January 6, 2022

Output is Input

A picture of a bowl of minestrone

There may be people out there who conceive of ideas in crisp, clean sentences and can deliver them as if they are reading off a mental autocue. I am not one of them. The only time I have witnessed this was Bruce Sterling’s brilliant closing keynote address at Interaction ’11 in which he appeared to read notes from his Moleskine and string them together, off the cuff, into a razor-sharp commentary on the hubris of designers and tech.

One of the reasons for inflicting my thoughts on you in this newsletter is that I use writing to think. (Don’t complain, you signed up for it.) Making, speaking or writing helps us think more clearly. “Output is input” is a phrase that came up recently with a coachee who wanted to get more input through reading and interviews during holiday downtime before she got on with the writing. Research is important and fascinating, but it can easily become a great way to procrastinate — “Just one more book and then I’ll be able to perfectly write that chapter.” As we head into the holidays with plans for catching up on reading, watching or listening, sometimes it can be a chance to make or write that thing you’ve been meaning to get around to.

Writing is never a complete act. There is always the necessary shitty first draft, without which there is no second draft and the final draft still always has holes. I once read an interview with J.R.R. Tolkien about the writing of Lord of the Rings in which he explained how, once he had got to the end, he had to go through the entire book backwards to make it all fit together.

Most of the time you don’t have clarity of your ideas until you have tried expressing them in a few iterations. For me, presentations and articles start as a kind of uncooked casserole. It starts as a jumble of half-related ingredients in the pot with some vague sense that they all connect in some way. It takes stewing time for something edible to emerge and it needs a cycle of tasting and seasoning before it’s ready.

Editing and filling in the gaps in your work means going off to look for the things that will plug those knowledge gaps. That time is delicious and precious. Usually, you will find more than you need and other threads to pull on. That is how output becomes input.

If you follow Hemingway’s advice and stop writing when you know what will happen next, you will also know how to get started the next day. It’s the best antidote to procrastination I know.

(Minestrone Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)


This post was originally part of my newsletter Doctor’s Note. Sign up if you’d like to receive more of my writing and a whole host of links and reading suggestions.