One Good Idea, Then Bail


“I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world.
I do have all the time in the world.”
– John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook (2011)

For a while now—maybe a year? two years?—I’ve been thinking about what I call One Good Idea, Then Bail. In brief, the concept describes a process of recognizing when you have stumbled upon a single decent idea over the course of a day and then, upon this recognition, immediately suspend working on the idea. What constitutes an adequately decent idea? That’s for you to figure out and it depends on what your line of work is. But no matter what your métier, the One Good Idea concept can guide your creative work habits by helping you aim at an easily graspable goal—a single idea—while setting the bar of accomplishment quite low.

For me, one good idea could be found on the macro or the micro level of working. For example, it could be a title or concept for a project. My recent recording Quietudes began just this way. I had been thinking about the word quietudes and one day, after wondering if it was a real word (it is), I began working on music whose goal was to describe it. Or a good idea might be a single pattern found under the hands that leads you to a melody. Depending on how it goes, an improvisation can be a good idea too. When I’m recording, I’ll assess what I just did not by listening back to it but by reflecting on how it felt in the moment. If I wasn’t feeling much of anything as I played, I assume the music isn’t good, delete it, and try again. But if the music created some reserve of feeling, throwing an emotional curve or slider, I’ll save it and immediately quit for the day by moving on to something else.

Moving on to something else is the Then Bail part of equation which has several functions. You get to turn your attention elsewhere which prevents you from tiring from your idea before it has even matured. And this doesn’t mean you’re acting flighty: turning your attention elsewhere could be the beginning of a new good idea! Bailing is also away to informally mark that you’ve done something worth saving or remembering that might be returned to later on. (If I’m composing, I’ll go back to my saved pieces to re-assess them. Often they’re not as good as I had hoped they could be, but recognizing that is part of the One Good Idea process too.) Another way of considering it: bailing after one good idea is a temporary release from the responsibility for having to think about it any further, which is welcomed because arriving at that idea may have already zapped you of energy.

The One Good Idea, Then Bail concept is one way to take pressure off of the self-imposed imperative to produce by quietly acknowledging that we can only do so much today. Maybe this is a lazy notion, or maybe it’s a technique for mobilizing laziness. Either way, having one good idea in the bag is a way to preserve the comforting assumption that I’ll resume the work tomorrow.


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