January 8, 1878
My dear Friend,
In your last letter, you asked me what I thought the key is to producing great work. I have given this question deep thought over these cold, lonely months sailing across the Atlantic. I believe I have found an answer.
In short: edit. Use your judgement to pick your most promising ideas, and focus on those, and those alone. Otherwise, I fear your days will be filled with extraneous errands and frivolous pursuits. It is only too easy, my dear friend, for our attention to be pulled about, like a ship tossing in a storm.
As my great, great grandmother used to say, “Less is more.” We must simplify our work to that which is most essential, most pressing, most promising. Only then can we produce great work through focus and clarity.
Please give my regards to your lovely wife and beautiful daughters.
February 2, 1878
I hope this finds you well and safely ashore at your destination. As always, I appreciate your thoughtfulness. When I first read your letter, I agreed instantly. It felt harmonious to my way of thinking, like the perfect note played on a violin.
Before responding, I decided to let your words sit within me, to see how my feelings changed as time passed. A flash of insight came to me one day while I was bathing, like the flicker of a candle. In that moment I realized: we must not edit our ideas too soon.
I have found that my best work has come as a complete surprise. Serendipitous, if you will. It has come when I least expected it; from projects I considered toys or foolish distractions. When I’m engrossed in a project out of pure interest, doing it for its own sake, with no expectation of outcome — that is when, every once in a while, a bit of work may be touched by greatness.
So it is of the utmost importance that we try many experiments, and withhold judgement as long as possible. The cost may be a loss of focus, but the benefits are of the grandest proportions. We must accept that our judgement simply is not able to separate the wheat from the chaff, particularly when our ideas are inchoate and fragile.
I do hope your sister’s health has fully recovered. Please give her my best.
February 28, 1878
I was thrilled to receive your honest, refreshing response. If only my colleagues at the University would have the courage and clarity of conviction that I find in your words.
Certainly, one cannot deny the role of serendipity in generating great work. I have had my share of surprises as well. However, I would be remiss if I did not recognize that ultimately, if we do not focus our energies, then we will not progress far enough on any one thing to discover its full potential.
How can we surprised by a seed if we do not care for it enough to let it grow?
Further, I think you’ll agree, my good doctor, that when our energies are spread thinly and progress feels elusive, our internal motivation is bound to dissipate. This becomes a dreaded vicious cycle: the less our motivation, the more our focus dissipates, the less progress we make on any one endeavor.
Thank you for asking after my sister. Her health is indeed improving rapidly. The clean air of the countryside has done her a world of good.
April 1, 1878
My good Sir,
Indeed, we must care for the seed to help it grow and see what it becomes. And yet, if we plant but one seed, we will not know what may have come from other seeds. For every seed is unique, and a very few seeds will hold surprises unlike any others.
How does one grow the very best plant by simply looking at a seed?
If we can find a way to plant a garden full of seeds, while still watering them and providing them sun and tilling the soil, we give ourselves an opportunity to produce not just a crop of good plants, but to discover the one glorious plant that will come to define our work.
Unfortunately, my work now calls me on a long, arduous journey. I am afraid this will be my last letter to you for some months. I trust you will understand. I enjoy our conversations immensely and I hope to give our exchange more thought as I cross the Pacific Ocean into undiscovered lands.