All Success is a Lagging Indicator
On my desk, there is a notecard that says, “All success is a lagging indicator.” The line comes from one of my favorite Ryan Holiday articles. “When a day’s writing goes well,” he writes, “it’s a lagging indicator of hours and hours spent researching and thinking…Hitting a personal record on the bench press is a lagging indicator of a lot of discipline and hard work. Receiving a promotion is a lagging indicator of a lot of quality work. Delivering a keynote with confidence is a lagging indicator of a lot of preparation.” Lagging indicators—that’s this week’s theme.
The Level of Fear
In the documentary Free Solo, there’s a scene where a team of neuroscientists perform an fMRI and conclude that Alex Honnold’s brain abnormally responds to fear. “I find that irritating,” Honnold later said. “I’ve spent 25 years conditioning myself to work in extreme conditions, so of course my brain is different—just as the brain of a monk who has spent years meditating or a taxi driver who has memorized all the streets of a city would be different.” Before Honnold climbed El Capitan—a 3,000-ft rock wall in Yosemite—without a rope, for instance, “I’d drive into Yosemite, look at the wall, and think, ‘No way. Too scary.'” So he climbed El Cap more than 50 times with a rope. Fear and preparation are inversely proportional, Honnold says. The level of fear “depends [on] the level of preparation,” he says. The level of fear is a lagging indicator of the level of preparation.
A Cinderella Story
In 2016, Pharrell Williams visited a N.Y.U. music production class to critique student songs. He was visibly blown away by a song called “Alaska” by a student named Maggie Rogers. When the song finished, Pharrell said, “Wow. Wow. I have zero, zero, zero notes for that.” The video went viral, and Rogers, seemingly overnight, was a pop star. But…Rogers started playing music when she was 7. She started songwriting a few years later. In high school, she attended courses at the Berklee College of Music. During her senior year, she recorded her first album, which is what helped her get accepted to the N.Y.U. music school. As Rogers later said of the viral video, “My many, many years of focus and hard work got kind of packaged into a Cinderella story.”
A Second and 34 Years
As the legendary graphic designer Paula Scher has become a master of her craft, she’s experienced an interesting problem. “A lot of clients like to buy process,” she explains. “they think they’re not getting their money’s worth [if] you solve the problem too fast.” For example…in 1998, Citibank and The Travelers Insurance Company merged. They hired Scher to create a new logo. In their first meeting, on a napkin, Scher drew what became the iconic Citi logo. As Scher got up to leave the room, someone from the Citi team asked, How can it be that it’s done in a second? “It’s done in a second and 34 years,” Scher replied. “It’s done in a second [and] every experience and everything that’s in my head.” Scher’s ability to work so fast is a lagging indicator of more than three decades spent honing her craft.
Beware the Labor Perception Bias
The problem Paula Scher described is known as the “Labor Perception Bias.” It’s an interesting phenomenon: we are generally impatient, yet, we are skeptical if, for instance, we’re at a fancy restaurant and the food comes out only minutes after we ordered. A famous example of the Labor Perception Bias is the story of Picasso in the marketplace. Picasso was approached by a fan, who asked if he could sketch something for her. Picasso agreed, and in just a few seconds, he drew a simple sketch of a dove. The fan was thrilled and asked how much she owed Picasso for the sketch. Picasso replied, “1 million dollars.” The fan was shocked and protested that the sketch had only taken a few seconds to draw. Picasso responded, “No, madam, the sketch took me a lifetime.”
A Function of the Previous Work
My favorite definition of creativity is Robert Greene’s: “Creativity is a function of the previous work you put in.” Creativity is a lagging indicator. “If you put a lot of hours into thinking and researching and reading, hour after hour…creativity will come to you,” Robert says. “It comes to you, but only after tedious hours of work and process.” Just like success.