One Word at a Time
The legendary music producer Rick Rubin has worked with the Beastie Boys, Kanye West, Adele, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others.
Rick Rubin was working with a well-known artist who hadn't recorded an album in a long time. The artist was trying to overcome some serious writer's block as he struggled to finish writing one of his new songs. One day, Rubin offered him some simple advice (1):
"Tonight, I want you to write one word."
That's it, just write one word of the song. Nothing more, nothing less.
And the next day: write one more word.
Rubin realized that any artist, no matter how frustrated, unmotivated or overwhelmed, could do that.
After an artist writes down a few words, a new line emerges. Then comes a new idea, and then maybe a new chord that goes along with it. After a few iterations of this, there is a song. It's probably not perfect or ready to be recorded, but it's a good start, much more concrete than what was ping-ponging around the artist's head only a few days earlier.
Breaking down an overwhelming goal into smaller, more manageable pieces: it's the oldest, most effective, and most under-appreciated method for solving problems, making progress, and ultimately creating something.
When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “if you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward," he was hammering on the same principle. In each goal we pursue, whether fighting for justice, building an organization, or simply writing a song, we have to continue pushing towards it, even if it means we crawl, writing one word at a time, to get there.
When Anne Lamott's brother was ten years old, he was given three months to write a book report on birds. The night before the report was due, unsurprisingly, he still hadn't started. He was overwhelmed and stressed, surrounded by dozens of books on birds and blank sheets of paper scattered on the kitchen table.
As it's recounted in Lamott's book Bird by Bird, the boy's father sat down next to him at the kitchen table and said (2):
"Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."
We've all been in this classic nightmare scenario before, facing some massive task or project that seems too difficult and complex to complete with the little time we have. Sometimes the situation appears totally hopeless, like we should just give up. And yet there is always a simple solution available:
Take it one step, word, or bird at a time. Whatever is necessary to keep moving forward, to retain momentum, to see things through.
"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.
You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
– E.L. Doctorow