Define Acceptable

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

Once you’ve defined what quality means to you, you can also define what is acceptable: the minimum bar for quality, a passable mark. Not complete, certainly not perfect, but acceptable for you to declare that it’s done.

When you choose to make something acceptable, rather than perfect, you reduce the expectations and ensuing pressure that could block your creativity. You complete your work, stay motivated, knowing another opportunity is just around the corner, which provides another chance to make something interesting.

Knowing what acceptable means to you helps when you’re deciding whether or not a creative work—or a version of it—is actually done. You might double check to see if all the parts of your work pass your standard. In my line of work (writing) that means I’ll edit my draft three times before it’s done. I check it for grammar, voice, tone, and flow. Similar to a factory line, though, it’s best to also add in other stages to check the work’s quality, so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises at the end.

This can literally be a series of sentences that enable you to communicate when something is done. For example, the GitHub team published the philosophies that drove their decision making in a document known as The Zen of GitHub, which includes this quality check: “It’s not fully shipped until it’s fast.” If you want to declare something as fully complete at GitHub, you need to make it fast, probably meeting a maximum of some predefined set of milliseconds.

As I heard from recording artist and amateur bodybuilder Kim Jong-kook, the workout doesn’t end at the gym: “You’re only done after you eat.” He said, “Some people don’t eat after working out to lose weight. You have to eat to build muscle. If you don’t eat, it’s just labor.” In other words, if you want to declare your workout acceptable, you need to be as mindful of how you nourish your body—with the quantities and types of macronutrients you need—as you are of what exercises you do.

For me, I check if my idea is acceptable as a pitch, before I even write it up. Pitches for my articles are acceptable when I’ve explained to myself and the reader why the idea is well timed, what it means to society, what people may misunderstand about it, what people can take away from this story and apply to their lives, and how few people have covered it before. If the pitch fails in some way (for example, if a lot of people have covered it before), the pitch does not pass, and it is not acceptable. I’m happy, as I didn’t need to spend time writing the entire story out only to realize this—I didn’t try to make it perfect before I made it acceptable.

Visit the Greats

“If you have writer’s block, you’re not reading enough,” says poet Nikki Giovanni to author Mason Currey. In order to improve your output, you first need to improve your input. Experiencing other people’s work is the best first step to understanding what quality might even mean in your field. Everyone who is making something, right now, has been inspired by someone else.

I’m personally not a huge fan of lists. But, if you don’t have any references or places in mind, start with the greatest-of-all-time lists for your field. For example, if you’re making music, you could look at Mojo’s Top 100 albums of all time, or perhaps just of the last decade. If you have no idea where to start, look for your favorites in the list, or start at the top and work your way down.

Pay attention to what you notice. Dacoury Natche first notices the beat on a song, not the lyrics. Michael Saviello steps right up to the painting and starts looking at it. Don’t worry too much about what to do. Just try, and you’ll know.

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