Operation Garbage Fountain

If you want to get good at something, you need to put in the reps.

Operation Garbage Fountain
Photo by Sai Abhinivesh Burla / Unsplash

If you want to get good at something, you need to put in the reps.

Maybe you've heard that story about the pottery teacher who divided the class into two groups: half would be graded traditionally based on the quality of their work, but the other half would be graded on sheer quantity alone. As in, literally, he would take all the pots they made that year, weigh them, and X kilograms of pottery would get you an A+. As the story goes, the quantity group produced not only the most pots, but also unambiguously the best pots.

Like most good stories, it's semi-apocryphal – the true version took place in a photography class – but the central point still holds. If you're aiming for quality, there's no replacement for just putting in the reps.

I think about this a lot now, because I just turned 40 and recently switched careers from indie video game development to real estate mass appraisal for local governments.

My games career came to a swift and brutal end with my son's cardiac arrest. I've said all I want to say publicly about my son for now, and one day I'll also take the time to reflect about my 10+ year career that I abruptly abandoned. All that matters for the sake of this article is that my life changed drastically overnight and I found myself having to learn completely new skills to a high degree of mastery very quickly.

It wasn't easy learning an entirely new career, but I'm quite good at it now, and it didn't take nearly as long as I thought it would. It turns out you can just learn new things if you have the right people to guide you and you have the opportunity and the inclination to put in the reps.

I've noticed that most people I know rarely pick up entirely new skills late in life. For some the barriers are lack of time, opportunity, or resources, but just as often the chief block seems to be mental – "This is the kind of person I am, these are the kinds of things I know how to do, and that will never change for the rest of my life."

I used to be one of those people.

I went to an extremely competitive private school, and was obsessed with "falling behind" my try-hard peers. This was the kind of environment where the kids who played the violin all started when they were six (or younger). I've always been captivated by music, but much like many kids decide they "can't draw" or "suck at math," I likewise labeled music as a mystical alien magic that would forever be beyond me.

Later, in high school, I met a girl in the year below me who played the saxophone. She was really good and I assumed she started playing in elementary school. Nope, she started playing the previous year. That moment was the first click for me – you can just start learning new things, anytime. Even today.

Learning, ultimately, is about putting in the reps. Figure out what you want to get better at, and practice doing it.

There's a lot of things I would like to do. I mostly don't do them. My reasons are all stupid excuses.

The first stupid excuse is I don't have enough time. I of all people have a better claim to this stupid excuse than most given the tragedy I've been living through. Nevertheless I still have more time than I'd like to admit; I waste the majority of it doom-scrolling twitter and reddit, purely addictive wasteful behavior that brings me zero joy.

The second stupid excuse is that I'm not good enough at the things I want to do. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only way you get good at things is by doing them a lot even while you're still bad at them.

The third stupid excuse is that instead of doing the things I want to do I should do something else, like stare at a wall or doom-scroll twitter and reddit or something equally addictive and pointless.

The fourth stupid excuse is that I need someone to give me some kind of affirmative permission to do the things I want to do, which is totally insane and weird for an adult to say out loud but is definitely as big a factor as the other three.

So screw the stupid excuses. I want to do some things. Here are the things I want to do, in no particular order:

  • Write short stories
  • Get back into drawing
  • Learn to play the banjo
  • Learn to speak, read, and write Japanese
  • Write song lyrics
  • Learn to write song music
  • Learn to compose with trackers and synthesizers
  • Make terrible open source games with no ambitions to ever monetize them

That's a lot of things! It would be fun and fulfilling to do these things. So why don't I do them more? Well, there's the fifth stupid excuse: I usually think my work is garbage, especially for the kinds of things I didn't grow up thinking of myself as "good" at. I'm also afraid of being embarrassed.

The solution to all my problems is Operation Garbage Fountain.

Operation Garbage Fountain begins now and here are the rules:

  • When I have the urge or inspiration to do something creative, instead of pushing it off and not doing anything with it, I will do the stupidest, smallest amount of work on it as soon as possible
  • I will post that work on my blog. This is in contrast to my usual M.O., which is to stick it in a google doc that I will share with no one and not even look at myself for another ten years.
  • I will explicitly have nothing to prove and I will do my best not to attach stakes to anything I do. There are no promises that I will refine, expand, or even finish anything that issues forth from the Garbage Fountain.
  • I will not treat any Garbage Fountain project as set in stone and I will not hold off on anything for the sake of optimizing some perfect future pristine version. For instance, if I have a previously posted story with a central plot point that is now painting me into a corner in a subsequent chapter, I'll just ret-con the annoying plot point and post a note explaining that and just move on.
  • I will not get bogged down trying to build a community around anything I make. There's no comments on this blog that I know of and I'm not going to try to add any. I'm not going to set up a discord or a forum. If you want to send me feedback through any of the usual channels that's cool but I don't have any expectations of hearing back from anybody.
  • I will not care about going viral or trying to get a lot of views on social media. Maybe it will get attention, maybe it won't. But that's not the point.
  • I am not committing to any kind of schedule. Just whenever I have some creative garbage I'm going to post it. If I want to post ten things in one week, I'll do it, reader fatigue be damned. If I don't have anything to say for a few months at a stretch, I won't post anything and I won't feel guilty.

Hope you're thirsty for garbage, because I have a fountain of it.