Process, Not Outcome

Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape in Fog (1996)

The saying, process, not outcome is the most actionable advice for building creative work. We can’t control the outcome of our work—such as whether it succeeds in doing what we hoped it would do, or whether others find it interesting, useful, beautiful, etc. But we can choose and commit to a process to help us do the work.

A process often seems arbitrary, until the moment you commit to it. Then it blooms, revealing its potentials. Process is the artist Roy Lichtenstein committing to using Benday dots to animate his paintings (using stencils with perforated dot patterns), or composer Steve Reich committing to replicate the echoing sound of out sync tape recorders with live percussionists, or a Haiku writer committing to writing three lines using just 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern.

Recently I was finishing a collection of pieces when it occurred to me that I didn’t know why I had committed to these sounds specifically and not others. Was I really almost done? I could keep building up the pieces, I thought, and I could swap out all the sounds for different ones. Instead, I continued working with what I had. I also noticed that I had been following subtle rules: I would take away from a part, but not add to it; I would re-use an effect already in play, but not add new ones. Once I had committed to a process without being assured of a desired outcome, I was free to shape the music until there was nothing left to do. 

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