The Ultimate Skill
In The Coffee Cup Theory of AI, I talk about what Jerry Seinfeld identifies as the ultimate skill of the artist: “taste and discernment.” “It’s one thing to create,” Seinfeld says. “The other is you have to choose. ‘What are we going to do, and what are we not going to do?’ This is a gigantic aspect of [artistic] survival. It’s kind of unseen—what’s picked and what is discarded—but mastering that is how you stay alive.” And mastering that is the theme of this SIX at 6…
The Common Trait of People Who Supposedly Have Taste
In 1986, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, said in an interview that “large-scale innovation” requires vision. The interviewer asked how he defines “vision.” ‘It is the ability to assimilate information from a lot of different disciplines all at once,” Smith said. “The common trait of people who supposedly have vision is that they spend a lot of time reading and gathering information, and then synthesize it until they come up with an idea.” From what I’ve read and observed, it is also true to say: the common trait of people who supposedly have taste is that they spend a lot of time reading and gathering information, and then synthesize it until they come up with an idea.
Wait A Second, Why Did That Work?
David Mamet has written award-winning plays, movies, and TV series. He was asked how he developed his taste, his ability to distinguish what audiences will and won’t like. He said, “One of the things I do—and I think that all serious people do—if you watch a good movie or listen to a good joke or listen to good song, say, ‘Wait a second, why did that work? Or why didn’t that work? My wife and I watch a movie every night. After, we say, ‘Ok, where did it work? Where did it fall apart? How would I have done it differently?’” (Similarly, the fiction writer Brandon Sanderson gives the advice to break down what you love about what you love).
Take The Rubik’s Cube Out of Your Head
David Sacks—the founding COO of PayPal and current general partner of Craft Ventures—talks about how all of the successful entrepreneurs he’s seen and studied have a problem-solving network. “I compare it to taking the Rubik’s cube out of your head,” he said. Whenever he has to make a big decision, “I take the Rubik’s cube out of my head, put it on the table, and let others turn the Rubik’s cube for a little while.” After he listens to variety of opinions from a variety of perspectives, “I take that Rubik’s cube off the table and put it back in my head.” This reminded me of what Pixar founder Ed Catmull calls “Pixar’s key mechanism: the Braintrust.” During the development process, Pixar movies are reviewed and dissected by The Braintrust. Catmull writes that, as we talked about a little while back, “early on, all of our movies suck.” The Braintrust’s “job is to make them go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”
Just Try To Please Yourself
While it can be helpful to get feedback from a network of people you trust, if it is your name on the byline or in the credits, ultimately you have to like it. In a 1994 Address to the National Cartoonists Society Convention, Charles Schulz (the creator of the comic strip Peanuts) said it is disastrous to try to please an audience. Instead, he said, just try to please yourself. “I never give my work to somebody else and say, ‘What do you think about that?’” he writes. “If I think it’s funny, or if I think it’s silly, I send it in anyway because I’m just trying to please myself.” I like to think of it as using the consumer me as a compass. If I didn’t write it, would I read it and tell others about it?
Cut Out The Bad Bits
The legendary film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, etc.) was once asked about what he does for a living. “Oh, editing,” the person replied, “that’s where you cut out the bad bits.” Murch said he slowly came to appreciate the “unwitting wisdom” in that reply. The good editor (like the good writer, musician, YouTuber, entrepreneur, illustrator, and so on), Murch writes, “is paid to make decisions.” To have “discernment,” he writes. To know what to cut and what not to cut, what to pick and what to discard, what is a good bit and what is a bad bit. To have the ultimate skill: taste.