Invention is Drudgery

cartoon7498Edison spent 18 months on the drudgery of trial and error to produce the first workable light, which lasted only 13 hours before the carbon fiber filament would burn out. He then spent another 18 months on the drudgery of trial and error before discovering that a carbonized bamboo filament would last 100x longer, and finally a modern-like light-bulb was born.

Isn’t this true in all walks of life, not only engineering? Musicians spend almost all their time practicing in spaces sufficiently distant from other humans, landing gigs with a slurry of begging and assurance, transporting and setting up stages, and hardest of all, getting more than four people to show up.

In the audience, we enjoy the show, blind to the hundred hours of toil backing each visible hour of glory.

Having skipped to the last page of other peoples’ book, we forget that everyone has to take the journey described by the whole book. So we feel bad about ourselves when we’re only on Chapter Four, having already toiled quite a lot thank you very much for asking, and when exactly are we going to get to the good part?

All we seem to do is drudgery — fixing the bugs that we were sure our unit tests proved couldn’t exist, tying off the loose ends of development that never quite stop coming, planning and estimating and communicating and post-morteming, taking the wrong path and having to backtrack, planning the launch and the training and the positioning and the alpha testers, and losing five hours solving a problem that on another day with different luck might have taken you five minutes.

It’s hard, it sucks, and usually the finish line isn’t clear enough to be compelled to do it day after day. Unlike a book, it’s unclear where the end is. Or if we’re even getting to an end.

So sometimes, we quit. We quit the job thinking wrongly that it must be different at the next company. We quit the startup because it’s apparently not working. We just get tired, and why shouldn’t we be tired and why shouldn’t we quit? Life’s too short and all that.

But that means the ones who eventually succeed, are the ones who will fight through the 5,999 filaments that didn’t work, put in the 10,000 hours to become a master, and fight through the overwhelming pile of challenges and drudgery that is always required to create something great.

Afterwards, when you’re panting from exhaustion and laughing because it finally worked, you’ll be able to look back and say, “I really did something.”

It sounds like a paltry reward given the investment. On the other hand, maybe it’s the meaning of life.


6 responses to “Invention is Drudgery”

  1. Great post Jason! I was actually just thinking about this topic the other day, because I’ve started hitting a wall myself. But I don’t want to give up, so I’m finding ways to stay motivated, and be OK with the drudgery.

  2. Very timely post for me also. Feels like it will never end. Is it worth it? Always good to be reminded it’s the same for everyone.

  3. You make a good point here. Behind every invention there is drudgery.

    I have recently stumbles upon an article in Wikipedia about survivorship bias. Have you heard of it? I think the concept is basically the same. You say that we see only the result and do not follow the process. According to survivorship bias theory, we only deal with success stories and have no chance to take a look at those who fail. Quite similar, isn’t it?

    The web is full of success stories. Every day I find a new article like 10 inspiring success stories. But where are those who tried, who followed all the rules, who worked hard, but failed anyway? We never hear from them.

    Successes are not exemplary. For example, a professional mobile development company claims here that they have built over 300 apps. According to their website, only one of these apps brought a million dollar income. Of course, any journalist/blogger/marketologist will be interested in this particular app. But what about the other 299? How can we learn, which tactics work and which fail in different situations? There is no one uniform rule.

    I love this article on how delusive success stories are, especially the definition of sucess as ‘serially avoiding catastrophoc failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage’.

  4. I love this article Jason! I love this metaphor too: “Having skipped to the last page of other peoples’ book, we forget that everyone has to take the journey described by the whole book”

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