The first heard the aphorism lead, follow, or get out of the way from one of Merlin Mann’s thousand podcasts. Or I thought I did, anyway; this article by Henry T. Casey suggests I misremember it from “keep moving and get out of the way”. Even if that’s so, then I have every time recalled it as the former phrasing, which I could have sworn I heard as recently as this week’s episode of Roderick on the Line (the only thread of Mr. Mann’s absurdly wide oeuvre I subscribe to at present).
This suggests that the more aggressive format seems stickier to my subconscious, somehow. If I didn’t pick up the wording from the podcasts, then I expect it comes from the internet’s general background noise. A cursory search suggests that the internet does indeed love the phrase, though it has no more an idea of its provenance than I, sourcing it to everyone from Thomas Paine to Lee Iacocca. (Jim Bernhard did more research than me on it, and also came up empty.)
The phrase appeals to me, despite the distasteful machismo of its surface read. Its most sweat-soaked interpretation runs something like “Be a winner, or be a loser, or just die already.” In this mode, one sees it related to other trucker-cap mottos regarding the unchanging view of dogs behind the lead. I do not choose to read it this way.
I see it instead as an exhortation to maintain continual awareness of one’s position and velocity within one’s projects as an act of basic creative hygiene. It asks you to make sure that every project costing you time and attention actually rewards you sufficiently — and if not, it asks you to waste no time in cutting it away.
Do you sit in the project’s vanguard, charting a new course, whether you work alone or lead a team? Well, good on you! If not, are you contributing to a project that someone else directs, but whose success you believe in (or, at least, receive ample remuneration for)? Excellent.
If neither of these, then perhaps the time has arrived to question whether you still have the interest and resources to continue with the project. And if you don’t, then you should consider breaking away from the project completely and honorably, avoiding the disservice of leaving others guessing.
I once attempted to recast it this way:
Throw parties, attend parties, and know when it’s time to leave the party.
I like that, because I like parties, which here serve as a fun yet perfectly valid degenerate case for creative work. Unfortunately, this format gives up the original version’s imperative punch. If my issue really lies with the blunt tone of the third part, then perhaps that’s all I should replace. Applying further thought, I land here:
Lead, follow, or pass it along.
This, too, I like. Beyond transforming the chest-thumping “get out of the way!” with a more constructive suggestion, this version fetaures a pleasing cadence: Dum, dum, da-dumbledy dee. I dare say on this measure alone it improves upon the original.
Or maybe I’ll just go with “Keep moving and get out of the way.” That’s good too.