“A journey of a million miles begins with a single inch.”
Or something like that. The quote, or the original which mine references, may be the most quoted and least understood idea in America. It relates to the journey metaphor which, oft-overused throughout modern history, seems to be having a particular spike in our current age. In less than five minutes of scrolling, I’m sure, one might find that word on any of the three major social medias (if you don’t know which I am referring to, you are a lost cause, so stop reading and just bury your head in the sand, which you obviously have been doing metaphorically already). [Snapchat is not included here because it is something else entirely].
Despite the ignorant use by the even more ignorant masses, the application (true understanding) of the idea is, as DJ Khaled might say, a major key. Creation (or impetus) is at the heart of all entrepreneurship and creative life in general. Artistry, too, is little more than the urge to create and the process by which it occurs. Business or entrepreneurship is merely the theory behind the roll-out of a particular creative idea, whether the idea in question is the assembly line (old, outdated, boring) or the hyperloop (new, innovative, exciting). The single step idea is universal to all creation, and may be the most important factor in its success.
So how, in reality, does this idea apply? And how can one put it to use? To understand the application, one must first understand the current social and economic climate. Without any sort of actual academic and well-informed research, the layman’s knowledge (yours truly) may suffice as a background. We live in the world of the start-up - The world of social media, where anything is possible, and everyone is beautiful and happy, but it actually isn’t, and no one really is. Let me explain. The start-up economy, though beneficial for some, has hugely negative consequences for many more. The idea exists as such: A person, or group of people have an idea. This idea is a good idea and is destined to change the world, or bodegas, forever. Confident in the world-shattering nature of this idea, the entrepreneur/s find someone with the big bucks to finance their idea. This financier, upon seeing the inherent brilliance, provides all necessary resources for the business to spring up overnight with all of the infrastructure to meet a demand which is to materialize upon the advent of said business. Then, success.
Let me just come out and say that I have no real problem with this structure. It has gifted the world, especially America, especially California, and especially the Silicon Valley, many a technological and social innovation. However, the idea I do have a problem with is supply leading to demand. Let me flesh this idea out further by using social media.
First, created as a message board, the forum truly began to thrive with the creation of the “Like” button. While men/women much smarter and more informed than me have written entire essays upon this subject, let me abridge their ideas. The like button is terriblefor everyone. To understand why, we must again divert away for a moment. The "Like" button was created in order to...Um, well I don’t truthfully know why it was created. Perhaps some evil genius (i.e. Zuckernerd) maniacally created the function as the First Step towards world domination. More likely, someone thought, “Hey, this will be fun," and the result was fun...for a while. The "Like" button enabled people feedback on their posts. Now, not only could people communicate with others via the internet, people could also get feedback on ALL their communications. Sure, you may have thought that your post detailing your brilliant and inspired vision of politics was, well, brilliant and inspired, but was it really? Now you get your own personal metric (number of Likes/Loves/Laughs/Heart Eyes/whatever Facebook now allows) to let you know if you were right or wrong, and just how right or wrong you were.
Now, let me outline why this particular idea is destructive, and how it relates to startups. This fun, maybe innocent idea quickly metastasized into one of the main problems mental health professionals (i.e. not me) cite with current culture, especially current youth culture. With such a readily available gauge of coolness for everything one posts, these “likes” quickly became THEdefining factor for every post. Not only does each "Like" grant the creator of the post an addictive surge of dopamine (once again, proven by scientists who are not me), it also gives the poster (post-creator, whatever you want to call him/her) an instant reading of a positive or negative response, and by extension, how good or bad to feel about themselves. This little evolution has led to an absolutely insane surge in mental illness, but that’s not exactly what we’re discussing, so I’ll leave that conversation to the scientists. What I am concerned with, is how it affects creativity and creation in general.
Now, full circle: What the “Like Phenomenon” (yes, I just made that term up) and Start-Up Culture do have in common is the way of thinking they have fostered amongst both entrepreneurs and innocent-thousand-dollar-phone-using-children alike. The result is an obsession, not with creation, but with how that creation will be received.“Well,” you might say, “what could be wrong with that? Doesn’t that just mean that our businesses and social media interactions will be shinier and more beautiful? Who could be against shiny and beautiful?”
Me, that’s who. With any amount of digging into the lives and psyches of successful people, one discovers one main mentality in common: a willingness to fail. There are literally hundreds (yes, wow, an actually correct use of “literally”) of quotes and examples of this fact - Einstein’s failures in school or Edison’s actual ten thousandfailed light bulb designs just to name a couple. Each inventor/entrepreneur/artist’s main redeemable trait, allowing them to succeed was the ability to fail continually but somehow still hold a belief, a confidence, that they might yet succeed. They allowed themselves to keep trying, to chase a goal, to take an idea from their mind and put it out into the world, knowing that failure was a distinct possibility. Essentially, what I am getting at is a freedom to create.
Any true artist or brilliant entrepreneur knows that they do not, as they say, defecate mineral ore that is shiny and yellow. Even those who are able to consistently succeed are only those who have done a lot of work in their creative process. This means that they were allowed to fail, their creations were allowed to be ugly, their posts on Facebook were allowed to get two likes instead of a hundred. When a culture prizes only beautiful creation, this very freedom is extinguished, resulting in a few different (very bad) outcomes.
The first outcome is simply an abundance of cliché, unoriginal creations. This means all of those selfies that are taken from the same angle, all of those faces made up in the same way, all of those bodies sculpted into the same silhouette, all of those books written in EXACTLY THE SAME STYLE. This has been an obvious reality of our society, evidenced by nothing more than the current obsession with “craft-made” and “authentic” and all of that (a category which, ironically enough, adheres to the same rules of strict sameness. Manufactured authenticity. Ha).
The second outcome is much deeper, creating the conditions for the first. The hyper-focus on how creation is received undermines the process of creation itself. It does not simply hinder creation, it actually perverts (maybe destroys) the process itself. As i said before, the best creators were those who were able to fail. What is really true is that any real creation requires failure. The production of clichés is actually only an antiquated assembly-line style mockery. When the style and content of the product is guaranteed beforehand, that makes the “creator” simply a passenger, a channel for accepted societal likes and dislikes instead of the driver. Obviously, even true creation has its influences and the artist/entrepreneur is not free of the connection to society. The process itself is the question here, not the result, because every real creator makes ugly things. Steph Curry misses shots. I draw bad art (yes, even I). And our culture is corrupting the creative spark.
Now, the antidote. Have no fear, it does exist. I, the prophet, will speak. He who has ears, let him hear. The way to become truly good at creating comes from nurturing one’s creative instinct - Not by writing good songs, from having great moves, or from funding by Zuckernerd, but by learning to translate the vision in your mind into actual reality. Write when you get the urge. Pull out a pen and paper when you see something you want to draw. Print out that first batch of T-shirts. Apply for that cool job. It’s not gonna start out pretty, or, at least not beautiful. You will be rejected from the position, you will miss the shot, your business will fail. Just keep creating. Have better ideas. Learn to translate the ideas quicker and more efficiently. Most importantly, do not be afraid or discouraged. An animal is controlled by fear, a human is informed by fear. Know the fear, feel its bite, and start anyway. After all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.