Like everyone else, I spend a great deal of my life trying to walk the fine line that lies between sufficient preparation and wasted time (wasted, specifically, trying to prepare sufficiently).
I think (at least offhand) that this is a structural analogue to the “dry powder” problem of naval warfare fame. Use your powder too soon in the engagement and you will waste a limited resource on volleys that fall short of your target, leaving you ultimately exposed and unable to respond as the battle progresses. The longer, however, that you keep your powder dry, the greater the risk that your enemy’s volley will take you out before or as you finally fire back, rendering all of that “saved up” powder useless anyway.
I don’t know whether it’s an analogue, I suppose.
But there is an awful lot of “prepare” and “foundation” and “intangible stuff” to academic life, to writing life, to technological life, to personal life. There is a lot of time spent “laying groundwork” and “lining up ducks” and there is very little reward for any of it. A lot of it, in fact (like, say, college programs, or M.A. programs, or Ph.D. programs) costs a great deal of money and time and offers no immediate reward.
Instead, it’s all an investment in later.
Thing is, you can always invest more now in a return later. Meanwhile, it’s a limited resource kind of situation insamuch as you’ve got a limited amount of time (read: life) to go around. You can spend your time on school, you can spend it on personal life, you can spend it on career-building, or you can spend it on writing, for example.
Don’t listen to anyone that tries to assert the possibility of “doing it all,” for example “going to school while also working a full-time job.” No matter the verbal and cognitive gymnastics involved in describing the situation, the simple fact remains: when such a person is in the classroom, he or she is not in the office; when they are in the office, they are not in the classroom; no matter which they are in, they are not developing their personal life.
I’m spending so much time on foundations here. Not just school as the foundation for a career, but even within school, on certain kinds of practice as foundations for other kinds. Book-shopping as the foundation for book-reading. Book-reading as the foundation for good research. Good research as the foundation for good papers. But in going through all these steps, the good papers are spread out to such an extent that they are few and far between thanks to the degree of preparation involved.
Meanwhile, the competition chucks out papers in bulk, maybe eight out of every ten of them crap, but the other two publishable, even if not perfect.
Can I tell which way is the better way to work? Not a chance.
In practical terms, I could simply stop reading. Anything. At all. Stop thinking. Anything. At all. And just start writing. Just write and write and write and see what would come out. It’s been a while since my last book (five years, in fact, half a decade) and I feel like I’m getting rusty. But it’s all down to preparation. Lining ducks up in anticipation of some future in which I will be “sufficiently prepared” to write at “sufficient quality” levels to produce whatever it is that I think that I need to produce in order to be competitive.
But what if this is backward? What if I should be, as most people are (it seems to me), simply shooting for bulk? Simply shooting as much shit as possible in as many directions as possible to see what sticks to what?
Don’t these people get farther, faster?
Sometimes the whole “do a good job” thing seems like a tremendous gamble. Sometimes it seems to me that the most successful people are those that bet on everything, all the time, as much as possible, as recklessly as possible, without any concern for the risks, in such volume that the process of tallying the totality of their account balance is an insanely complex task that keeps everyone in the world one step behind them until the day that they die, frenetic until the last, and dropping dead while ahead simply because no-one could every quite catch up and declare the column counted and the bill pronounced.
And in that way, they not only prosper, but they literally outrun the consequences.
I wish, sometimes, that I was one of the “I can outrun all consequences” people rather than one of the “I am the slowly building consequences” people.
But I suppose we all are what we are.
Still, it leaves the original question unanswered. Given that I will prepare to some extent, always, and that it will be long, painstaking preparation, it’s still unclear just how much preparation is right, just when I should throw up my hands in any given instance and transition from “foundations for doing it right” to “what the hell I’d better get moving and build something on top of these foundations.”