinet in fourth grade, but I didn’t even consider that an instrument.

Guitar? I never played guitar.

And then I got to college. Freshman year, there was a kid down the hall named Nate. Nate played guitar. He played in bands. He asked me if I wanted to live in his off-campus house sophomore year.

I agreed on one condition: He had to teach me how to play guitar.

So I bought a Martin guitar that year — dark mahogany, a deep sound. I spent the first three months playing three chords, over and over: C, E minor and D minor. In that order. Over and over.

My roommates grew to hate C, E minor and D minor.

Dan, air guitaringBut I kept playing.(1) By the end of the year, I had a few songs under my belt. I couldn’t play with rhythm. I messed up often.

But I could finally say I could play guitar.

I kept going. Junior year, I started to gain rhythm. Senior year, I actually figured out how to use a capo and play different sounds.(2)

My first year out of college, I accidentally discovered how to correctly play bar chords. That took me a year or so to master.

By the time this year came around, I wasn’t all that bad. I could play harmonics. I could play semi-complex rhythms. You could yell the words “Free Bird” at me and I could sing the guitar solo while simultaneously playing the rhythm.

But as far as my live guitar playing experiences were concerned, it was still pretty much limited to a lot of me, in front of the bathroom mirror, belting out Springsteen(3), and occasional fireside guitar sessions at the beach.

Which is why I decided to give a TED talk this year in which I would play guitar while simultaneously leading a group sing-along.

Here’s the thing: I love TED talks. They’re inspiring, and they’re right on that line between entertaining and informative. That’s the line I’m always trying to toe.

And I’ve always wanted to play guitar in front of a large group of people. I’m not a musician. I don’t play in a band. I don’t get a lot of moments to feel like a rockstar.

So a TED talk about U2 in which I play guitar and lead a sing-along? Hell yeah! Let’s do this thing! No sense in getting in the ring if you’re not going to throw your weight around, right?

I mean, I asked myself: Did I care enough to put myself behind something I’m really passionate about?

I love playing guitar. I’ve always loved it. I was obsessed with it long before I actually started playing.

And here came a crazy opportunity.

So I stepped up to the plate.(4) I was going to speak at TEDxMU — the independent TED event being held at the University of Missouri — and we figured out the logistics. We asked: How long would a sing-along take? What happened if the crowd didn’t sing? What happened if my guitar strings broke? What happened if the crowd watching the live stream at home couldn’t hear? What if I tripped over my guitar cable?

I was worried about everything that could go wrong. So was the TEDx team.

But I started thinking about what’s come before. Life’s always been a series of escapes for me, one larger than the last. Every few months, I do something stupid, get myself into trouble, and then figure out how to get out of it.

And slowly, I started to learn that I was just dumb enough to consistently put myself into strange situations, but I was also just smart enough to come out of them okay. That time my sister and I walked across the Moroccan border? We ended up having an amazing trip. That time I went to China with the wrong visa? I fixed it and got to experience the Olympics.

That time I my Ford Explorer nearly caught fire on I-70? I still made it to the game.

I’ve been in enough trouble that I started a series on this blog titled “Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong.”

So I know: Whatever I get myself into, I can get myself out of. I try to stay in over my head at all times, but I always go into it knowing that I have a history of surviving whatever goes wrong.

Then TEDxMU came around. I had the guitar tuned. I had the thing mic-ed. I was ready for disaster.

It never came. I started singing. The crowd started singing. I started playing.

The talk ended, and I saw this:

I don’t know how I pulled it off. But I knew going in that I would. I believed fully that somehow, on stage, I would do what I had to do to survive the talk.

That was all I really needed to get up there and give a crazy thing a try.

  1. I kept up my air guitar skills, too, for what it’s worth.
  2. Some of my friends didn’t realize I had learned guitar until much later. One friend saw a guitar case at my apartment and asked if I had, as a joke, purchased a case for my air guitar.
  3. The acoustics are always excellent in bathrooms.
  4. I know, I’m mixing all my sports metaphors together, but just roll with it.

Why I Am Giving Such a Ridiculous TEDx Talk Tomorrow.

Tomorrow, I will speak at TEDxMU, the TED-approved event happening here at Mizzou. I’m enormously excited to be a part of the speaking list. Astronauts, businessmen, leaders and thinkers will be speaking.

And me, somehow.

Of course, I’m not content giving just any speech. I decided that if I was going to give a TED talk, I was going to make it big.

The advice that I should stay in over my head at all times hit home, I guess.

This is a common theme among my talks. Last summer, I spoke at an event called Disruptathon about a man named Skeet. I had a speaking coach tell me that my speech didn’t make any sense.

I was named runner-up for best presentation.

I spoke in December at NewsFoo. A friend told me that I was an idiot. You’re getting a chance to speak to a big room of powerful journalism folks, and you’re not going to say a single word about your business? You’re going to spend five minutes talking about your mother? That’s just dumb, Dan.

The talk got big applause. Even my friend later conceded: It worked. I don’t know how, but it worked.

So tomorrow? Tomorrow I will get up in front of the TEDxMU crowd and give a 13-minute talk about U2. I will play guitar for the crowd and lead a sing-along, even though I’ve never played guitar in front of a hundred people before, and I’ve certainly never lead a sing-along before.

I do not know how it will go. I hope it will go well. I’ve looked back at my lessons from Disruptathon — know your audience, show (don’t tell), and use your time wisely — and I think I’ve got it down for this thing. I’ve also kept in mind all those times that things have gone horribly wrong. Even in those times, things have always eventually worked out okay.

I’ve practiced the speech. I know the chords to “Elevation” as best I can. When I put public speaking on my List of Things for 2012, and I meant it. No backing down now.

The only thing left is to get up, smile big, be confident and give the most ambitious, most absurd talk I can.

Here goes.

We, The News Industry, Are Still Searching For Our Can Opener. But It’s Coming. (Eventually.)

There is a lot of frustration in the news industry right now. We have this amazing distribution system called the web. We’re entering a golden age of storytelling. Every year, more and more people are taking time for stories.

And we’re still not making money.

But consider the following:

The can was invented, and then it took 48 years to invent the can opener, which made the can truly useful.

This is what I’m talking about.

We invented the web. We haven’t figured out how to fully open it up, though.

We’re still learning about this amazing thing we’ve created. What we know is, with the web:

-We can build amazing tools.
-We can build amazing communities.
-We can learn amazing things.

We don’t know much else.

Journalism is searching for this big, magic answer to our problems. We want things fixed now.

They’re not happening now. They’re happening slowly. Eventually.

Not now.

That’s no consolation for the mid-career professionals who are really struggling in today’s journalism market. But its the truth. It’s going to take a long, long time to sort out the business models. Decades, probably.

But we will figure it out. We will invent our can opener.

In the meantime, all of us need to get cracking at this thing we’ve got on the table. We have something wondrous on our hands. It lets us tell amazing stories.

Let’s keep building, let’s keep doing.

We’ve created the can.

Now let’s figure out how to open it up.

There Are No Off Days. (Jean-Ralphio and I Agree On This, Actually.)

Two things caught my attention last night and got me thinking about the work I’m doing right now. The first was this Instagram photo of the rainbow at the end of the road. (More on that photo in a second.)

The second was Jean-Ralphio.

Okay, not actually Jean-Ralphio, one of those strange, lovable TV characters on “Parks and Recreation.” It was actually Ben Schwartz, the actor who plays Jean-Ralphio on “Parks.”

I was just reading an interview with Schwartz from a few months back. He said something I especially loved about his own career so far:

“At the very beginning, I was a page at Letterman, and I freelanced for any place that would let me write any word. I wanted to do this so badly. Then when I got a tiny bit of success, I was petrified that I was going to lose it. I still feel it. House Of Lies finished filming, and I don’t know when I’m doing Parks again. The second that happened, I thought, “Fuck, I have to start writing. I have to keep myself working, because why else did I move to Los Angeles? If everyone else is working 9 to 5 every day, why shouldn’t I?” I wrote those postcard books, I’ll do short films for free, I like to keep myself creative. But there is an essence of “When does it end?” That drives me, and also gives me terrible stomach problems. The anxiety of not knowing what my next gig is keeps me hungry. I’m doing exactly what I’m doing, and I don’t want to fuck this up. There will be days where I’m not writing, but I’ll think back to when I was a page. I’d wake up at 6 in the morning, write monologue jokes as a freelance writer, go work the first page shift, sleep in the security office, work the second page shift so I could get some money, then I’d go take classes from 7 to 10 at UCB, then watch every show I could and take the last train home. I’d get four hours of sleep, and I did that for about two years. That guy would hate me if I took the day off today.”

That’s a hell of a fine reminder that there are no shortcuts. You do the work yourself. You finish what you start.

There is no plateau. There is no easy road. This life is not about a little bit of hard work and then a whole lot of coasting.

I have to keep slamming that into my skull. I’m still just learning how to do the work every single day. It takes discipline and practice, and I’m re-learning those traits, too.

There are no easy days. The work gets done, or it doesn’t. That’s my choice.

Sometimes, I have weeks like this — good weeks. Nothing big has gone wrong this week. I keep doing interviews with potential candidates for these Stry reporting positions, and the response to the project has been overwhelming. People seem to like the project! People seem excited about the idea! People don’t even seem to be insulted by the amount of money I have to offer!

And in a week like this, it feels like maybe, maybe I can just coast for a little. Things are going well. I can relax, right?

Wrong. So, so wrong, Dan.

The work continues. I can enjoy the satisfaction of a week like this, but not for long. The work doesn’t stop. There are new challenges, new opportunities. Shit I didn’t even know would happen is going to happen. I know it will.

There is so much more work to do. Gotta hire the team, gotta train the team, gotta get them out into the world, gotta find great stories, gotta get these live events going, gotta keep my stakeholders happy, gotta build the community.

There’s so much work to do. Either I get it done, or I don’t. There are no off days here.

I know what I’m shooting for. I see that rainbow at the end of the road. That’s what I’m aiming for. But I’m also aware: When I get to that spot at the end of the road, I’m going to find my goals and ambitions and dreams have shifted. The rainbow is a moving target. It’s not as much a destination as an aspiration.

That’s what’s going to keep me hungry. I don’t know what the next thing is for me, but I can’t let up now.

In the meantime, it’s all about staying sane and getting happy along the way. The journey continues. The work must get done.

Good. Better. Done.


There’s a Bruce Springsteen anecdote I really love. By the mid-1970s, he had recorded and released two albums — two really good albums — already. But Springsteen felt the pressure to turn in a breakthrough hit with his third album. He feared that if the third album didn’t go big, he might be finished in the music business.

The first song he stepped into the studio to record for that third album was “Born to Run.” Even if you don’t know anything about Bruce Springsteen, you know that song. It is a legendary, epic rock and roll song, and you won’t find a rock critic or a rock fan who disagrees with that.

Except that at the time, Springsteen himself didn’t think so.

He spent six months — SIX MONTHS! — working on that song. He spent six months working on a song that doesn’t run even five minutes long.

Springsteen, the story goes, became obsessed with the idea of making the perfect rock and roll album. He wanted to make rock and roll clichés seem brand new. He wanted to layer sound upon sound and turn it into something grander than anything that had come before.

“Born to Run” was his first stab at that perfect rock and roll sound. So he worked and worked on the song. He tried to make it perfect.

What he almost ended up doing was smothering a classic.

See, Springsteen lost all connection with how the work is done. Later, he’d tell biographers that he’d been hearing a sound in his head, and he’d become obsessed with it. Problem was, he just couldn’t explain that sound in the studio.

Maybe there really were sounds in Springsteen’s head, but I don’t think so. I like to think that Springsteen was just hearing the voices that all of us who do the work hear — the doubts, the fears, the worries.

The things that kill good work.

All of us who are doing the work — you, me, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bruce Springsteen — are all chasing the same thing. We’re all trying to create work that lasts, that has impact and that matters.

But no matter what you’re building or doing, there are only three stages that matter when you’re doing the work:




You start the work. You improve the work. You get the work up to your liking.

And then you decide that it’s done, and you send it out into the world.

I’ll admit that I didn’t always understand this. After all, aren’t we all striving for a certain level of success? Don’t we have personal standards to maintain?

Certainly. And as you do the work, you’ll learn to reconcile “perfect” with “finished.” With time, it’ll make sense.

Just remember for now: You’re not doing the work just for the sake of staying busy, right? You’re doing the work because you want to get it done and get it into the hands of others.

If you keep holding onto the work until it is absolutely perfect, you will be waiting a very long time. Get the work done, and get onto the next thing. You might think that you should hold onto it, that you should chase perfection, but what you’re really doing is keeping yourself from moving onto newer projects and better work.

Imperfect is okay. What isn’t acceptable is idling. When the time comes to decide if the work is done, don’t hesitate.

Stop asking yourself, “Is it ready?”

Start asking, “Is it done?”

Once you start following those rules — Good. Better. Done. — you’ll start creating a lot of work. Some of it will be good, and some of it will not.

But you won’t really know which is which until you get it out into the world.


That photo of Bruce Springsteen was taken by Takahiro Kyono and reused here thanks to Flickr and a Creative Commons license.