Settling for Second Best

Yesterday was our work Christmas party. It was happy, successful, and red and green. There was also a cookie decorating contest.

We had 30 minutes and two cookies, and in classic creative nature, I spent 25 minutes on one cookie and 5 on the other.

The first was the passion of my heart, the brilliant idea borne of the several minutes of planning allowed to us before the decorating began. I planned out materials, shapes, colors, sizes.

The second cookie I threw together (by which I mean decorated) at the last minute after I realized I was the only person who thought my first cookie, my pet project, was beautiful. Even I am not entirely oblivious.

For your sake, pictures.

I'll let you decide which was my pet project, but let me give you a hint: I love snow and trees and cabins and little stone paths and clear cold wintery days, and I'd rather draw a picture and a story than "ketchup on bologna" (pardon the unappetizing analogy).

The table unanimously decided that I should submit the ornament, so I did. And won second place. Which was cool. But that's not the point.

I liked winning. Winning is fun. Games are more fun when you win (But be a good sport still, because even if you don't win they're still fun. I know, because I lose board games all the time and I still enjoy them.), everybody likes to watch football better when their team is winning, and in movies we always route for our favorite teams to achieve victory.

But I didn't submit the cookie that I loved, I submitted the cookie that would look better to everyone else.

Pardon the philosophical grasp for meaning in a cookie decorating contest.

Most people who create things know what it's like to love what you make. You think of a unique idea, work on it, put it together, spruce up the details, and pour love into it. Then you polish it up and introduce it to the world, and everyone raises their eyebrows because it's different from what they're accustomed to.

So you put together something that people are used to seeing, and you make it pretty but it's not your heart, and you make it walk the plank into the great peopled abyss. And it doesn't reach the water because people are so excited about it and they snatch it up before it has a chance to touch the salty drip.

But in your heart, you really still love the one you loved first, the one you poured your heart into, the one that was your best idea.

The cookie analogy loses some traction here, because I didn't care this deeply about my cookies. I just thought about it a lot.

Writers (and all creatives) sometimes have to pause their pet projects, their grand ideas, to work on something that will work for them, something that the public will love, something that will put dinner on the table and shoes on the feet. It's easy in those times to forget the first best idea. It's easy to settle into complacency because you've discovered what people love, and you can do it well, even though you don't love it too.

But at the end of the day, even after you've given the public what they want, and made something that people will love, don't forget to do what you love.

Choose something, work hard on it, and make it great. Don't settle for second best.