The word essay comes from the French essai meaning "to try, to attempt". An essay is an attempt to take a nebulous and messy thought and make it clear to the writer, and in so doing, make it clear to readers.

I shoot to write and publish an essay every 7-14 days depending on my ability to juggle the rest of life.

A friend of mine recently asked me how I have been able to write and publish so frequently. I am honestly surprised by my productivity too; I started this blog three years ago but didn't get into a routine until January. My recent productivity has come down to two changes:

  • I've become ok with publishing imperfect essays - these essays aren't going to be sold to the New Yorker so they don't need to be perfect. They do need to be good enough to be worth the ten minutes it takes for people to read it. That doesn't sound like much time but with a couple of hundred people reading my essays every week (I can't believe that is true - thank you all) we are talking about hundreds of hours a month of time spent reading my words. So my thinking needs to be good enough to be worth your time. The deadline also keeps me from spending too much time niggling over word choice and all the little details that can keep someone from finishing their work.
  • I notice and keep most of my incomplete thoughts and save them for later.

Thoughts are like seeds; they need to germinate, grow, and be tended.

You can't expect the seed to bear fruit right away; most seeds don't survive the harshness of the world. It takes time for them to develop.

How to Grow an Avocado Tree from an Avocado Pit
This Avocado seed will take at least five years to bear fruit - so I need to be fine taking six months or a year before my writing is ready

I've gotten into the habit of writing every day. This allows me to collect whatever thoughts have come to the surface of my mind. I bet that close to 95% of my thoughts aren't remotely ready for prime time.

If I notice that I am spending time exploring an idea I do my best to write out my thoughts. That might take five minutes or an hour depending on the how interesting I find my thinking to actually be in that moment. The act of capturing the thought often allows me to continue thinking about it and expanding the thought. Once I have gotten as much of the idea as I can grab I leave it alone.

Most of the time the idea doesn't really lead anywhere beyond "Ok that's kind of interesting". "Kind of interesting" is not enough for an essay. That's ok - I have something that can spur my thinking for the future.

I know that somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious those incomplete thoughts are still percolating. I try to review incomplete essays after a month or so to see if I have a better idea where my thoughts are leading me.

Maybe I've read enough books since I last worked on an old piece and now I have more to contribute. Maybe I've discovered something I didn't see in my writing and the essay can evolve.

The point is that I don't abandon my thinking just because it was incomplete. The incomplete thought is like a rough gem that just needs a lot more polishing.

A recent essay I published was about an experience I had a year before with a job interview. The essay was originally a brain dump about how annoyed I was that I had to bust my hump to learn a topic that I knew I wouldn't use ever again. I thought originally that I was writing about the gap between how much we value subjects like math and how important they actually are in the real world.

But after re-reading my old thoughts I realized that the essay was fundamentally about how I can reframe my relationship with math and my ability to teach myself.

That surprise is usually the signal that I have discovered what my brain was trying to get me to discover. I don't know that for a fact but I do know that the joy I feel from constructing a chain of thinking that is both clear and surprising to myself likely means that I have found something that can be of value to a reader.

Rick Rubin is a legendary music producer who has helped bring about some of the greatest hits of the last several decades . He has produced music with Run DMC, Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jay-Z, and dozens of other artists. I certainly don't want to compare myself to Eminem other than to say that all creativity probably has to go on a similar winding road that I have experienced in my writing.

The joy of writing comes from the discoveries that you make along the path. I don't think a single essay has turned out the way I originally planned. Every time I write I have the pleasure of discovering something I didn't know I was seeking. That is what makes this process so valuable.

Any random idea that catches your interest for more than a minute or two is worth writing down for two reasons:

  • It might lead you down an incredibly interesting path
  • It trains your brain to look for, and to recognize, interesting ideas and thoughts.

There is something valuable about writing ideas down with a pencil and paper; the neural connection between our dominant hand and brain evolved to be strong and I don't think just saying something into a recording app that transcribes the idea for you forces your brain to think in the same way.

But manually writing down an idea isn't always the most convenient way to capture thoughts.

I do both - I write at least three handwritten pages a day just about whatever captures my attention but I also write down whatever captures my attention in my notes app. As I have gotten into the habit of writing whatever captures my attention I rarely struggle to find something that is worth exploring.

Ultimately creative expression that resonates with people is about you consciously expressing something that we all have noticed but haven't fully grappled with. The surprise and enjoyment of that expression is why books capture our imagination, why comedians are loved and why we can't stop repeat listening to our favorite songs.

Not my favorite comedian but the act of writing and noticing the humor is something I admire

I wish we explicitly and routinely told kids that the reason they're forced to write essays in school is to help them notice what is uniquely in their mind and express it in a way that can be of value to others.

Drawing and writing are two tools to help hone your attention and to articulate the unique beauty that you perceive in the world. Our brains filter the world in unique ways and present things in a way where the value can't really be duplicated. Sure you can imitate and even make a near perfect forgery or someone else's creativity but the second anyone knows that the expression is a copy it becomes essentially worthless.

I doubt I am covering new ground in anything I have written so far. I'm sure there are plenty of writers who have stumbled across the same ideas I am exploring who have written with far greater clarity and wit. But my expression is unique to me and is hopefully of some value to others who might be encountering these thoughts, expressed in my words, for the first time.

We will never run out of interesting things to draw or write about because there are far more amazing things out there than we have the capacity to engage. That means that humanity will never run out of unique opportunities to create and express beauty. That is a beautiful thought to carry with you as you observe life unfold.