3 Essential Ideas

  1. Almost everything begins as rubbish. It is only through practice and refinement that we are able to create something exceptional.  
  2. When you make failure as cheap as possible, you accelerate your learning. 
  3. Mistakes are part of the process. Instead of shaming yourself for making mistakes, celebrate that you have the courage to try.  

1 Essential Action 

  • Identify an essential project that overwhelms you. Give yourself permission to allow your first attempt to be rubbish. 

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Success starts by solving the right problem (2:52)
  • The advantage of embracing rubbish rather than pursuing perfection (5:17)
  • Chapter section: Start with Rubbish (6:16)
  • Strategies to help you become comfortable with starting with rubbish (8:03)
  • Chapter section: Make Failure as Cheap as Possible (10:46)
  • Encourage learning-sized mistakes (12:29)
  • Chapter section: Protect Your Rubbish from the Harsh Critic in Your Head (13:35)
  • Chapter section: Adopt a “Zero-Draft” Approach (14:41)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most by Greg McKeown

More About People We Mentioned

Paul MacCready – American aeronautical engineer
Ed Catmull – Former CEO of Pixar
Reid Hoffman – Internet entrepreneur


Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown

Chapter Nine: Progress, the Courage to be Rubbish.

In 1959, a British industrialist named Henry Kramer had a dream of a future where human powered flight was possible for the masses determine determined to do anything he could to make that dream a reality, he launched the Kramer prize. Generous rewards meant to incentivize designers to build aircraft that could be powered entirely by a single person. One prize for 50,000 pounds would go to the first team to create an aircraft that could fly a finger at around two pylons half a mile apart. Another prize for 100,000 pounds, was also offered for the first team to fly an aircraft across the English Channel. Given the aeronautical achievements of the time, constructing what amounted to a workable flying bicycle seemed like a realistic challenge. It was after all, a full half century after Orville Wright had made his flight south of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, and 40 years since the first nonstop transatlantic flight a full decade before Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier. And just a decade later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon, but however doable the challenge might have seemed many talented teams had tried and failed for over 17 years. Enter Paul MacCready saddled with a huge debt at the time, he didn’t have a team at all, save for friends and family, including his young son whom he enlisted as his test pilot. Meanwhile, his competitors were all well staffed and well funded and built big, complex, elegant airplanes with large band wings, many wooden ribs and metal or heavy plastic casings. Yet these teams didn’t come close to achieving the price. At first, McCready couldn’t figure out why, then it hit him. Everyone had been working to solve the wrong problem. The real challenge wasn’t to build an elegant aircraft that could do the figure eight on the field around two pylons. It was to build a large light aircraft, no matter how ugly it is, that you could crash, then repair, modify, alter, redesign fast. That was when he suddenly realized there is an easy way to do it. So McCready and his son immediately got to work on a model, inspired by one of the simplest and most aerodynamic mechanisms in nature bird flight. Within two months, they were flying the first version of the gossamer Condor. It weighed just 55 pounds 25 kilos, and look amateurish, especially compared to the sleeker models others had created. But that was exactly the point. McCready said. If it crashed on landing, you’d get a broom handle and duct tape and tape the broom handle back on and you’d be back flying in five minutes. That accident would have kept those other larger, more sophisticated teams from flying for something like six months. So we got a huge amount of flight experience out of this. Over the course of just a few months, the gossamer Condor made some 222 flights, sometimes several in a single day. Some of his competitors machines didn’t achieve that in their lifetimes. It was on its 220/3 flight, but the Condor completed the figure eight challenge and won the first Kraemer prize. Two years later, McCready would win the second crema prize when the gossamer albatross successfully crossed the English Channel. His most brilliant insight wasn’t some advanced breakthrough in the science of flight. It was simply that focusing on the elegance and sophistication of the aircraft was actually an impediment to progress. And ugly aircraft that could be crashed, repaired and redesigned fast, would make it much easier to make progress on what really mattered. Building a plane that could as McCready put it, turn left, turn right, go up high enough at the beginning and the end of the flight. Similarly, in your own pursuit of what matters. If you want to build a better airplane, don’t try to get everything exactly right the first time. Instead, embrace the rubbish no matter how ugly it is. So you can crash, repair, modify and redesign fast. It’s a far easier path for learning, growing and making progress on what’s essential.


Start with Rubbish

Many of us are kept back from producing something wonderful. Because we misunderstand the creative process. We see something exceptional or beautiful in its finished state. And we imagine it started out as a beautiful baby Yoda version of what we are looking at. But exactly the opposite is true. Ed catmull, the former CEO of Pixar once said, we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar stories starts out that way. their earliest sketches are according to cat more awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. That is why cat mo has always worked hard to foster a culture that creates a space for such rubbish. Because he understands that there would be no Buzz Lightyear without hundreds of awful ideas along the way. As he puts it, Pixar is set up to protect our directors ugly baby. At the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, they use a program called dare to try that emphasizes seven specific behaviors to foster innovation. For example, freshness encourages employees to find ideas in new places. playfulness taps into childlike curiosity and fun and green housing protects their early ideas, no matter how rubbish from harsh criticism, so that they are allowed to grow. overachievers tend to struggle with the notion of starting with rubbish. They hold themselves to a high standard of perfection at every stage in the process. But the standard to which they hold themselves is neither realistic nor productive. For example, many people cite learning a new language as an essential project, a dream that matters to them. But they never practice because they are embarrassed. They want to be flawless, or at least not make fools of themselves from the start. But a friend of mine who teaches Spanish sees it differently as an exceptional student himself with a JD from Stanford Law School, followed by a doctorate from Princeton as well. He has learned that when it comes to languages, embracing mistakes leads to accelerated learning. He teaches his language students to imagine they have a bag full of 1000 beats. Every time they make a mistake talking to someone else in the language, they take out one bead. When the bag is empty, they will have achieved level one mastery. The faster they make those mistakes, the faster they will progress. Is there something new you want to learn but feel overwhelmed by something that you know would add great value to you either personally or professionally? But did you feel intimidated by because of the long road to mastery? Then try your own version of the bag of beads, exercise and shift your focus to making as many mistakes as possible when you’re starting out. There is no mastery without mistakes. And there is no learning later, without the courage to be rubbish. I for example, recently decided to take class online. One approach to passing this class might have been to read through the mountains of lecture materials carefully and thoroughly. watch all the videos, take detailed notes and memorize everything with the goal of getting 100% on every practice quiz every time. However, such an approach sounds like extremely hard work, the likely outcome would be aceing the first quiz or two before burning out abandoning the effort and never making it to the exam. Instead, I decided to simply take the quiz without any preparation, knowing I would get roughly 50% of the answers wrong. That was in fact my goal to get them wrong as quickly as possible so I could see the correct answers. I didn’t want to waste time and energy on what I already knew. I wanted to see what I didn’t know so I could focus only on that. First I got rubbish scores on quite a few practice tests. Then I’d look at what I got wrong and take more practice tests. Pretty soon my scores were less rubbish, and then even less rubbish. Eventually, I’ll have what I need to pass the test.


Make Failure as Cheap as Possible

Giving ourselves permission to fail takes courage. It feels scary. It makes us vulnerable. The higher the stakes, the more courage is required. So given that our reserves of courage are limited, we want to find ways to experience and learn from failure as cheaply as possible.

For example, when our children were younger, and I wanted them to have the chance wants to be rubbish with money while the stakes were low. After all, we’d much rather they made mistakes with their allowance at the ages of eight and 10. They make mistakes with their life savings as adults. So we gave them three glass jars, one for charity, one for saving one for spending. When they received their allowance, it was up to them to divide the money. We didn’t try to advise them on how much should go to savings or spending. We wanted them to make the decisions, especially the rubbish ones. For example, our son once spent $40 he’d saved on an electric racing car, and he regretted it afterward. He wished he had that money for a major Lego purchase he was saving up for now he is a teenager and is saving up for a major service mission he wants to go on that will cost 1000s of dollars. And I’m confident he won’t regret it. That’s because he got to learn from his mistakes while the risks were lower. accord these kinds of mistakes, learning sized mistakes. We don’t want our children to learn about money the hard way we want them to learn about it the easy way, the cheaper way. To make effortless progress on what matters. Learning sized mistakes must be encouraged. This isn’t giving yourself or others permission to consistently produce poor quality work. It’s simply letting go of the absurd pressure to always do everything perfectly. As Reid Hoffman, one of the PayPal mafia and co-founder of LinkedIn once told Ben Casnocha, his newly hired chief of staff. In order to move fast, I expect you will make some footfalls I’m okay with an error rate of 10 to 20%. If it means you can move fast, Ben recalls, I felt empowered to make decisions with this ratio in mind. And it was incredibly liberating. Not surprisingly, read also advocates the same philosophy and entrepreneurship and business. If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, he says you released it too late. Or put another way, when it comes to product launches in perfect is perfect.


Protect Your Rubbish from the Harsh Critic in Your Head

Another way we can make failure as cheap as possible for ourselves is simply to protect our rubbish from the harsh critic in our heads. Instead of shaming yourself for hitting your serve into the net, celebrate the fact that you’re on the court to begin with. Instead of belittling yourself for even the tiniest of errors. Be proud of the fact that you are unlikely to make that same mistake ever again. Anytime you feel like you’re on shaky ground with some meaningful challenge you’ve taken on, talk to yourself like you would talk to a toddler learning to walk, you’ve taken the first step. You may feel wobbly now but you’ve begun, you’re going to get there. And remind yourself that every great achievement is rubbish at the beginning, every one of them, as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, a life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.


Adopt a “Zero-Draft” Approach

I have met many people who feel a calling to write a book. But they often give up before writing even the first draft of the first chapter. their belief that each sentence has to be perfect, or close to perfect to be worthy of the page keeps them from even starting the process. I recommend they adopt a zero-draft approach. That is write a version of that first chapter that’s so rough, it wouldn’t even qualify as a first draft. The idea with the zero draft is to write anything. The more rubbish the better. It doesn’t have to be seen by anyone. It never has to be judged. Don’t even think of it as a draft. It’s just words on a page. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get your creative juices flowing this way. As American poet laureate, Maya Angelou put it when I am writing, I write and then it’s as if the Muse is convinced I’m serious and says, Okay, okay, I’ll come. Margaret Atwood, the prolific author of 18 books of poetry 18 novels, 11 books of nonfiction. Nine collections of short fiction, and eight children’s books once wrote,

a word after word, after a word is power. Even rubbish words are more powerful than a blank page. In fact, they are much more powerful because As there can be no magnum opus later without those rubbish words now. So if you are feeling overwhelmed by an essential project because you think you have to produce something flawless from the outset, simply lower the bar to start. Whether it’s writing a book, composing a song, painting a canvas, or any other creative pursuit that calls to you, inspiration flows from the courage to start with rubbish. By embracing imperfection, by having the courage to be rubbish, we can begin. And once we begin, we become a little less rubbish, and then a little less, and eventually, out of the rubbish comes exceptional, effortless breakthroughs in the things that matter


Greg McKeown


  • Hosted by Greg McKeown
  • Produced by Greg McKeown Team
  • Executive Produced by Greg McKeown