Most people who create digital things naturally accumulate a portfolio. Some people, though, end up with an oeuvre. These are the notable people in our fields who have a seemingly massive body of work, consistently writing, designing, shipping c0de, giving talks, and generally creating the things that everyone else consumes, discusses, and shares. What sets these people apart?
Talent is only part of the answer. There are lots of talented people with their heads down doing brilliant work with little major recognition. (Incidentally, the inverse is also true.)
It may also seem like they’re simply more prolific. But that’s not it either. You can have a million lines of code on Github and never get noticed or build something people are using. Between away messages, statuses, tweets, and e-mail, I’ve shared several thousand interesting links over the years, but that doesn’t make me Andy Baio or Jason Kottke.
So if being talented and prolific isn’t enough, what is? I’ve come to realize that the biggest factor setting the notable creatives apart is simple: they finish more. And not in the way you may think.
Most people think of “finishing” as coming to the end of something. I’m more interested in a secondary definition:
“completing [a product] by giving it an attractive surface appearance.”
Finishing is taking the extra time to not just release what you’ve created into the world like so much digital exhaust, but to sign your name to it, wrap a bow around it, and present it to an audience. It’s imbuing a sense of ownership, craftsmanship, and posterity into what you’ve already created. And, importantly, doing the same with your by-products.
Ironically, the digital nature of our work pulls us inexorably towards the continuous — each of our identities become an amalgamation of streams, our wheat and our chaff all mixed together. In this day and age where it seems like everything is a feed of ephemera, switching your mindset to creating for posterity and finishing more can be a huge force multiplier. Cherry-pick the most interesting bits of what you think about and create every day, then do the extra bit of work needed to finish and aggregate them.
Fortunately, finishing in this sense of the word is not a binary thing; we can do more or less of it as time and motivation allow. For example, a developer who has just solved a problem in code can publish the code, extract it into its own library, and build a standalone site for the library with documentation and examples. Each extra bit of finish extracts more value out of the work.
When you’ve finished a few things, put them together and publish them. Doing this helps us bridge the gap between our taste and our work. Maintain a personal site, publish a newsletter, present at a conference, write a book. Treat your work with respect.
A bias towards finishing is the killer instinct and we fail to develop it at our peril. Leaving most of what we do unfinished means that the vast majority of the time, energy, and passion we put into our work is for naught, destined to die with us … or likely much earlier.