Make Sculptures, Not Pyramids

Making pyramids out of intangible goals is a great way to get nowhere

Every January, big cubes of hard-packed snow -- maybe 10’ x 10’ x 10’ -- start to appear around Winnipeg, sprung from wooden molds. After each one stands untouched for a couple of days, a person will show up to it with a collection of picks and chisels and get to work forming it into something recognizable. Big chunks are lopped off first, then smaller and smaller bits, until eventually the sculptor is down to the most precise detailing: an eyeball or a hoof or some other intricately contoured thing. Once all the powder has settled, the city is dotted with a really cool (pun intended) collection of ephemeral monuments to the season and to local heritage.

In a different part of the world, there are some famous monuments that are maybe the polar opposite of Winnipeg’s annual snow sculptures. The pyramids of Egypt are -- for starters -- anything but temporary, and were also constructed in a totally different way.

To build a pyramid is to cut once after measuring not just twice, but probably a hundred times. Every stone laid depends on the stone before it having been already laid, and laid correctly. Stone after stone, the structure extends up and inward toward its peak, and only once you get to the very top can you be sure that you didn’t mess up somewhere along the way, so you’d better be damn sure of what you’re doing along the way. Your path to success is linear and sequential: A then B then C; 1 then 2 then 3.

When it comes to intangible things -- skills, knowledge, habits, progress -- most things are not pyramids, and it’s a common mistake to treat them as if they were. 

I’m as inclined as anyone to approach things in a linear, sequential fashion, so this is something I’ve had to work to get my head around over time. Let’s say I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Historically, my first instinct would probably be to start reading: about the history of guitars, the theory behind how to play them, what are the best resources for self study, what types of the instrument are out there, etc.

Pick up the damn guitar, man.

To learn how to play, you don’t need to know the theory or the history or the best possible place to learn -- those things can all come later, if and when you’re into the finer detail of the craft. To get started, do as the sculptor does: just start knocking off the biggest, most obvious pieces. Pick up the guitar, start picking and poking at it, make a terrible racket. Get a feel for how it sits in your hands and how it behaves when you strum this string, then that combination of them. Then maybe see if you can find a way to make a coherent sequence of notes, and so on. You can always go deeper and more detailed over time.

Making pyramids out of intangible goals is a great way to get overwhelmed, discouraged or sidetracked before you ever get started. Trying to figure out the perfect way or the perfect order in which to do something makes sense only when it makes or breaks the project. If it doesn’t -- meaning in situations where you can figure them out later -- spending time on the details up front is actually counterproductive.

Considering a career move? Choose a direction; don’t try to script the next 10 years. Want to get in better shape? Lace up and step outside; don’t evaluate 20 exercise programs. Want to become a Michelin-starred chef? Crack an egg; don’t buy a mini blowtorch.

Make sculptures, not pyramids, with your collection of talents or career pursuits or personal goals. Set your sights on the big rough blocks that you need to knock off first and get started. Unless the whole thing will come crashing down with one mistake or misstep, it’s best to not sweat the details up front.