“Don’t prepare. Begin. Remember, our enemy is not lack of preparation; it’s not the difficulty of the project, or the state of the marketplace or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications and a million reasons why we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do. Start before you’re ready. Good things happen when we start before we’re ready. For one thing, we show huevos. Our blood heats up. Courage begets more courage. The gods, witnessing our boldness, look on in approval.” -Steven Pressfield
Do we need to believe in ourselves in order to act or must we act in order to believe in ourselves? Do we need to feel confident as a precondition for taking risks or must we take risks before we can learn to feel confident? Must we develop the attributes of a brilliant creator before we can create or are such attributes the by-product of our repeated attempts at creating? What comes first: the faith or the practice?
In a Philosophy Bites interview on The Meaning of Life, John Cottingham argues that the right kinds of beliefs are the result of practicing the right kinds of disciplines. We lack virtue, according to Cottingham, not because of what we haven’t learned, but because of what we fail to practice. What holds us back is the misconception that we must meet a belief requirement before we’re ready, worthy, or qualified to employ the rituals and engage the traditions that make us better human beings. One example that Cottingham provides is the practice of meditation. In spite of its many benefits, many people hesitate to practice it because they’re not sure if they “believe” in meditation. For Cottingham, lack of belief isn’t a problem. Far more dangerous than doubt is the belief that one cannot or should not act unless certainty is present.
Cottingham’s solution is an understanding of the distinction between praxis and belief. Whereas belief equals intellectual assent to the truth of a proposition, praxis is “engagement in disciplines and traditions of action and practice which are aimed at the cultivating of virtue…” Cottingham believes that the people we look up to as saints, heroes, or great examples of faith are separated by their commitment to praxis, not by their uncommon beliefs. Thus, waiting around until we feel inspired to believe in the impossible is the very thing that stops us from taking the action-steps that eventually make it easier to do and believe seemingly impossible things.
Now many people think that belief comes first, that in order to embark on a program of… praxis, for example, you’ve got to first get all your beliefs sorted out. But Blaise Pascal, the great Frence philosopher in the 17th century, had a different view. He thought that you should embark on the praxis, or the practice, first and the faith would come later. And that seems to me the right way around. You can’t secure your beliefs in advance because the sort of things we’re talking about –faith and hope and so on— come as a result of immersion in traditions of…praxis. They come, as it were, after you’ve embarked on the path further down the line.
We often stop ourselves from taking risks, embarking on new adventures, or trying new things because we think we need to have positive beliefs, unflinching faith, or large doses of inspiration before taking action. In actual experience, however, we gain the attributes necessary to act confidently, creatively, and competently by taking action before we feel ready. In contrast to trying to force ourselves to be positive, inspired, or brilliant as a prerequisite for action, we learn much more effectively simply by maintaining an open mind, adopting an experimental approach to creating, and choosing to go about our work even when we don’t feel chosen, called, or certain. People who consistently do brilliant work are very often the same people who were once nervous, uncertain, and insecure when they began. For such people, the inspiration and mastery we identify as faith is the reward for their willingness to take new forms of action prior to feeling ready.
In Successful People Start Before They Feel Ready, James Clear, recounts the experience of meeting Richard Branson and hearing him discuss the importance of taking action before you feel ready:
I walked into a conference room in Moscow, Russia and sat down ten feet from Branson. There were 100 other people around us, but it felt like we were having a conversation in my living room. He was smiling and laughing. His answers seemed unrehearsed and genuine…As everyone around him was filling the air with business buzzwords and talking about complex ideas for mapping out our future, Branson was saying things like: ‘Screw it, just get on and do it.
Branson doesn’t merely say things like, “Screw it, just get on and do it.” He actually lives his life that way. He drops out of school and starts a business. He signs the Sex Pistols to his record label when everyone else says they are too controversial. He charters a plane when he doesn’t have the money. When everyone else balks or comes up with a good reason for why the time isn’t right, Branson gets started.
If you want to summarize the habits of successful people into one phrase, it’s this: successful people start before they feel ready. If you’re working on something important, then you’ll never feel ready. A side effect of doing challenging work is that you’re pulled by excitement and pushed by confusion at the same time. You’re bound to feel uncertain, unprepared, and unqualified. But let me assure you of this: what you have right now is enough. You can plan, delay, and revise all you want, but trust me, what you have now is enough to start.
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to start a business, lose weight, write a book, or achieve any number of goals… who you are, what you have, and what you know right now is good enough to get going. We all start in the same place: no money, no resources, no contacts, no experience. The difference is that some people — the winners — choose to start anyway.
In any craft or line of work, there are unpredictable factors and forces that one cannot anticipate, or prepare for, through research, training, analysis, and planning. There are certain lessons necessary for success that don’t begin until you 1) engage the world through action and 2) receive feedback from the world in direct response to the actions you’ve taken.
Readiness is not an emotion or a belief. It’s not something you should strive to feel or believe as a prerequisite for taking creative risks. No matter how you feel or what you believe, you’re not ready for something until you do it. As Arthur Ashe once advised, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
One could easily retort by saying “That all sounds great, but starting things before you’re ready wont necessarily yield success.” The insight to be gleaned here, however, is not that starting is some sort of insurance against failure, but that learning to move forward before you feel inspired, worthy, or fully ready is a part of what it means to prepare. There are plenty of unsuccessful people who started before they felt ready, but there are no successful people who felt fully prepared before they actually started doing the work.
During an interview on the Accidental Creative Podcast, Todd Henry asked Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, what advice he would give to aspiring writers, artists, and creators. In his response, Pressfield dispels the notion that readiness and inspiration will come along to save us from the necessity of just doing the work:
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t know. And the secret is this. The writing is not the hard part. The hard part is sitting down to write. So my sort of overview of the creative process is that it is a battle. There’s no sort of magic state of flow that you plug into and everything comes effortlessly.
…be absolutely aware, and brutally, ruthlessly aware of the fact that there is this thing called resistance that will stop you, that will work to sabotage your resolve, and your rhythm, and your perseverance, and your art. And that the one thing that you have to do before everything else is beat that resistance everyday. You’ll learn the craft just through doing it. I wouldn’t worry about the craft. No matter what the craft is, I wouldn’t worry about that. You’ll learn it as you go along. But what will defeat you, and what defeats almost every artist that does get defeated is that they allow resistance, they allow self-sabotage to stop them…I would say… to overcome resistance, you have to be incredibly tough-minded and really hard on yourself. You have to be a real professional. You can’t accept excuses from yourself. The idea of the artist…entering a state of ecstacy and producing a bunch of stuff is baloney. Art is hard work…This is war.
In an excellent Brainpicking’s post on Where Ideas Come From, Maria Popova shares an insight on the creative process from Ursula K. Le Guin that echoes Pressfield’s sentiments:
First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from….I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.
It’s easy to suppose that the people who impress us are saints from another realm who have access to some kind of hidden knowledge regarding how things really work. When the impressive ones speak for themselves, however, their messages seem to coalesce around a single earthly theme: do the work.
Waiting for epiphanies, paradigm-shifts, irresistible sparks of inspiration, or whisperings from an exotic muse is nothing more than a mystical version of self-stultifying procrastination. If you want new beliefs, you have to explore new experiences by beginning new practices. The way to become the best version of yourself is by doing important, challenging, and noble work even when you don’t feel certain that you’re ready, worthy, or qualified to do so.