Striving is a sometimes food

One of the silliest terms in all of software development has to be the "sprint". It's an Agile concept intended to evoke a steady, sustainable release cycle by analogy to an all-out push to get over a line. Of course, if you take it literally you're Doing Agile Wrong, but perhaps it would be easier to do right if the words meant what they said.

But forget Agile, let's talk about sprinting. The kind of sprinters who sprint with their legs rather than a keyboard tend to do so at competitive events. Everyone shows up on the day, runs as fast as they can a few times, then goes home. The fastest get to take decorative pieces of metal with them. Most competitive sports work similarly, despite it being an obviously unsustainable way to work, even by Silicon Valley standards. Why is this?

One answer is that our idea of athleticism is generally more about peak output than sustained output. A single incredible feat looks much more impressive than a lifetime of steady achievement. Even marathons, purportedly more concerned with sustained performance, only last a day or so – the blink of an eye in any other field. A true marathoner would have no regard for such trivialities; their goal is nothing less than the highest total distance on foot since birth, as measured at their death.

Extreme, perhaps, but not so far from how we evaluate excellence in other areas. A great writer isn't someone who writes one really great sentence, or even a really great work, but someone who has written many great works. This takes a lot of time, and unsurprisingly age is much kinder to writers than sprinters. That said, you also don't get many writers retiring at 30. And they don't receive anywhere near as much decorative metal.

But perhaps the entire opposition between these extremes is a fiction invented to sell conference tickets. In reality, athletes spend almost all their time in steady and sustained training, and almost none in competition. Most writers don't write at a single metronomic pace (except for Stephen King, who is a humanoid puppet controlled by a cabal of sentient typewriters). Rather, they work to deadlines and vary their output accordingly.

And a sprinter's career is not just evaluated by a single peak performance, but by many such performances over time (tragically, the rules limit you to one piece of metal per peak performance, and it's the same size even if you win by a lot). Conversely, a lifetime of okay books will never add up to one really good one; even the most prolific writers will have peaks and troughs in their career, and it's the ones whose peaks go highest we remember as great.

In fact, I'd say it's more illustrative to consider peak and sustained output as complements. Why don't sprinters always sprint? Because the foremost goal of anyone trying to be great is to improve, and improvement requires both marathoning and sprinting; both steady progress and occasional breakthroughs; both words-per-lifetime and words-per-whatever-you-can-manage-in-the-next-hour.

A reliable baseline gives you the safety to take the occasional shot at excellence, and each attempt shows you the limits of your current ability. A new peak, higher than the last. Could it someday become your baseline?