Eating turd sandwiches

"Do the work."

"What is your favorite flavor of turd sandwich?"

I came across the first phrase in multiple places; most recently in two books from Ryan Holiday: The Obstacle is the Way and The Ego is the Enemy.

The second is from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.

I think about these ideas a lot--in the shop and outside of it...

Doing the work is where we usually fail. We have great dreams, visions, and aspirations. Most of those lofty things remain just that, though: lofty. We are unable to overcome static friction to get moving; or we get moving but lack the momentum to persist.  

Written that way, it sounds like it a physics problem. And if faced with something big to do at work or somewhere in which you didn't have to self-start, there are all kinds of things that would keep you on track: deadlines, milestones, to-do lists, etc. But when it comes to our own aspirations, you need more than tactics.

Doing the work is about being humble. It means that just because you accomplished something in the past doesn’t mean you get to stop doing the work that got you there to begin with. It means that having the vision is not enough—it’s just the start.

Baseball provides a great example here.

Baseball players are the highest paid athletes in sports-obsessed America. They always talk about “playing the game the right way”, “keeping the line moving”, “going about their process.” They, unlike many athletes, will often defer attention from themselves and focus on the team—another hallmark of humility. Watch what happens when a player gets too cocky and talks about himself—other players will shame him and the superstitious among them will claim that he will suffer on the field. Bryce Harper is probably the easiest example to think of or look up--he entered the majors at age 19 (far younger than most) and his age betrayed him on several occasions with the media..

Baseball players show up at the ballpark at 1pm for a 7pm game; the game will usually end after 10pm, at which point they will talk to the media and probably not leave the ballpark until after 11.. Players who make 10s of millions a year to play baseball are out there in the afternoon sun doing the same drills they have done since they were six: taking ground balls, bunting, taking swings, catching pop flies, running sprints, and stretching, etc. They do not roll into the clubhouse with just enough time to get dressed and expect great things to happen because they have every other day.

They do the work. They follow their process. They stay humble

This is a cultural phenomenon throughout the game…it’s the “right way”. Players who have struggled credit new found success with a consistent approach to their game: going through a structured routine of work that is focused on nailing the fundamentals-every day.

It's not limited to baseball, obviously.

Musicians play/sing scales to warm up.

Artists sketch between projects.

Medical professionals continuously go to lectures and take classes to stay sharp.

Doing the work is made easier when we acknowledge that even within the things we love to do, we will have to sometimes eat some turd sandwiches.

Elizabeth Gilbert asks the question, “Whats your favorite flavor of turd sandwich”? This question is often asked of entrepreneurs and others striking out on their own. It’s meant to make you think about your new career/hobby/etc., in a productive way. What is the part of this enterprise that you really hate? Or, more gently, what about this new enterprise would you rather not do? If you can find joy in doing that, you’ll be just fine…at least, that’s my understanding.

Examples of turd sandwiches

In woodworking, most people really enjoy the design portion; pencil and paper or a computer screen—you’re bringing a mental image to life—you can enjoy a cup of coffee while you do it and you don’t usually break a sweat. It’s also fun to see the final product once it’s built and every one gives you love on Instagram, etc.

I really enjoy cutting joinery.  Putting together perfectly fitting joints, straight from the saw, is incredibly fulfilling. The first time you do it, it’s like magic…every other time is just really awesome. If you’re not into woodworking—just thinking of any time you’ve created something that worked out just right—a perfect omelet or soufflé; ironing a shirt just right; pruning a tree; a newly cleaned and organized room. That’s the feeling

But unlike those other activities—where you eat the soufflé or wear the shirt, in woodworking, you then, you have a load of sanding to do. This involves running a power sander, wearing safety glasses, a respirator, and hearing protection. You can avoid all of this by using handplanes on flat surfaces, but if you have curved or otherwise shapely edges, you’re still doing a bunch of sanding.

The thing is: it’s this tedious work that makes the final product actually come to life. Perfectly fitting joints and a good design will only take you so far. I built a fair number of things before I fully understood this. Preparing a piece for the finish often takes nearly as long as it does to build it. It’s also the place where one is likely to get bored and think about cutting corners. But it is the time spent here that makes the difference between a piece that is eh and a piece that is excellent.

If you watch an artist at work…and in this case, I’m thinking mostly of a sculptor or someone working with a big medium, there is a look of contentment…gladness…on their face as they work through the tedium of repeating pattern. Just making a repeated shape over and over in clay is probably a turd sandwich for most of us. But to the artist…who has the final vision in mind, he/she knows that each bite of that sandwich is leading to the final vision.

You can think also of body builders. Even if you enjoy exercise, the thought of working out for hours a day and doing hundreds of repetitions is a bit nauseating. But to world-class body builders, every single repetition is bringing them one step closer to their ultimate goal. They find joy in each sit up...each one is a tasty bite of their delicious turd sandwich.

You have to find ways to enjoy the process of what you’re doing to make the final product worth your time. If you’re investing your time and energy into something, you have to find ways to bring your final vision of that thing—the vision that motivated you to start—and hold it through out the process. 

It's that final vision that will fuel you to do the work--to get started, to persist, and to even savor your turd sandwiches.