They All Ship

(Note: This post is the first of many in which I reveal or discuss the traits and techniques of people throughout history who have built great things.)

Ira Glass:
The most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

Venkatesh Rao:
“Releasing. As in the agile software dictum of release early and often. In blogging, frequency isn’t about bug-fixing or collaboration. It isn’t even about market testing … It is purely about rational gambling in the dollar-cost averaging sense. It is the investing advice ‘don’t try to time the market’ applied to your personal work.

Taylor Pearson:
You need to put yourself on a deadline and ship. ‘Ship’, a term from Steve Jobs’ line ‘real artists ship’ and popularized by Seth Godin, is an essential difference between work and The Work. … The Work may be the best way to achieve the goals that many people seek through work.

Dan Norris:
Understand that you have two choices: to create something or consume something. The only thing I know about successful people is that they create things. Create so much they can’t ignore you.

All form the same idea: shipping, releasing, publishing, producing, etc. That is, make something, then make it accessible to others. Writing in your journal does not count as shipping — posting on a blog does. Playing guitar does not count as shipping — uploading a song does. Doing code puzzles does not count as shipping — contributing to open source does.

Every majorly successful person I can think of (or at least those that have attained household name status) are shippers. They release a lot. They have an air of prolific mastery. It’s magic. How do they get so much done?

One example: Robert Moses.[1] He’s perhaps the most prolific public official to have ever lived. He was New York City’s Parks Commissioner in the first half of the 20th century. He simultaneously held 12 state and local titles. He built 2.6 million acres of parks, 658 playgrounds, 416 miles of parkways, and 13 bridges. He worked tirelessly and ceaselessly. He had grand, clear visions. And he didn’t compromise. In the styling of biographer Robert Caro, he “Got Things Done;” he shipped.

Robert Moses is the rule, and not the exception. The biography section is filled with men and women like him. What explains this commonality? Consider a few observations:

  1. They’ve had such an impact because they’re excellent, and they’re excellent because they’ve consistently shipped. Ira Glass, speaking above, said that every maker has a gap between their taste and the quality of their output. Only by producing a lot, can you close that gap.
  2. Part of the love (arguably narcissism) they had for their craft was seeing it affect the real world. They had a sincere extraverted aim to their work: to publish it, to bend reality, to put a dent in the universe. Jerry Seinfeld didn’t just love comedy, he loved to make others laugh. And that love drove him to keep producing and getting better.
  3. A quickly expanding body of work attracts attention, which is a major aspect of success. People remember your one hit, not your entire back-catalog of flops. More work gives you more chances to strike a chord, as Rao said above.

Shipping is something that everyone can do. As a creator, your work is obvious — create and publish. But for knowledge workers, your shippable work is not so easy to identify. If you’re a leader or a manager, how do you ship?

Again, look at the example of Robert Moses above. He didn’t lay bricks or thread suspension cables across bridges himself. Instead, he was the coordinator behind the projects. As they say: he didn’t make it, but he did make it happen. By deftly delegating to and wielding an organization that was able to produce so many public works, he got the credit and became the man who “got it done.”

In knowledge work, it’s similarly important that the project you are tasked with gets done. Maybe that means you execute on it yourself, or maybe that means you enable others to. The bottom line is to build a reputation such that people feel confident entrusting you with responsibility. And you do that by shipping.

Shipping quality work over and over has been shown throughout history as a sure way to get good, to get noticed, and to get rewarded. So do the work and ship.

[1] “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” is a majorly influential book on me that you will surely see more references to.