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Shipping is a Skill – Love Your Work, Episode 265

September 30 2021 – 07:30am

Leonardo da Vinci is easily the most-accomplished procrastinator who ever lived. He finished hardly any projects at all. He was great at many things, but he wasn’t great at shipping. The world would have been better off if Leonardo da Vinci had treated shipping as a skill.

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Far be it for me to criticize anything Leonardo da Vinci did. Despite his repeated failure to ship, he lives on today as one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived – enough so that I’m talking about him in a podcast 500 years after his death.

What Leonardo da Vinci procrastinated on

He foreshadowed the first law of motion, saying two-hundred years before Newton that, “Every movement tends to maintain itself.”

He made a number of discoveries about the circulatory system: He was the first to notice the heart was the center of the blood system – not the liver. He described how an area of the aorta functioned, but since he never published his observations, it’s named after a different scientist, who re-discovered this area two-hundred years later. He correctly described how blood flow affects the opening and closing of heart valves – findings that were proven correct only recently – 450 years later.

He wrote or planned to write treatises on topics including painting, anatomy, human flight, geology, and astronomy. Much of what he wrote would have broken new ground in these fields, and set them ahead a couple centuries – if only he had published it. Even his greatest masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, Leonardo never finished. His patron never got their painting, and Leonardo never got paid. It was still in his studio when he died, more than fifteen years after he had begun the painting.

Okay, so some of Leonardo’s procrastination was iceberg-building

Much of Leonardo’s failure to ship was a part of his creative process. It was the creative waste that made the underwater part of his iceberg – as I talked about in the past couple episodes. There could have been practical reasons he didn’t ship. Remember, once Leonardo delivered one of his paintings, it was gone forever. He couldn’t snap a photo of it for safe-keeping on the cloud. One reason he clung onto mostly-finished paintings was so he could refer to them, borrowing a trick he did painting a smile from one painting, and a trick he did to make it feel like the eyes are following you around the room from another painting.

But it’s hard to say Leonardo couldn’t have been better at shipping, when you look at all he could have contributed if only he were. And if you want to be a great creator, it makes sense to ship. Most of us would rather have our genius recognized in our lifetime, rather than marveled at hundreds of years later for what it would have contributed.

Shipping is a skill

Shipping is a skill. The act of having a vision, planning to achieve that vision, and executing on that vision is a skill you should cultivate, just as you would practice a programming language, writing, or macramé. Treat shipping as a skill, and you’ll finish more projects. Shipped projects have a better chance of having an impact on the world.

The sub-skills of shipping

Shipping is a sub-skill of creative work. But the act of shipping itself has its own sub-skills. It’s hard to see what you’re missing out on by not treating shipping as a skill, unless you look closely at the sub-skills of shipping.

Here are the sub-skills of shipping:

  1. Vision: Can you visualize the outcome you’d like to have?
  2. Planning: Can you imagine the steps you need to follow to make this vision a reality?
  3. Resourcefulness: Can you assess what resources you have that can help you achieve this vision, find what resources you don’t have, and use all those resources wisely?
  4. Adaptability: Can you adapt your plan when some part, inevitably, doesn’t go as planned?
  5. Overcoming Perfectionism: Your final product won’t be a perfect execution of your vision. Can you overcome perfectionism and ship anyway?
  6. Fear of Shipping: Once you ship your project, there will be a void in your mind where that project once lived. Can you “let go” of the project and overcome the fear of that void?
  7. Facing Failure: Once you ship your project, you give it a chance to succeed or fail. Can you face potential criticism or failure?
  8. Reflection: How well can you reflect on the project, and process what you’ve learned, so you can apply it to the next project?

Project-independent shipping skills

Many shipping skills are project-independent. You can practice shipping, and many sub-skills of shipping, with any kind of project. Any time you have a vision, execute on that vision, and bring it into the world, you are practicing the skill of shipping.

Some examples of small projects on which you can practice the skill of shipping:

How I built my shipping skills

When I first started on my own, I had almost no shipping skills. So, I started treating shipping as a skill. Any chance I had to have a vision, try to execute that vision, and ask myself what I could have done differently was a chance to practice the skill of shipping.

The simplest way to practice shipping is trying to cook a recipe. I can tell you, it’s quite hard if you’re terrible at shipping. Fortunately I lived two blocks from a grocery store, because I had to make lots of trips back.

Planning parties was one of the more fun ways to practice shipping. I experimented with different themes. I learned who to invite first, and who to get involved in the planning, to get people interested in coming. One of the biggest hits was the “Inexplicably Overdressed Bar Crawl.” We’d go to various dive bars wearing suits and evening gowns. It was fun to imagine what would happen if a bunch of overdressed people went to dive bars – and it was fun to see what actually did happen.

I eventually worked up to planning my mini-lives, which I talked about on episode 5. If you’re going to try living in the city you dream about a couple months, how do you want it to go? How do you make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Any project is an opportunity to work on the project-independent shipping skills and sub-skills.

Project-specific shipping skills

On August 7, 1974, as groggy New Yorkers were on their way to work in the morning, they couldn’t believe what they saw in the sky. It was a man – Philippe Petit – on a tightrope. For nearly an hour, Petit performed on a cable strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Petit didn’t just show up and do a performance a quarter-mile in the air. What became known as “the artistic crime of the century” took a lot of planning. Yes, Petit had project-independent shipping skills he was practicing. He had the vision to tightrope walk between the towers when he saw them in a magazine in a dentist’s office in France six years prior.

But, performing a tightrope-walk way up in the sky has lots of project-specific shipping skills, too. Besides the obvious challenge of balancing on a wire without falling, Petit had to figure out how to gain access to the twin towers, what materials to use to handle the wind and the weight of his body, and how to build buzz about his performance so more people would see it.

So, leading up to his performance at the World Trade Center, Petit did performances on other landmarks around the world. He did a tightrope walk on the Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris, and between pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, in Australia.

Practice the shipping skills for your project type

If you have a big vision you want to execute, take on smaller projects that will help you practice not only general shipping skills, but also skills specific to shipping that kind of project.

This is why Seth Godin told me on that if I wanted to publish a successful book, I had better start cranking out “a book a week” on Kindle. I didn’t publish a book a week, but I did publish – and continue to publish – “short reads.” They’re great shipping practice specific to book-publishing projects.

This is why I encourage people who want to self publish to upload to KDP a really short Kindle book – even if they do it under a pen name. It teaches you lots of shipping skills specific to self-publishing books. How do you format the book? How do you get a cover design? What keywords do you want to put in the back-end? What categories will your book be in? These are all questions you have to answer whether you’re publishing a book that’s five pages long, or five-hundred pages long.

Practice shipping, and shipping will be easier

Publishing a book that’s five-hundred pages long will always require some skills you don’t get to practice when publishing a book that’s five pages long. Tightrope walking a quarter mile in the air will always require skills you don’t practice when tightrope walking a hundred feet in the air. But the more skills you master before your grand performance, the easier it is to handle the new skills you’re testing for your current project.

Practice shipping, and shipping will get easier. Shipping is a skill.

Image: Revolving House by Paul Klee

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

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