The American composer John Cage has been attributed with coining the phrase Begin Anywhere. Like any such aphorism, it simplifies. There are times, when it is useful.
To do anything means to do something. To begin anywhere means to begin somewhere. Choices have to be made. When we say begin anywhere, we are really saying that in the context of our discussion, it does not matter (much) which somewhere we choose.
When does that make sense? Let’s take a look at that.
You begin to do. But do you do to do or to have done? In other words: Is the activity itself the point or is it about finishing the activity and accomplishing a specific objective? This does matter.
Let’s assume here we are thinking about beginning, because of the ends in mind, the accomplishments to achieve, the change to effect. In this case, we probably care about distance. There are numerous paths we can take from here to where we want to go. Some are longer than others. Shorter is often better.
What choice do you have?
At any given time there are – theoretically – a vast number of things that you could be doing. However, when you think about a project or task ahead of you, you will naturally filter out a lot of possibilities that are naturally not helpful.
You end up seeing zero to many possible paths. You have to choose at least an initial one.
Does it matter?
It is generally useful to begin anywhere to the extent that your choice does not matter. I do not mean this in the way that if you are working on something ultimately pointless, then it also does not really matter how you go about it. (Though of course there is probably something to that, too.)
Rather the utility perhaps lies at the edges:
- You see no viable path at all. It does not mean none exists, but rather that you do not see it. There is learning to be done, so that you see clearer. Any beginning can clarify. Perhaps, this is were John Cage was coming from at the time: A blank canvas can be intimidating. Something can be better than nothing, when it comes to showing a way. It gives our mind something to build from.
- You see many viable paths, but their values are hard to tell apart or there is no meaningful difference. Picking any one path can allow to satisfice, lest we get trapped in a senseless cycle of analysis, trying to figure out the best option out of many, when that really does not gain us anything.
Outside of those, beginning anywhere is often probably not precise enough.
Sometimes that can reasonably be anywhere.