Why You Shouldn’t Share Your Ideas With Everyone

If you’re focusing on your audience, you’re not focusing on your work

Person writing on post it.
Photo: fizkes/Getty Images

By 1501, a 25,000-pound slab of marble had been sitting in a Florentine courtyard for 35 years, a monument to an artist who was unable to turn a commission into a piece of sculpture. Nicknamed “The Giant,” the marble slab became a gossipy piece of local interest when a new artist — a buzzy 27-year-old upstart named Michelangelo — was hired to try to salvage the boondoggle.

Cognizant that his work would draw the 16th-century equivalent of paparazzi, “Michelangelo decided that he needed to carve [his sculpture] in private, so workers came and built a roofless shed around the Giant,” Sam Anderson writes in The New York Times. “For many months, inside his shed, Michelangelo toiled away unseen.” When the shed walls eventually came down, they revealed one of the most iconic pieces of Western sculpture ever carved: “David.”

Michelangelo’s shed is the unsung hero in this story. It’s both deeply satisfying and a little terrifying to think of him in there alone with just his chisels and a truly enormous rock—especially in our overexposed era of constant sharing on social media, collaboration, and crowdsourced everything. The kind of intuitive talent required to look at a giant, awkwardly cut piece of marble and see what it might become, with a few thousand hours of work, may be innate, but without the right conditions, Michelangelo’s full artistic powers could not have been unleashed.

Privacy, and the process of being alone with your project until it takes shape, can be like your very own slingshot, ready to fell the Goliath of your unrealized ambitions. Keeping your eyes on your own work isn’t just a strategy to be better. Research suggests that it’s the best way to complete the work you set out to do.

The power of secret intention

A 2009 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people who told others about their goals ended up less committed to them. More specifically, the study authors wrote, “when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”

In other words, if you have dreams of becoming a marathon runner, just sharing that information with someone else can be enough to make you feel like you are, regardless of how many miles you’ve logged. Talking about your writing routine can make you feel like a novelist, even if you’ve only written a few paragraphs.

And when you believe you’re already being perceived the way you want to be perceived, you can lose some incentive to follow through on the goals that would turn that perception into reality.

Focus on your work first, audience second

By concealing his work, and refusing passersby any input in the process, Michelangelo focused on the task at hand, rather than on the audience.

That may sound obvious, but it’s common career advice — for writers, musicians, potters, anyone who creates and also sells their work — to spend a fair amount of time cultivating an audience on social media. But really, if you’re working on your audience, you’re not working on your work.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King credits one of his first paid writing jobs, at a newspaper in the town of Lisbon, Maine, when he was still in high school, with teaching him the lesson that would become one of his more quoted pieces of writing advice. When King filed his first two articles, his editor told him to “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you… once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can anyways — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it.”

In this highly connected time, it’s perhaps even more important to close the door when we sit down to work, as a way to focus on the project and forget its intended audience altogether. The space for creation, for deep, productive work, has to be carefully constructed, and protected.

How to build your shed

So how do you build your shed? Here are some suggestions, whether or not you have a literal shed to retreat to:

Remember that not all work is immediately productive.

Read, listen to music, look at something that’s not for sale.

Fill your reserves with things that people crafted before there was an audience for them.

Instead of wishing you had started something a year ago, think about where your project will be in a month, two months, six months—if you start it today.

Plant your garden with bulbs for spring. It’s a metaphor, yes, but you’ll also get actual flowers.

Make a place where your work can live, whether that’s a corner of your bedroom, a chair you sit in, or a backpack that holds your supplies.

Most importantly: Accept that work is hard and sometimes boring and, ultimately, more private than public. Keep doing it, and, for a certain period, keep it to yourself.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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