If It Doesn’t Ship, It Doesn’t Exist

If your ideas aren’t on paper, they don’t exist. If the project doesn’t ship, it doesn’t exist.

This simple mantra, which I likely learned from the software industry, should make us think twice about the rewrite and that one last proofread. It should also make us consider how long we’re willing to spend with the white rabbit named Research.

Many academics spend lifetimes on research and most contribute rather insignificant work in the larger economic spectrum of the world. The scariest part? Most of the work of academics never reaches the world—it stays in some sort of note format locked away in a filing system. And if it ships to people, it ships to the academic’s colleagues who also don’t ship very often. This is one of the many highly wasteful endeavors that drives the university system. At the heart of this problem is fear. The question, “What will my colleagues think?” controls the lives of many people in the world. We should call this what it is: it’s sad and it’s an excuse. (That last thought is highly influenced by Seth Godin and Steven Pressfield.)

Indeed, editing is translating and writing is rewriting, but economics are always at work. When I think about an editor or writer’s time, I’m not just concerned with what is or is not getting done; I’m considering the long-term effects of the current focus. Time is the one asset we can never get back. We can always make more money, but we can never get more time. If we spend energy on x today, will y be more important tomorrow? Have we spent the adequate energy thinking about y today? Will x or y have longer economic viability?

Perhaps the single greatest mistake an editor or writer can make is choosing the wrong project. How you spend your time articulates your values.

The creative is, by nature, alternating between ideas and thoughts: Input comes from all directions. But the creative, even a group of creatives, will eventually run out of time. Time, whether we like it or not, will dictate reality. Saying “no,” then, becomes our most important decision. Neither x or y matters if they don’t reach the world. (And working on both simultaneously can keep both from reaching the world.)

Putting ideas on paper is always the first step, but economics should always dictate which ideas get executed. Shipping something to customers makes it exist in the real world. Until that happens, it’s all just a game we play.

What are you going to ship this week?

4 Responses to “If It Doesn’t Ship, It Doesn’t Exist”

  1. Steve Runge July 8, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    Good words, John! I think the biggest shock after finagling shipping my first book was how little criticism I heard. The critics in my head are likely far nastier than the few that might really exist. Then there are the folks who’ve been waiting for your ideas to come along to spur their ideas. They outnumber the critics by far, yet how often do we give them consideration in out interior debate about “Is this good enough? Isn’t there something more I could do to make it better?”

    There will always be more to do, but it can go into a future project. Changes will always need to be made if you are continuing to grow and learn. What’s been pleasant to learn is that when readers learn that I’ve changed my position a bit based on things I’ve learned since shipping, it tends to increase respect rather than anger or frustration.

    Don’t listen to the voices!!

    • John D. Barry July 8, 2012 at 10:53 am #

      Steve, I have found the same to be true. The criticism I receive is usually not related to what I expected, and the criticism I expected (and spend too much time hedging against during the writing process), I don’t receive at all. I’ve often wondered if this is because I’ve already staked out the territory necessary to defend my view (before anyone has a chance to attack it), or if it is simply because I’m the only one interested in that many details. Conference presentations, where you’re forced to sweep widely across topics quickly, have taught me that the latter is usually the case. This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t be interested in the details, but it is too suggest that not every white rabbit named Research is worth chasing.

      Indeed, the voices in our heads are often fear, not reality.

  2. Doug Mangum July 8, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Hi John, I follow you in principle, but I’d like to air some thoughts that I hope clarify what I think you’re trying to say. In other words, these are some things that came to mind as I mulled over your post.

    First, I agree that academia is too insular and that research and good ideas rarely reach the public at large. Of course, many academics don’t do very good research and they can’t write well, so even their fellow academics don’t care to read or hear about what they’ve done. There are, however, many good academics who have devoted their careers to teaching and their research benefits their students directly (a limited group but still public). So, we don’t want to throw the educational system under the bus totally just because 99% of academics aren’t widely published if at all.

    Second, finding the balance between researching, writing, and rewriting is challenging. I agree that it doesn’t benefit anyone if we spend all our time researching. However, there is a danger in not spending enough time researching. Those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. This is a real danger when writing for a religious audience. Without adequate research, we could end up endorsing long discarded biblical interpretations or heretical theological positions. One example: it might occur to someone independently that the best economic model for human society is one where we all share everything in common. Without history, you don’t know the circumstances under which that worked (small tribal society) and didn’t (large scale national economies, e.g., Communist Russia). In terms of theology and biblical interpretation, there are prominent and published preachers in the country today whose ideas amount to little more than repackaged ancient heresies long ago discarded by the early church.

    All of this is to say that I think (and hope) you’re advocating balance between the writing, rewriting, and researching. All are important pieces in the process. We just need to recognize when we’ve done enough at each stage. Focus and avoid the bunny trails that keep us from shipping.

    • John D. Barry July 8, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      Thanks for the feedback Doug. Indeed, those who don’t value the past are bound to repeat it. Just yesterday I was reading a book from a popular-level Christian writer who made claims that scholarship–and church history–proved to be false years ago, yet there was no footnote and no discussion; the point was stated as fact. Research is one of the most valuable tools at our disposal, and critical thinking and logic–accompanied by adequate time spent thinking through the major issues and the effects of what we’re proposing–can lead us to the truth.

      But chasing the wrong kind of research can lead us to misappropriate our time and energy. It’s equally dangerous–we cannot get back time.

      Research is a never ending trail. The white rabbit never stops running. Nothing can ever be fully explored. There are always more connections to be made and more points to be verified. Research institutions model this mode of operation and it’s unfortunate. While some of our brightest minds are writing one more footnote or one more essay on a grammatical point, the rest of the world is moving towards either something better or towards a more dire situation than before.

      Somewhere along the way, research claimed the lives of people who originally desired to change lives–to do something extraordinary with their gifts and skills. Those of us who have now learned the skills of research must thank research for what it taught us and claim back from it the other parts of our lives it stole–the endless trails.

      Indeed, balance is what I’m advocating, but we have so far to go towards balance that strong words are needed. ;-)

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