“How can I love when I'm afraid to fall?”
Christina Perri, A Thousand Years
It's Friday. Your project is due this evening, and yet here it sits, unfinished. A blank page, unfilled. The crucial code, unwritten. Textbooks, unstudied. Fence, still broken.
But you'll get it done! You always do, right on time. It's those projects without deadlines that get perpetually left behind, since there's no “or else” hanging over your head if you don't complete them. The app you've dreamed up, the book you plan to write, the treehouse you meant to build, the Arduino you planned to tweak, the exotic dinner to be cooked. You got the stuff done that really had to be done, because you absolutely had to do it — but the extras aren't forcing themselves on you.
I'm preaching to the choir here; I'm the worst at procrastinating, always frantically finishing essays a half hour before they were due, leaving far too much for the end of the week, even today.
But really? What is it that makes us procrastinate? To be honest, I don't know. No one really knows. Seth Godin would say it's our “lizard brain”, keeping us afraid of doing something which may, in some way, hurt us. There's some truth to that. Malcolm Gladwell would say we haven't learned to make rapid decisions. Douglas Adams claimed to love deadlines — and watch them go by. But surely we're not procrastinating simply from masochism.
No, here's the problem: we're scared of falling. Scared of failing. Scared of missing the mark. We're scared of losing face, scared of failing our own expectations. It's not just love that Perri's song could be talking about, it's every single expectation in life. We're afraid to fall.
We've learned of disappointment and failure from our childhood, and how to avoid the pain. So we procrastinate — and that doesn't mean we do nothing. No, we stay busy, we do the tasks that don't require creativity, anything that we're not anxious about. But the thing that requires us to push a bit harder, like making a résumé or finishing a final project or making something we've dreamed up at random? Well, have you ever heard of mañana?
But this is dangerous. You might not fail, per se, but you're never going to advance without getting out of your comfort zone and taking on new risks. The cliché “No pain, no gain” is, perhaps, far truer than we wish it was.
Step Out of the Boat
So what are you going to do about it? Read another book on how to do the thing you're planning to do? Find some more data to put in your still-unwritten report, or watch the Cooking Channel for inspiration on cooking the dinner you've already planned?
It's too easy to keep looking for inspiration, finding more info, convincing yourself that you're working on your dream — but you're not. Sorry, that's never going to work. You're procrastinating. The solitary thing which will help you is to just do it (great, another cliché).
So push the fear aside, and start. Do something — anything — to get started. Put some paint on the canvas, drive a stake in the ground, push the first commit of your app to git, buy that domain name. Do something, anything, to get started.
Every step after that is easier. It really is. Because now, you're committed. You're actually doing it. You've put some money on the line, you've made that piece of paper useless for any other task, so now you might as well do it.
When I bought my first domain name, to give my WordPress.com blog my own moveable identity, I struggled over the best name for days. Sure, $15 isn't much of a commitment, but it sure felt like a big deal. Even today, I can't say if Techinch.com was the best domain name I could get, but it's worked. What's far more important is what you do with the domain after you get it, and the time I spent worrying about whether I was buying the right domain was largely wasted time. Procrastination that almost felt productive.
Starting Techinch Magazine triggered some amount of doubt and wondering before I'd put down the $99 for an Apple Developer account. In the grand scheme of things, it's not that much — but it was sure enough to make me stop and think if this was a good idea. I knew I wanted to try, and the days I waited were purely wasted time. I should have just done it.
Instead of waiting and hesitating and second guessing, it's better to just make a blind leap of faith sometimes. You can always change something in the future, but for now, the important thing is to start.
So go start. You'll be surprised how much easier it will be to make yourself finish once you're already out of the boat, making your first steps.
Do The Hardest Thing You Can
“Create difficult projects and do them well”
Matthew Butterick, Rebuilding the Typographic Society
You'll finish that project. I'm sure you will. But that still won't be enough. Because if you don't keep progressing and pushing yourself, you're just standing still. That's not what any of us want, especially not as fast as technology changes and zips past us these days. You've got to keep striving to stay relevant — and getting ahead is going to take a whole other leap of faith.
Just reading and watching and listening to others isn't going to help you. But doing stuff that pushes your limits and makes you have to do more than you thought you could — that will grow you like nothing else.
Do a Ton of Stuff
Jennifer Dewalt recently decided she was going to learn how to code. With no prior coding experience, and no technical background, she set out to make 1 website per day for 180 days. She's kept at it, and 4 months later is over halfway through her project — and has already made some rather impressive sites. You don't have to ask her if she's learned a lot so far; just look though the sites she's made, and you can see how she's gone from making basic sites to crafting interactive web apps, one brand-new page at a time. It's quite the impressive accomplishment.
We often think that our best work will be slowly crafted, painstakingly tweaked and perfected until that one item is our best work. But that's not always the case. Consider the following anecdote from the book "Art and Fear", as mentioned by Derek Sivers on the Hacker News discussion about Dewalt's website project:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.
All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on.
Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
It sounds like the most counterintuitive advice in the world to just do a ton of stuff, over and over again. We've learned that mass-produced products are almost always inferior to handcrafted goods, and doing the same chore or eating the same meal over and over is about the most boring thing imaginable to mankind. Surely our best work will be made by focusing on one project, and doing it the very best possible, no?
Perhaps not. Because (to use yet another cliché) practice really does make perfect. You'll get better at stuff the more times you do it. But not just that — each time you do the thing you're trying to do, you can raise the bar. Don't cook the same meal every day, but do cook a meal each day. Don't just make another webpage every day; make a better webpage today than you thought you could yesterday. And then keep raising the bar, one tiny bit at a time, and keep doing it, over and over again.
It works for athletes — they sure don't start running 40k marathons and swimming 100 laps on a whim — and I'm rather certain it can work for our creative projects as well.
So start your projects, take on the biggest, craziest thing you can imagine, and then do it a ton of times. You won't be an overnight success — there's really nothing that's an overnight success — but you'll grow your own success one step at a time. Inch by inch.
Originally published on July 29th, 2013 in Techinch Magazine Issue 3
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