What does it feel like to work on something you care about?

I had an old friend who used to discuss music with me. He once told me a story about Miles Davis: he claimed that, during the recording of Bitches Brew, Davis would work endless hours and ignore his wife. He also claimed that, during this time, Davis felt as if another person was making his music through him.

This story is apocryphal to me, if only because it plays into the classic “hero myth” (or: the myth of the solitary genius) often at the center of stories which surround the creation of great works. I don’t believe that great works are born by the exertions of a solitary person, only that the myth which arises about the act of a work’s creation can (and perhaps, must) be misconstrued and simplified for distribution, and the person at the center might even encourage the simplification (or revel in it, for the benefit of their ego).

I believe more strongly in a sort of “lead surgeon’s myth” (after the Mythical Man Month) which can be more or less true in great projects. Someone always has to be holding the blade — even if there are a thousand hands holding the surgeon.

I don’t think I’ve produced a great work yet, but I can tell you what it feels like to work on something which you care deeply, truly about.

It feels like a sacrifice, an irrevocable transaction. You commit wholly to the attempt, and you may find early success. What is not clear initially is how easy it is to lose yourself entirely. Naturally, if you care deeply and truly about something — you won’t stop at early success. You’ll continue — and the continued effort will contort you, until your habits are affected.

Now you’ve entered a dangerous game. You see — when we estimate the effort required initially, it is a great mistake to picture a future where we are the same person as the present. You think to yourself: surely, I’ll work on this for a few months — I’m happy and healthy now, a few months in I’ll be happy and healthy. It’s almost too pedestrian of a truth to state — but the journey will change you.

But when you care deeply and truly about something, you forget to remember the cost. You’re so excited by the effort, you skip meals, you lose sleep. It may not just change you — it can consume you entirely if you’re not careful, until every waking moment is spent passively aimed at returning you to the orbit of your project.

This is wholly unhealthy, and yet it’s worshipped as a positive trait, the obsession of genius. I don’t think there is anything genius about it — modern worship of this trait is a naive take on what is required to succeed and produce a great work.

Here’s what it’s like to work on something you care about: it’s a delicate, yet dangerous, balancing act. The problem itself is hard, but even harder is preventing yourself from being consumed by it. If one is to have any chance of success, the balance is necessary — the space is necessary — loafing is necessary. Otherwise, working on things you care about can easily ruin you.