Your brother calls you from the east coast. He’s decided he doesn’t want to fly back anymore, but insists you to drive out and get him. And he isn’t interested in waiting, you need to be there right away.
You make some calls, dropping everything in life both at the office and at home. You call your brother back within the hour and say, ‘Alright, man, I’ll be there in four days.’
‘FOUR DAYS!’ he pouts. ‘But I’m waiting!’
What can you do? You’re thousands of miles away. You are leaving as quickly as you can, but the fastest you can realistically get there is four days. It’s a time and space thing.
You have two options really: you can try to make it in three. This would require you to never stop for sleep, potty breaks, food or gas. You run the risk of falling asleep at the wheel or worse. There’s a very good chance you wouildn’t make it at all.
Or: you can treat yourself with sanity and respect, to do the task of picking up your brother in a sane and responsible way. You will drive 10 hours, stopping when nature calls, and then resting. You will get there in four days safely, and barring any supernatural act, you are almost guaranteed to do so.
So: which option is best?
Now this is a ridiculous hypothetical, but I remember something, a few years back, shortly after first going freelance: I’d finished my projects and hadn’t booked any other work. Suddenly, I was self-unemployed for the first time in over a decade. Not even having quite adjusted to the lack of a biweekly paycheck yet, I was more than a little worried about what I’d done in quitting my job. To make matters worse, this was right towards the beginning of the recession and nothing I seemed to know about bringing in new business (nothing to brag about to begin with) seemed to be doing a whole lot of good.
I began to half-heartedly look for jobs, of which there were few, and those that did were either of the Powerpoint Ninja variety or expected creative direction, PHP and After Effects for $9/hour. I began to get depressed. I actually am a pretty strong generalist—with print cred and enough web chops to teach it—but was beginning to wonder what any of that meant when it seemed I wasn’t qualified for things just north of minimum wage.
I began an attempt to “specialize” in web a little more than I had in the past. This led to a newfound obsession with RSS feeds and following every recongizable “expert” on Twitter. Following every link, then furiously categorizing and sub-categorizing. I could easily spend four to six hours every morning just collecting all the stuff I was convinced “I have to know.”
This lasted a little over two months before I just couldn’t do it any more. I shouldn’t say that: I probably could have… I just realized I just didn’t care enough to keep killing myself for nothing. No matter how deep I got, my Instapaper account never got below several hundred unread articles while my bank account never got over a couple hundred. Worse yet, I rarely actually made anything, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do in the first place. I began to wonder if you could even call this getting “better”―it certainly made me feel worse.
I slowly came to realize a kind-of-obvious but no-less-gamechanging thing:
Being one person, it is physically impossible to discover, read, digest, apply and ultimately master every single development by every single voice on the web. Even if you cut it back to basics―Zeldman for standards, Colyier, Cederholm and Meyer for CSS, Irish for Javacript, and so on―this would be the equivalent of trying to mimic six people’s total output in your personal capacity of One. And you will, by definition ALWAYS be behind.
The only antidote is to stop looking for validation in what we think “the industry” expects of us. Your personal definition of a sane and sustainable practice is perfectly valid on its own.