I once volunteered to tutor a middle school student in algebra. You might remember that to solve an algebra problem, it requires going through a chain of steps, filling half a page or more with equations that have been slightly modified at each step. After finding the solution to a problem, the student I was tutoring would flip her pencil and try to erase all the intermediate work, as if embarrassed by it. She seemed to have trouble internalizing that her teacher would want to see these steps in order to give better feedback.
I’ve seen something similar in the handful of times I have coached friends to be ready for programming interviews at major tech companies. For people who are new to this kind of interview, upon being asked a difficult question the naïve reaction of most candidates is to freeze and think hard with their mouth shut. They assume that unless they can bust out a correct answer directly, they are likely to fail the interview. They do not seem to realize that the interviewers want insight into the candidate’s thought process, and so for the candidate to start out by describing an obvious or non-optimal solution is actually helpful and encouraged.
Why are we so terrified of showing unfinished or early work? Subjectively, we are afraid of being judged. But objectively, we appear to be mistaken about what our customers want.
I pretty recently came across the material of Gary Vaynerchuk, a content guru whose slogan is “Document, Don’t Create.” This is my favorite video so far. The corollary slogan is “Don’t Front.” One of the techniques of fronting is to self-censor based on a filter of how much you think people will like or respect the material. We may tell ourselves we’re applying a quality filter, but that’s kinda bullshit because the notion of quality is infamously under-defined. What we’re really doing is trying to protect ourselves from embarrassment by hiding our work. This leads to a vicious cycle because our work does not get exposed and we do not get feedback and cannot iterate. Gary’s remedy is to think of talking to the world as a process of documenting your journey as opposed to a process of creating products.
Maybe the reason this helps is that we all tend to be bad at identifying what others will find value in and want to consume as a product. But even if we could know this confidently and define the right quality bar based on it, another, deeper issue is this: consistency is actually more important than quality. In “The E-Myth Revisited,” Michael Gerber writes about going to a barber who gave excellent haircuts, but he had different experiences on each of his three visits. On the first visit the barber washed his hair, never used electric shears, and provided regular coffee refills. On the second visit there was no wash, 50% shear usage, and only one cup of coffee. On the third visit there was a wash half way through the visit, back to scissors only, and no coffee but was offered wine. Gerber decided not to go back even though there was nothing wrong with the haircut he was getting because of the inconsistency of the experience. “What the barber did was to give me a delightful experience and then take it away,” he writes. Does this mean you should intentionally do mediocre work? Of course not, but it means that you should do sustainable work. If you reach, and produce output that you cannot consistently reproduce, you have failed even if you succeed, because you are making the customer a promise you cannot deliver on. And maybe the original point — that we don’t necessarily know what others want — is really the deeper issue, because when we hide work that we think is inferior, we are withholding that work from the people who may find value in it. The people we perhaps unfairly assume don’t exist.
It took me a long time to realize you almost never buy a product as an isolated transaction. Most nontrivial products represent a relationship. You buy a product from a particular seller because you trust that seller to give you customer support if the product fails. Providing support is at least as important for a business as the absolute prevention of defects per se. There will always be defects. So the relationship is the real source of value, not the product, because hopefully you will buy another product tomorrow. And a relationship can’t be built by fronting, not really, not for long.
So maybe the reluctance to show our work is at root a fear of making a connection. Fear of work being criticized and fear of work being accepted may not be so different underneath.
When I was a kid, I used to start paper journals now and then. I’d write the first couple of pages, then lose the journal, and when I found it again I’d read the initial entries and tear them out in a fit of self-consciousness. I was pretty sure I was alone in this behavior.
But eventually, even this becomes a way to get enough practice and wear down enough resistance to break out of the cycle.