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The Improvement Illusion

4 minutes read

Waiting to write down your ideas will not make them better. On humility, pride, and the lies we tell ourselves about thinking.

Have you ever had a great idea and thought to yourself, "I need to write an essay about this," but then you never wrote a single word about it?

You probably suffer from what I call the improvement illusion.

The improvement illusion is the false belief that if you postpone the writing of an idea, you'll write it better at a later date. It's the illusion that, somehow, waiting will improve the idea or the writing of it.

You tell yourself that if you wait, you'll find a better time to focus, so then you can really do the idea justice.

You tell yourself you need to stew on it, that you'd hate to rush and publish a half-baked version of your great idea.

The truth is you'll never find a better time to focus because the momentary epiphany is likely the most focus you'll ever have on that particular idea. Your motivation to write about it will only decrease over time.

Similarly, you'll never "do justice" to any great idea because great ideas are virtually infinite in their implications, and you are but a frail and finite monkey but for the grace of God.

There can be some benefits to "stewing" on an idea, but real stewing only takes place through multiple writings. Thinking about writing an idea is not really stewing on the idea. It's stewing about possibly stewing on the idea. Writing the damn thing down as soon as you possibly can—that's what it means to begin stewing.

If I made a list of every time I said to myself, "I need to write an essay about that in the future," I honestly don't think I ever followed through—not even once. Nearly everything I've ever written got written because I started writing something at the moment I first got the idea. Once I've started writing something, I can follow through until it's a whole book, if I want to. But if I don't write something down in an epiphanic moment, I know very well it's going straight into my massive graveyard of "amazing ideas."

Second Chances

If you have an idea that's currently at risk of death due to the improvement illusion, then there will likely be some context in the future that triggers the same epiphany from a slightly different angle. The key is to catch the next epiphany anew, as if for the first time.

There are two crucial tricks to catching a good idea after the first chance escapes you.

First, you have to crush the instinct that will tell you the new angle is a weaker angle than the one you vaguely remember failing to write down. You'll catch yourself saying something like this: "This reminds me of that great idea I had, but this itself is not the great idea. This is just a pale memory of my great idea, it's even worse than the half-baked version I had a few weeks ago!" No, you're having the same idea again, and it probably is great if you keep having it, but now you're experiencing diminishing marginal excitement.

Good ideas are like crack; they're never as exciting as the first time. You need to remind yourself that the weaker excitement level is not a measure of the idea's worth—the idea is timeless and not in the slightest contingent on your mood. You may find it helpful to consciously note the self-hatred you've been feeling since you let your first epiphany go; if nothing else, you now have an opportunity to cure this gnawing, ambient suffering.

The second trick to catching a subsequent epiphany is to crush your instinct to double-down on the improvement illusion. This will usually manifest as a sad rumination on how you really should have written that idea down the first time you had it, followed by an even more glorious image of the future essay that will justify postponing two epiphanies. "When I finally get around to this, it's going to be twice as long as I first imagined it, and twice as significant!" This is a very natural instinct, but if you succumb to it, your chance of ever producing the idea will drop even further. The fantasy essay would become so idealized that, if you ever do find the time to start it (you won't), you'll be paralyzed by the impossibly high standard you've set for it.

Pride and Humility

"Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real." —Thomas Merton

The basis of the improvement illusion is that we overestimate the value and significance of our own ideas. In a word, pride.

You have an idea and think to yourself, "This could make an amazing book one day," and then you start to imagine it on the shelves of a bookstore, and so on. It's no wonder you never get around to working on the idea! You're not really interested in the idea, you're interested in yourself.

You never have the time to sit down and write your genius book because nobody ever sits down to write any book, especially not the people who end up writing genius books. Good books get written by the types of people who like to write down all their silly little ideas. By doing that over and over again, sifting through them, sidelining the bad ones, cultivating the good ones, piecing together multiple good ones... If you do this long enough, it would be hard to not eventually produce a pretty genius book.

An ironic implication of the improvement illusion is that it's often your very best ideas that you're least likely to produce. The more promising it seems, the more it feels rational to wait.

Ultimately, the long-term solution is to cultivate the real humility that makes you see all of your ideas for what they really are: Fleeting playthings you're occasionally able to enjoy, for reasons we don't fully understand. To not just tell yourself, but to organically feel that one really is only a frail and finite monkey, who, through some grace of God, is lucky enough, here and there, to catch a glimpse of the real.

Why wouldn't you jot it down?

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