Subscribe to blog updates via email »

The Iceberg Principle – Love Your Work, Episode 263

September 02 2021 – 07:30am

iceberg principle1920s, London. Radclyffe Hall was pacing around her study. She wore close-cropped hair, a tweed skirt, and a man’s silk smoking jacket and tie. Her partner, Uma Troubridge, sat in a nearby chair, reading the writing of Radclyffe – or “John,” as she preferred to be called. But just as Uma’s voice wavered a bit, John grabbed the papers from her hand, and threw them in the fire.

Listen to the Podcast

In the 1920s, throwing writing in the fire meant it was gone forever. These weren’t print-outs of digital files, safely backed up to the cloud. But Radclyffe still often threw her writing into the fire, if she didn’t like the sound of what Uma was reading.

Radclyffe Hall, like many great creators, understood the Iceberg Principle

Any masterpiece is just the tip of the iceberg

What I call the Iceberg Principle is this: What you see of any masterpiece is just the tip of the iceberg. There is far more knowledge and work beneath the surface, giving the piece confidence and grace. The Iceberg Principle is inspired by Ernest Hemingway, who said, “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

He explained further:

I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water once and harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.

In other words, when Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, he didn’t need to include every story and every detail about the life of a fisherman. He had already lived it. His experiences fishing were the underwater part of the iceberg. The stories and details he did include were only the tip of the iceberg. They were more powerful because they were held in place by everything beneath the surface.

What isn’t revealed gives power to what is revealed

If I say, “I’m David. I grew up in Nebraska. I now live in Colombia,” I’ve only said three statements, but each of those statements is held in place by a massive amount of knowledge and experience. When I say, “I grew up in Nebraska,” eighteen years of open skies and snow drifts and cornfields flash in my mind. When I say, “I’m David,” more than forty years of being called David are behind that. I’ve never had a different name.

When you read a book by Daniel Kahneman, and he tells you something about human behavior, there’s a lot of authority behind everything he says. Each statement he makes is backed up by mountains of data, and decades of running experiments and seeing it with his own eyes. While he maintains the humble uncertainty of a real scientist, there’s confidence and grace behind each statement.

Just think of how much work, experience, and knowledge went behind Einstein writing the simple equation: e = mc².

This is something Radclyffe Hall seemed to understand. It didn’t matter if she threw her writing into the fire and started over. When she heard Uma’s voice waver, that signaled to her that her stories or her characters weren’t flowing on the page confidently. The same way snow and ice layers onto an iceberg, making it bigger over time, pushing more of it underwater over time, it took many iterations for Hall to write classics such as The Well of Loneliness – the first great novel of lesbian literature. Each time she threw writing into the fire, the paper burned, but the iceberg didn’t melt – it only gained mass.

Keep the Iceberg Principle in mind

Why should you keep the Iceberg Principle in mind? The Iceberg Principle helps you manage expectations about your work. It also takes some of the mystery out of great masterpieces you see.

The product is not the process

That last part, first: When we see a masterpiece, we can’t help but marvel at how it must have been made. What we see is deceiving, because we tend to mistake the product for the process.

This is because the way we consume the product is very different from the process through which that product is produced. When we read a novel, we read one word after another. When we see a painting, it hits our eyes all at once. When we watch a movie, the images flash on the screen in order.

But that’s not how any of it is made. The novel wasn’t written one word after another. The painting wasn’t laid down in orderly brushstrokes. The events in the movie weren’t shot, much less conceived, one after another. And no, Michelangelo did not “simply remove everything that wasn’t David.” As I talked about in Mind Management, Not Time Management, an enormous amount of “Preparation” went into carving the David.

So when you see a great masterpiece, and marvel at how it must have been created, know that the product is not the process. What you see is only the tip of the iceberg.

Manage your expectations

It might feel intimidating to know that what you see of any masterpiece is only a small amount of the work and experience it took to create it. But it can be empowering, too.

Don’t get frustrated when you sit down to write and it doesn’t make sense. Don’t lose hope when you strum a guitar and the strings rattle on the frets. Things don’t come out perfectly the first time around.

I’ve talked a little on this podcast and in The Heart to Start about the Fortress Fallacy: that we tend to have visions that outpace our current abilities. One reason we fall for the Fortress Fallacy is that when we envision building a fortress, we only think of the act of building the actual fortress. We don’t think about the other seven-eighths of the work that goes into the knowledge and planning and materials sourcing of building the fortress.

The iceberg takes many forms

The underwater part of the iceberg can take many forms. For Hemingway, it was his life experiences, fishing. For Hall, it was the many failed iterations of her writing. The underwater part of the iceberg can be other projects you’ve done, other projects you never finished, or even time your ideas have spent incubating, between projects. Any of these can be the underwater part of the iceberg. They hold up the visible parts with confidence and grace.

Great creators follow the Iceberg Principle

We rarely get to see the underwater part of icebergs in creators’ work. But if you look hard, you can find it.

There are few art forms where the process is more unlike the product than movies. If you had asked me when I was a kid how movies were made, I would have guessed actors and camera operators just made something up. That’s how the movies I made on our home video camera were done, after all.

But in fact an incredible amount of work goes into making a movie well before camera operators are hired and actors are cast. I know now that a writer writes a screenplay first. Thanks to screenwriting instructor Robert McKee’s book, Story, we can see the underwater part of the iceberg.

McKee warns screenwriters that if every idea they come up with makes it into their final screenplay, they’ve got a problem. “If you’ve never thrown an idea away,” he says, “your work will almost certainly fail.”

The Iceberg Principle is why Stephen King tells writers, “Kill your darlings.” (Don’t dare try to keep your whole iceberg above water. Even your favorite parts.)

It’s why when Meredith Monk is composing an interdisciplinary performance, she draws charts and graphs about how the various elements – music and dance and space on the stage – will interact with one another. None of those sketches make it to the final performance, but that work is there to add grace to the piece.

It’s why Jerry Seinfeld has described the joke-writing process as an experiment that gathers data. In other words, you don’t just get up on stage and tell a great joke. You have to go from writing desk to stage and back again many times. He said of his joke-writing process, “It’s ninety-five percent re-write.”

It’s why, when Margaret Mitchell was writing Gone With the Wind, she re-wrote nearly every chapter at least twenty times.

Start building your iceberg

When we see masterpieces we admire, and try to replicate that work, we’re bound to fail. What we create is so far from our vision, it seems pointless to even try.

But thanks to the Iceberg Principle, you now know that what you see of any masterpiece is just the tip of the iceberg. To build your masterpiece, start building your iceberg. The more you add to the underwater part of your iceberg, the more solid and beautiful your masterpiece will be.

Image: Crystal Gradation by Paul Klee

Thank you for having me on your podcasts!

Thank you for having me on your podcast! Thank you to Kjell Vandevyvere of Coffee and Pens. As always, you can find all podcast interviews of me at

Join the Patreon for (new) bonus content!

I've been adding lots of new content to Patreon. Join the Patreon »

Subscribe to Love Your Work

Overcast Apple Stitcher RSS

Listen to the Podcast

Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

Thinking of
writing a book?

How to Write a Book cover
Download your FREE copy of How to Write a Book »

(for a limited time)

This post is filed under Love Your Work Podcast.