Can a succession of ephemeral, throwaway accomplishments add up to a worthwhile, enduring project?
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 12, 2009
this article has been updated
File this one under Miscellaneous. This morning, I came across the (hastily prepared) manifesto for a new movement called "The Cult of Done" - as in, git er done. I had to read it a few times to decide whether it's even meant to be taken seriously. (I'm still not certain.)
Essentially, the Cult of Done sacrifices everything else for expedience. Don't wait until you know what you're doing - just pretend you know and get on with it. Don't waste time editing - just publish. If something takes too long to do, abandon it and move on to the next thing.
The Cult of Done is an infinite regress, Ã la rules #6 and #13 of the manifesto. The point of getting something done is not to get it done but to get the next thing done faster, the purpose of doing which is to get the next next thing done, et cetera, ad infinitum.
The Cult of Done is not interested in endurance or even, apparently, improvement. Rule #7 reads, "Once you're done you can throw it away." It's a disposable philosophy for a disposable culture.
It is to major projects what Twitter is to essays: provisional, ephemeral, and dashed off the cuff. It looks like a recipe for a succession of pointless, meaningless outbursts that sparkle briefly and then evaporate.
It seems almost perversely to assert, If something's worth doing well, it's not worth doing. Call it the Twitterization of accomplishment.
Yet the Cult of Done does address some real problems most people have getting things done. As a lifelong procrastinator, I have long struggled with the temptation, "Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next week?"
That I accomplish anything at all is the result of constant tension between what I would like to get done and what I actually want to be doing at any given time.
The Cult of Done also invokes, at least for me, what we might call the Wikipedia Effect.
Back in 2000, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger tried to launch an online collaborative encyclopedia called Nupedia, with articles written by experts and peer reviewed by an expert panel.
Clay Shirky has a great take on this in his book Here Comes Everybody, but to summarize: the results were disappointing. The writers spent months trying to prepare documents that would be well-researched, well-written, informative, robust, and defensible; and the minimal accomplishments they made were further stalled by the complicated review process.
Around the same time, Sanger or maybe Jeremy Rosenfeld, an employee at Bomis, Wales' former business, introduced Wales to the concept of a wiki (named after the Hawaiian word for "fast"): a fully user-editable website that stores previous versions of every article.
At the start of 2001, Sanger and Wales decided to launch an online encyclopedia following the wiki model, in which anyone could create or edit articles, rather than the panel of experts and their elaborate review process. That project was called Wikipedia.
The results were immediate: freed from the constraints of creating an industrial-strength encyclopedia article on the first draft, users started filling the site with simple pages - often little more than placeholders, or "stubs" as Wikipedia calls them - that other users happily edited, expanded and corrected.
The Nupedia panel were outraged that their expertise had been marginalized, but the simple fact was that their cumbersome process and role as gatekeeper/bottleneck was a major obstacle to, er, getting anything done.
What is most amazing about Wikipedia is not that the uptake was so rapid and its growth so exponential, though that also warrants considerable attention: what is most amazing is that a collection of articles written and edited incrementally by a large and growing set of nonspecialists has matured into a genuinely useful, informative, and generally accurate reference.
In other words, by adopting the Cult of Done, Wikipedia has managed to aggregate a bewildering number of small, disposable accomplishments into a major, enduring accomplishment.
What this suggests, also, is that the Cult of Done works best when the scramble of small, discrete accomplishments can be aggregated effectively.
The Wikipedia article on Oil was created on Feb. 26, 2006, and read:
Oil is a generic term for a chemical substance that is not miscible with water, and in its liquid state at common ambient temperatures. Such substances are also called hydrophobic or lipophile.
Oils are composed of one or several liquid hydrocarbon compounds. They differ from other hydrocarbons, such as alcohols xetones and ethers by their non-polarity. Their difference from solid fats is given by the length of their molecule chains.
Emulgators allow to mix oils with water.
Not bad, but a bit dry and technical for the lay reader and not very useful. Today, after a succession of mostly tiny, incremental revisions (add a comma here, fix a typo there), the same article is over 900 words and goes into detail on types of oils, applications, and numerous links to other pages.
The Nupedia/Wikipedia story exemplifies Voltaire's famous quote, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Nupedia, by aiming for the perfect, got nothing done; while Wikipedia, aiming only for the good (and sometimes not even that), grew and improved so rapidly that it now justifiably ranks among the most useful, informative information compendia in human history.
Could there be an important lesson in there even for people interested in enduring accomplishments? What if we apply the Cult of Done not to a large project but to the bite-size components that collectively make up a large project?
Assuming it's easy for you (or others) to go back and improve provisional accomplishments, the Cult of Done is a very effective way to aggregate individual contributions into a more significant project.
It's probably not a coincidence that the Cult of Done fairly describes many open-source, collaborative projects, from Wikipedia to the Linux operating system, which was developed mainly by volunteers but runs most of the servers that make up the internet.
More locally, I have experienced the tension between the perfect and the good with regards to the RTH website, which I have been trying to rebuild using newer programming technologies than the Classic ASP code in which the site was originally written.
While working on the new code, I have tended to abandon improvements to the old code, which has served to perpetuate a certain amount of frustration with small, nagging problems that need to be fixed.
In the past week or two, I have decided to go back into the old code and address some of the smaller problems: publishing articles as they come instead of in an issue, adding full Newsfeeds instead of just summaries, even whipping up a quick text editor so I can easily convert the special punctuation characters in MS Word documents to their web-friendly counterparts.
I have couple more improvements in mind: finally creating a user profile update page (it's shameful that the site doesn't currently have one - it's really a basic user interface), and fixing the link to issue archives so that it displays a list of articles from that date instead of just the "lede" from that issue.
If I approach these goals from a Cult of Done perspective, they will be quick fixes I can implement during bits of downtime and will start to make life easier for RTH readers as soon as they're done, rather than in some hypothetical future. Doesn't that make sense?
I'm still going to keep working on the redesign, since the current site has other problems (like sporadic server errors) that are too structural to fix with a quick patch, but I'm going to try not to let the perfect - a redesigned site running smoothly on a reliable hosting provider - be the enemy of the good - today's site working just a bit better for its users.
On the other hand, I'm still going to edit articles before publishing them...
Update - This piece originally wrote that Larry Sanger introduced Jimmy Wales to the concept of wikis. However, I just received the following email from Wales: "It is an urban legend that Larry introduced the concept of wiki to me. It was introduced to me by Jeremy Rosenfeld." There seems to be some uncertainty about this point, as explained in a related Wikipedia article, but ... I'm done. :)
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