When I left a global logistics company (UPS) in August of 2018 and pivoted to a content marketing and copywriting career, I thought I was done with logistics. Turns out I needed to get back to my roots in order to get my creative game on.
For most of my adult life (I started as a delivery driver in 1986) I lived in the get-the-goods-delivered world of logistics. Forecasting volume, packages per hour, time studies, daily reports, and on-time delivery, were all a part of daily life.
Logistics is about the management of the flow of things between the point of origin and the point of consumption (Wikipedia).
“The art of war is about legs, not arms.”
– General Maurice de Saxe
And logistics doesn’t just make the world go round by keeping everyone fed and stocked. It wins wars. As Robert Hilliard Barrow put it, “Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics. Professionals talk about logistics…”
Creatives are in a war.
A war against a mishmash of enemies with evil intent to snuff their spark. On the propaganda front, one of the most nefarious campaigns has to do with overstressing the importance of the creative spirit, and how it must be fanned to flame by inspiration and whisperings from the Muse.
Truth is, the war of art is won by logistics too. In this case, managing and maintaining the flow of creativity – from origin to consumption.
- From pen to paper to post
- From brush to canvas to showing
- From idea to outline to speech
The plotter and the plodder
One morning over breakfast, I asked my friend, Ed, how he had accomplished so much and remains so active at the age of 84. His response? “I’m a plodder. I just keep going.”
His answer intrigued me. At the time, I was more a plotter than a plodder when it came to my creative pursuits. I entertained this romantic notion that the breakthrough idea would come to me if I read enough of the right books or found the magic method.
I’ve learned that the breakthrough rarely comes to me. I have to go find it.
While I’ll admit, that I don’t know the mysterious origin of my best ideas, I do know that they wear off quickly or don’t see the white of page without some plodding. It’s during, after, or between long bouts and slow methodical campaigns of persistence that a work of art finally starts to take shape.
Picasso was a plodder. Leonardo was a plodder. Both of them created tens of thousands of sketches – thousands of failed attempts – before the art emerged from their plod.
When it comes to painting or writing, or selling or marketing, there is a complexity to be mastered, and our brains don’t learn it in a snap. It has to simmer slowly in a soup of patterns and repetition and rote.
Of course, logistics has an element of plotting, but in business, it’s all in service of the plod from point A to point B. Between hubs, through borders, and customs clearance, and finally the last leg to the consignee’s front door.
It’s no wonder we creatives resist the plod:
- It exposes our inefficiency
- It imposes the stress of when and where we’ll show up with our art.
- And besides, it just sounds so stinkin’ uncreative
But by avoiding it, our focus shifts to the dissatisfaction of unfinished work, rather than the positive tension of finishing.
Logistics is all about delivering the goods
The whole point of logistics is delivery. Everything else is secondary. It doesn’t matter how efficient or polite, or cost-effective you are if the package doesn’t make it to the customer’s front porch.
As a creative, output is the point of your activity. Without it, you won’t progress and learn as quickly.
When I began as a UPS Driver, the iPhone and GPS were still years away. Delivery records were handwritten, and we navigated from printout sections of city maps.
The training was rigorous and repetitive. I can still hear the “cadences”:
“Keyring on the left ring finger”
“Attach seatbelt with the right hand – release emergency brake with the left”
“Look left-right-left at intersections”
“Plan 5 steps ahead”
My trainer had drilled these habits into my brain, knowing that over time they’d become automatic and ensure efficiency. But those first days alone were bumpy. Without the reminders and coaxing and coaching, I found out quickly what I lacked and what I needed to learn. And it was in the daily doing (logistics) that I learned it.
Here are a few guidelines I’ve found helpful when it comes to getting logistical about creativity:
⏱ The stopwatch (pace)
World-class logistics companies time everything. Without knowing how long it takes to complete a task, it’s nearly impossible to plan and dispatch work.
As a new delivery driver, I was constantly calculating the number of stops per hour to determine whether I was on pace to complete the day’s assigned deliveries.
Now, as a writer, I occasionally count my words per hour. Especially if I’m working on a large writing assignment. It helps me to track it against the deadline. Also, I’m a slower writer than I’d like to be, so it’s helpful to monitor pace.
As Moshe Feldenkrais wisely observed, “You cannot do what you want until you know what you do.”
🕰 The clock (progress)
A logistics operation is driven by deadlines. The clock is always ticking on milestones and commitments. For most, it’s a 24 hour a day endeavor of systematic progress
As a driver, I established a few critical progress checkpoints throughout the day. After a while, my customers could tell what time it was by seeing me pull up to the door. It also helped me to know if I was on track, or needed to make adjustments.
When I’m writing it’s easy to get lost in the work and forget the time. I’ve found it very helpful to decide in advance where the day’s milestones and checkpoints will be. It also helps me leverage energy and measure progress.
📅 The calendar (planning)
Forecasting and planning are at the core of successful logistics. Each hand-off is a critical link in the supply chain. It’s simply not possible to execute consistently without the ability to think ahead.
During training as a driver, I was taught to plan 5 stops ahead. This became easier, the better I got at marking my progress and monitoring my pace. Having a clear plan freed me to focus on other aspects of the job, like service and positive customer interactions.
Blocking out writing time on the calendar has been key to my development as a writer. The better the plan, the more bandwidth freed up for the creative work. Otherwise, I find myself undone by the unknown or unexpected.
As an added bonus, each day I do my best will set me up for a better tomorrow.
Whether you’re a poet or a plumber, at some point you have to start showing up publicly with your work. You have to become logistical.
The good news is you can get from mediocrity to creative competence if you submit to the plod. It’s not easy and it takes time, but it helps to know you’re on the right road, even if the scenery is not stunning at the moment.
You will get better. And better is the path to good. And sometimes even great.