I read a fine article about never finishing anything by Scottish writer and designer James Greig. The article, in turn, prompted a very good Hacker News comment page which really brought home the impact the associated feelings of shame have wrought on so many people.
(James Greig has a very readable blog with a lot of articles chronicling his difficulties with career burnout and depression amongst other things and is well worth a read, in and of itself.)
This article about never finishing anything particularly resonated with me for obvious reasons.
Like most developers/designers/writers/creatives (delete as applicable), I could fill a skip with the number of started-but-not-finished projects I’ve accumulated or jettisoned over the years.
Websites without number, affiliate sites, content sites, e-commerce sites, this blog a number of times. Software projects like the football betting predictor (again several different iterations, none of them brought to market), plans for a football management game, the Cosa Nostra gangster game, the series of data science/analytics articles, the countless novels, the business style books, the book about England’s one cap football wonders.
Sometimes to look at the list of never-was, it seems like I never actually bothered my arse getting to the finish line on anything. Once the first flush of excitement was off on a project then it ultimately got consigned to the project graveyard. It might have taken an hour, a day, a week, a month, 6 months but ultimately it all wound up the same.
There is a distinct sense of impending doom that the perfection anxiety brings that leads to this. What if people laugh at me? What if they tell me it’s (read: I’m) no good? Mix in a healthy dose of imposter syndrome at any time and it’s a lethal cocktail.
One of the Hacker News comments about James’s article got it right though.
It’s better to frame these ‘failures’ as being projects you haven’t finished yet rather than projects you didn’t finish. I know that I need to see small successes along the way and force myself to keep the momentum going. We just need to remind ourselves of that early enough on to not derail things when the going gets tough. And by tough I mean when the actual hard work of real creation begins.
There is an overriding fear of failure that I’ll cover more deeply at another time but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ‘project that never was’ is no less of a failure than one poorly executed and ridiculed by peers. In fact it’s more so.
I have, of course, finished a great many projects.
I started State of the Game as a means of getting my football writing out into the world. It grew and grew, brought me into contact with a lot of interesting characters and got me the opportunity to write professionally for About.com and the New York Times Company.
I got back into e-commerce after a long time away to help grow Liz’s Lockets. Simple Analytical has brought me into contact with a lot of really good analysts and data scientists already. We have to credit the wins, however small they may appear in the grand scheme.
Launching a very small, “inspired by Hello Dolly” Wordpress plugin may not seem like something worth shouting about. Physically chalking it up in my wins column this month made it worth writing a blog post about building my first Wordpress plugin. It builds confidence for moving on to bigger projects with more at stake.
Good things happen when we ship, even if the first version is a little rough around the edges. We all need some small wins to get us moving along the path to the bigger ones.
Finish that first draft even if you think it reads like a hot mess. It’s not called the vomit draft for nothing. Get it out, start to polish it in the second draft and see how far it’s come. This applies equally well to web and software projects as well as art or writing.
I’m no spring chicken these days which is maybe why my attitude has changed so much recently. Forty approaches and while it’s not old (well…), it’s not young either. That old clock is always ticking.
More than that, I want something to look back on to show myself I didn’t just sit and vegetate creatively through all of my “prime” years. Working the day job and building a career is great but I think we all need something more beyond that. Something you can show off without being tied into corporate NDAs for a start.
When push comes to shove, we all need to Just Fucking Ship as the inimitable Amy Hoy puts it.
I take a lot of motivation from Amy’s attitude. You really should too.