The Fallacy of Open Time.

By: Jen Shoop

Last year, I was listening to an interview with author Elizabeth Gilbert, and she shared that, for large parts of her younger career as a writer, she labored under the misapprehension that if she could just get a few weeks of uninterrupted time, she could make headway with her novel. She kept waiting for big pockets of quiet to open up so she could dig in, envisioning a summer of no plans, or a winter spent indoors. These sequestrations never materialized. She realized that she was never going to find a long, vacant stretch of free time — save for, maybe, a writer’s weekend retreat here and there–and she just had to get started.

I think of this insight all the time, for reasons literal and metaphorical. I think of it so often, I mentally refer to it as “The River Road Lesson,” because I was driving right by Holton Arms School on River Road when I heard it.

It is, first, a cautionary tale: don’t be Goldilocks. Conditions are rarely “perfect” for any big undertaking–having children, moving cities, writing a book, beginning a renovation, switching jobs, taking up a hobby, launching a business. And would we know what the “perfect” conditions look like anyway? I remember one start-up founder back in our tech days who insisted on building “in stealth mode,” waiting for “the right moment” to launch. “It’s all about timing,” he insisted, but I could see there was a kind of self-sabotaging perfectionism afoot. The business never launched. Perhaps the timing comment was cover for deeper misgivings or complexities he could not disclose, but — the narrative impressed itself on me. Better to put something out there now and evolve over time, or run the risk of never jumping into the double dutch. These insights are far from novel; I’m flirting with the well-worn terrain of “the lean start up methodology,” which purport: “Put something lightweight and imperfect out there, and iterate.” The founder of start-up incubator YCombinator, Paul Graham, once said: “Don’t even try to build startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things that seem interesting. The average undergraduate hacker is more likely to discover good startup ideas that way than by making a conscious effort to work on projects that are supposed to be startups.”

I subscribe to a lot of adjacencies on the writing front. I wrote recently about my daily commitment to writing with insights that echo: “Inspiration will not always find you, so you must learn to be disciplined. I write with the goal of publishing daily, and I focus on process rather than perfection. This requires intense dedication…I know little of the merit of my output, but I am committed to the process. I write with as much care, discipline, and continuity as I can. I show up every morning at 9 a.m. and shake hands with the blank page. Maybe today is the day I will write something dignified, shapely; maybe not. But I’m going to try.” I think that writing, and starting anything creative, really, requires studied comfort with the unshapely indignities of beginnings. You must begin very small, often whiffing and wandering and retracing your steps, with no ambition beyond the present experience of transforming experience into language. If I were to sit down to “write a great American novel,” I would get nowhere. I must write unfreighted by expectation.

I am thinking now of Monet: he had to plant his gardens before he painted them. He did not set out to create the wall-sized masterpieces that now hang in Musee Marmottan. Instead, he tended to the humble, earthy chores of maintaining a garden and, eventually, felt stirred to paint what he’d grown with his own hands.

There is another aspect of the “don’t wait for free time” ethos that jumps out at me: years ago, I worked on a project with the celebrated design firm IDEO, and one tactic they frequently used was called “timeboxing.” If we were brainstorming/ideating at a particular phase of the design process, the designers would often set a stopwatch for five or ten minutes, invite us to be as wildly generative as possible, and then arrest the exercise prematurely. Their learning was that constraints are a good thing. They invite nimbleness, play, and the kind of quick, intuitive thinking that rings truest because it is less rehearsed and filtered. Stakes, inhibitions are lowered. Mistakes and malapropisms are permitted. And all of the sudden, you’ve entered a giddy, free-wheeling mode of creativity. In short: finding long periods of dedicated time for a project may be counterproductive. Creativity will crawl out sideways if it needs to. It doesn’t need a double-wide door.

Onward, Magpies!


+Another giddy up post for Monday morning: making new circles in life, or my Dad’s insistence — no matter what new thing I’m staring down — that “you’re going to love it.”

+On getting started with writing.

+The sense of an ending.

+A playlist for chores at home.

Shopping Break.

+I published two posts simultaneously this morning — the other covers Shopbop’s surprise 20% off sale, and I know items like Hunza G suits and Naghedi bags are going to fly. Happy Monday to us!

+My chic girlfriend Jen Hunter recently raved about these demi boot cuts from J. Crew! You know I’m obsessed with this silhouette ATM…

+This Boden dress is giving Agua Bendita vibes! Also available in a chic skirt format. I would pair with a simple white tank.

+Trendy 237s in tons of great colors.

+These NEST candles in rattan holders make cute hostess gifts — and they’re on sale!

+This popular Jenni Kayne dress was just restocked.

+Why can I not stop buying pouches? I’m a certified pouch horder. My husband jokes that I carry “a bag full of bags.” These are so cute with the Liberty floral letters, though!

+Roller Rabbit has some cute new bags out that would be great for moms: this would be a sweet travel/diaper bag for baby, and this is fun for pool. I also have good luck from time to time in their sale section. Currently, their iconic heart print footies for little ones are included.

+I wish I’d thought to buy mini this book on her sixth birthday — so sweet. Going to keep it in my cart for another little six year old’s birthday. (More go-to gifts for littles here.)

+CHIC (!) $50 utility jacket.

+Also loving this crochet trim denim jacket!

+Dream chaise longue.

+Thank you to all my Magpies who recommended this book on signs after my musing on the subject last week. Your comments on that post were so deeply moving and vulnerable. Thank you.

+Sweetest Easter romper for a baby girl.

+Cute, inexpensive summer jammies for boys (truck print) and girls (flower print).

+I’d like to buy Tilly a new lead and collar, and I’m eyeing this rope lead and this collar. This Etsy shop has tons of similar rope leads in great colors.

+Chic scalloped rattan mirror that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg…

+Loving this sunhat.

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2 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Open Time.

  1. I love this message. I’ve been trying to focus on the premise of “a few small yeses can change your life.” I look back through my own story and can pinpoint those moments or forks in the road where an opportunity that felt scary to yes to ended up being a crucial, exciting, critical part of my life. This mindset has encouraged me to push through the fear or uncertainty and think about all the exciting things on the other side of change! I’m naturally someone more reticent to jump with both feet into change but sometimes it’s warranted, and often it’s rewarding.

    1. I love this sentiment! “A few small yeses” is all it takes for sure. Impressed by your self-awareness and willingness to maneuver your way through discomfort!


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