Fact: everyone struggles to do good work.

Every designer, every developer, every agency or company you admire—they all have good moments and bad moments. Sometimes things go smoothly, but more often than not there are bumps in the road. Confusion. Distractions. Conflicts. Apologies. Second chances.

When things go more good than bad, someone shares what they did and what they learned. A case study goes up on the website, or a blog post or even an article in an online magazine you read.

“How we ninja optimized our responsive unicorn process.”

You sit at your computer, reading the article and feeling inspired. But you also keenly feel the gap between the process they describe and the work you do every day. They’re so talented! you might think. Things never go that smoothly around here, because we kind of suck.

Stop right there; you’ve fallen into the trap of comparing your real, messy, actual work with a story that was created to make everyone in it look good.

Are we liars? Fakes? Scam artists preying on your insecurities?

Not at all.

Talking about our work requires a narrative structure – a Beginning, a Middle, and an End – so that the story makes sense. This was the problem, this is how we solved it, this is what we learned. The end.

But real life does not adhere to a 3-act structure for any of us. We tend to leave out the messy parts – the personality conflicts, the arguments about the technology stack, the 2 months when we were too busy to work on the project – because they muddle the narrative (and make us look less than perfect).

Look closely and you can sometimes spot the chaos in little asides. “Little did we know at the time…” or “We were surprised to discover that…” Translation: we had no idea what we were doing.

The messy parts are always in there somewhere.

And so we aspire to replicate the smooth success we read about, which often translates into an obsession with process. Everyone is searching for the perfect process, because we believe that process is the key to eliminating the messy parts.

Usually, we’re fooling ourselves. A good process can do a lot of great things, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Process is not a substitute for leadership. It is not a substitute for talent or trust or hard work. It will not make up for a lack of institutional support and it will not make hard decisions any easier. I’ve seen healthy teams build great things with very little process, and dysfunctional teams adopt Industry Best Practices and continue to fail. Because unfortunately, process is usually not the cure for what ails you.

No process will ever make real life work as smooth and pain-free as the projects we read about in blog posts and case studies. That world is just an illusion; don’t compare your work to it or beat yourself up for falling short.

Doing great work isn’t about perfecting your process, it’s about maintaining a practice. Every day we try, we fail, we succeed, we learn. Then we wake up and do it again. And again. And again. This is where the real work happens.