Getting things done: acquire a taste for low-hanging fruit

Sometimes the thing you need to do is obvious—the wastebasket needs emptying. Sometimes it’s not obvious, but it’s easy to figure out—we don’t have the supplies we need to feed visitors this weekend, so a trip to the grocery store is in order. Sometimes it’s not all that easy to figure out, but you can take some good guesses at how to make forward progress—if you intend to be a musician, it would be helpful to learn an instrument, or to see if you enjoy playing music with other people, or to find out if you suffer from terminal stagefright.

And sometimes it’s not even possible to know what your goal should be until you do a little exploration. One good example is the origin of the Basement Tapes. In early 2001 Laurence Windham and R.C. Sproul Jr. had no idea that recordings of conversations between friends on substantial topics could be such an engaging and powerful method of communicating. What they did know was that a local church had inherited a tiny AM radio station and was in need of programming for it. They thought it would be interesting and enjoyable to have their own radio program, so each weekday for three months they showed up at the studio at 6am and went about the business of filling three hours of airtime with talk and music.

The experience taught them at least two things. One, they didn’t want the burden of a daily three-hour radio program; it took too much time away from other things. Two, during their time on the air they had been able to tackle some important topics in depth, by means of conversation rather than lecture—and the result was engaging and, better yet, unlike other audio programs. After a couple of months of thinking over those two things, they decided to experiment with creating and distributing something like the radio program, keeping some of its strengths and avoiding some of its weaknesses—a monthly unrehearsed conversation among friends, covering a single topic, made available on tape and CD.

A second good example is the birth of Draught Horse Press. When the opportunity came up to publish Eternity in Our Hearts, I was able to take advantage of it because I knew more or less how to publish a book. Which isn’t to say that I had ever published one, or even been involved in the publication of one. But in 1988 I had worked for a company that made desktop publishing software, and I spent a lot of my spare time going through tutorials that taught me how to lay out newsletters and magazines and such. And in 1993 I took a summer class in how to run a small printing press, because I was curious about how they worked. And I had kept up with the latest developments in book printing technology, partly out of curiosity and partly because I had vague notions that I might want to write and self-publish a book someday. And somewhere along the way I had learned the basics of double-entry bookkeeping, thinking it would be a useful skill if I ever started a small business of my own. Because of all this and a few other things I knew, I was able to decide to go ahead, and two months later I had printed copies of the book in hand, and the beginnings of an online bookstore where they would be sold.

A third example is the gradual professionalization of the Ridgewood Boys. When Chris and I came back from our first jam camp, we were excited about learning to play music together and with our friends, but we had hardly any desire to perform, and no desire at all to perform professionally—in fact, going professional was something we were very wary of. But even at that point I was buying and reading books about various aspects of the music business, including my favorite, Pete Wernick’s “How to Make a Band Work.” There was something faintly embarrassing about it; each time I’d buy one, a voice in my head would say, “Oh yeah, right, like you’re ever going to be in a band!” But the point wasn’t that I would somday be in a band and use that information, the point was that I wanted knowledge about the music business for its own sake—it was interesting to me, and different, and might teach me some things about how musicians think. So I proceeded to learn about the music business while having no intention of entering the music business—and, ironically, it was that knowledge that led us deeper and deeper into the music business.

We live in an age where such low-hanging fruit is abundant. There is hardly an activity imaginable where there isn’t a plethora of helpful books, videos, and websites that will teach you the fundamentals of that activity. I recommend that people cultivate a taste for such fruit, that they take the time to explore the basics of an activity for the sheer joy of learning about it. If you plan to have someone do some work on your home, take the time beforehand to learn something about how the work is done; it won’t take long to learn the basics, you’ll be more intelligent about hiring the worker and specifiying the work, you’ll be in a position to learn even more as you watch the work being done, you may be encouraged to do something similar someday, you may even be courageous enough to decide not to hire the work out at all.

Learn about what it takes to run a small business; it may prepare you for actually doing so in the future, or it may make you extremely grateful that you have a steady paycheck. Learn about how to grow and prepare food. Learn about how to operate some of the standard computer software packages. Learn about how people make things out of wood. Learn about how books are printed. Learn about how music is recorded. Learn how to write.

As you learn about these things, take the time and expense to try out the ones that interest you the most. Grow something and eat it. Make something out of wood and sell it. Write an article and submit it to magazines. Make your trial run modest enough that you can afford to lavish care and effort on it. Pick something simple, but still real.

When I learned how to run a printing press, I spent a good amount of time and money acquiring a skill that I have yet to use—but I enjoyed it, and I learned other things in the process that have been very helpful. When I decided that I needed to know more about growing food, I planned out a garden that in many ways was overkill—raised beds, custom-mixed soil, an assortment of plants that was chosen to keep the risk low rather than to constitute a large part of our diet. As far as the food goes, it would have been more effective to buy it all at a local farmer’s market; as far as the learning goes, the cost was minimal.


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