How Persistence & the 'Equal Odds Rule' Can Give You a New Perspective on Creativity
Is there any way to predict success? What about creative success? Some argue that the main variable is talent, while others insist that practice makes perfect.
A relatively obscure theory, though, known as the Equal Odds Rule, suggests that there is no way to predict success, and if that's the case, then the only thing to do is get busy. Really, really busy.
In the video above, musician Jonathan Mann describes how he has written a song a day for over 2,000 days. Were all of those songs winners? Hardly. But, he wrote them, and sitting down to write, or perform any kind of activity (especially creative activities, where the rules and measures of quality are far less cut and dried than in other fields) is certainly going to be better for your creative endeavors than not sitting down and creating.
Developed in 1977 by Keith Simonton, The Equal Odds Rule states that, "the average publication of any particular scientist does not have any statistically different chance of having more of an impact than any other scientist’s average publication.” Change a few words and, at its most reductive, this means that if a (for example) filmmaker sets out on a new project, there is really no guarantee that the film will have any positive impact (or any impact at all); it's all a numbers game. The Equal Odds Rule states that the only way to win is to produce, and odds are, not everything you produce will be good (or even passable). But to produce on a near industrial-level means that the pernicious myth of the lazy genius is just that; a myth.
Perhaps what looks like laziness is really just the result of years and years of unrelenting work, work that includes a long period of apprenticeship. But practice is part of production, and a prerequisite to any successful work, whether it's a scientific paper or a screenplay. Now, of course, some people are more talented than others, and I will probably never play center for the Knicks. (Probably. I haven't heard back yet.)
Every time we produce something that fails, we succeed; we know a little more than we did the day before about what works and what doesn't, and we're also putting ourselves out there as artists. Work begets work, and success begets success. But, in the words of blogger and writer Myke Cole, "You have to learn to love the effort divorced from the result."
In the film world, one would be hard pressed to find a more prolific talent than Woody Allen, who has directed more films than some people have seen (roughly one a year for several decades), working in almost every genre possible. Of his legendary productivity, Allen has said, "I like to work...It distracts me from brooding or anxiety."
"I'm always thinking of what would make a good story. The toughest part is raising the money...But thinking of ideas, writing films, that's not so hard for me. That's what I do, that's the one thing I can do, walk around and cook up stories." -Woody Allen
In his excellent book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield, author of several novels, one of which became the film The Legend of Bagger Vance, describes the greatest enemy to production. He calls it Resistance, and uses the term as a catch-all for every form of procrastination, hesitation, and excuse-making in the book. And it doesn't only apply to art; according to Pressfield, everything that keeps you from your work is resistance, whether it's a bad habit, a rationalization, a physical or emotional block. Anything that keeps you from your work is your enemy.
The only way to produce enough work to make the Equal Odds Rule work for you is to stop letting anything get in the way of your work. Long story short: put your butt in the chair. Stay there. Work. It's the only way you'll ever get close to the level of skill needed to succeed, to say nothing of the heights of whatever mountain you want to climb. (You'll never reach the top, though; if you did, it would stop being fun.) All this "rule" means is that there is no certainty. And that's as it should be. Life is tough. Why should art be easy?