Paul McGrath


Offer up the First Pancake

Image of man looking over sea.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash.

Pancakes and creative work have something remarkable in common: the first attempt is always rubbish. Often called the “sacrificial pancake”, or “the one you throw away”, the first one is a test. Whether a little too hot, too cold, or too much flour, it never turns out right.

The problem, of course, is balance, and not enough of it. When we start anything for the first time, we try to find our bearings and establish control of the situation. The problem though, is that there are too many variables at play, and we haven’t yet grasped a sense of the action.

So too, with creative work. You may have a thread of an idea, a hint of a plan, but its nascence is overwhelming. There are so many “what ifs”, and not enough definitives. You may be able to feel the branching possibilities, or the aura of something more, but you remain painfully unsure of how to get there. Often this is where many start criticising themselves and just stop.

Instead, it can help to focus on the process. When we make pancakes, we don’t focus on crafting one perfect example — we usually create a stack. This is process versus product: focusing on the act rather than the goal. The mind likes process, as it doesn’t induce stress by tying ourselves to an outcome that isn’t guaranteed.

In the book Art & Fear, the authors recount a “gambit” employed by a University of Florida lecturer, which illustrates this well:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. […] Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

— Bayles, David. Art & Fear.

The “iterative” quality Bayles describes is what makes focusing on process so effective. Particularly too, the importance of learning from mistakes. This is deliberate practice in action: a thoughtful method for success by focusing on the improvement of every step.

A simple method which engages many of these points is downloading a pomodoro counter, my favourite of which is the Forest app. This encourages you to work in 25 minute increments, with 5 minute breaks, allowing you to count your “process” (your trees/pomodoros) rather than criticise your product. Pair this with a dedication to marginal improvements over time, and you’ve developed a sustainable practice for creative success.

Credit: Sarah Anderson @ https://sarahcandersen.com

What I like about process over product is how cultural forms of it have become encoded in society. The first pancake rule, for example, derived from an 18th Century Russian proverb, encourages us to discard our assumptions of early perfection. This acceptance of failure is critical for motivation, self-confidence, and building momentum towards later success.

If we can be kind to lumpy dough, then we should bring the same attitude to our own creative efforts. Start by offering up the first pancake.


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