Ideas I’ve bailed on:
- Bike racing
- High school debate team
- Biking around the world
- Become a chef
- Dramatic acting
- Comedic acting
- Stand-up comedy
- Personal training
- Starting an ecologically-minded catering company
- Several girlfriends
- Mortgage sales (this was a quick one)
- Blog journalism (despite the money!)
I was thinking about these ideas a few weeks ago as I watched a talk by Scott Belsky at an event I help run. Belsky wrote a book called, “Making Ideas Happen.” In it, he outlines the difference between ideas that come into being and those that don’t.
Belsky explained that when an idea is new, progress is swift because everything is novel, learning curves are steep and we have nothing to prove. We are willing to work long and hard. We are unencumbered by pride as there is no shame in screwing up. We’re beginners and that’s what beginners do.
But then something happens? We develop some competency and the honeymoon ends. We are no longer just dating our ideas—we’re married to them. That’s where the work starts and where most people bail. Unfortunately, most of us bail before our ideas even have an opportunity to fail (or succeed of course).
Belsky calls this period the “project plateau.” It’s when an idea has been established long enough that the main thing we need to do is develop and refine it. Most of my ideas have been abandoned traversing the project plateau. I would tell myself that it wasn’t that great of an idea anyway. I would find a million reasons why something wasn’t worth doing. Then I would get a new idea. I did this not because the new idea was better (though it seems like it at the time). I did it to get the narcotic effect I had when the now-old idea was new, when my wife was still a hot lover.
One thing I’d add to Belsky’s talking points was that a failure to commit thwarts many of our ideas. I did not make it explicit that I was committed to something—I’m going to do x-number of bike races. I am committed to being a professional cook, model, comedian, whatever. I’m committed to this relationship. Without that commitment, problems become deal-breakers, not challenges to overcome.
That said, with most commitments, there are slumps. There are periods when we just don’t want to do something, whether it’s being in a relationship, going to work, editing a book, working on a website, etc.
Belsky suggests there are personalities that are better at some phases of the idea making process than others, that some people are good at the beginning stages and others at the middle; he calls them the dreamers and doers respectively (there are also incrementalists who can jump between those two stages).
While personality traits factor heavily into this equation, I think the project plateau slumps, no matter who you are, are driven by specific internal narratives, things that most people tell themselves in the plateau that they don’t in the startup period (note: I’ve ordered Belsky’s book, so I’ll find out if he covers this stuff soon…sorry Scott if I’m making arguments you’ve already made).
Here are some popular idea-defeating narratives:
- We make our ideas a big deal. Making shit heavy is probably the biggest obstacle to realizing an idea. If it’s a big deal to fail, if it threatens our sense of self, if we cling to the idea that we are our failures, we will never get anything off the ground. I’m sure this is why so few people make it as entrepreneurs—when an entrepreneur fails, it’s often interpreted as his or her failure, not the failure of the corporation he or she works for. But what if it wasn’t a big deal to fail? What if it was all a learning experience? What if an idea’s failure wasn’t our failure?
- We don’t look at our ideas holistically. For instance, I often don’t look at writing, editing and marketing as inseparable parts of the same goal. I parse them out, slipping each into their respective slots of acceptability. Writing is fun. Editing is endurable. Marketing is a pain in the ass. But every idea has many facets. Every actor has to remember lines. Every athlete trains. Even the hottest relationship requires communication. If we view things holistically, melding the fun with the tedious, the latter parts lose their charge. Writing is not writing without editing and marketing. A business is not a business without payroll and accounting. A relationship is not a relationship without communication and compromise.
- We judge our efforts. It is often suggested to have a beginner’s mind. This refers to the attitude during the startup period Belsky talked about. When things are new, we have nothing to prove. We can face challenges as they appear. If we lack skills, we acquire them. No shame, no judgment. We don’t judge babies for not knowing how to walk, why should we judge ourselves for not knowing how to do something we’ve never done? But when we’re in the project plateau, we hold ourselves as people who should know what they’re doing. And people who know what they are doing need to do well. We’ll sooner drop out than look like we don’t know what we’re doing, based on the judgments, “I should know better,” “I’m not good at this,” “this should be easier,” etc. But what if we don’t know better? What if we aren’t “good” at something? What if it’s not easy? We can make all the judgments we want, but where we’re at is where we’re at. Judging our experience against some fantasy about who or what we should be is not helpful.
Most of us have ideas, whether it’s creating a healthy body, having a family, getting into a relationship, landing a job, starting a business, making a painting, starting a cult, etc. Not all ideas will or should be realized; Belsky emphasized this point. Not all relationships need be pursued. Not all businesses have clients. Not all cults will attract followers. But sometimes our ideas have healthy motivations, they might be creative responses to genuine needs. Once that idea is born, once a commitment is made to pursuing the idea, all sorts of forces can stop its realization.
I’ve been able to realize a few ideas in recent years, even leveraging some of the skills from the bailed-on ideas to new purposes. I’ve also been able to stick through relationships, recreating and renewing them when they plateaued. In order to do this I had to tease apart what seemed to be stopping me—circumstances, skill deficiencies, market forces—and what was really stopping me—lack of commitment, self-defeating narratives, judgments. When I handled the latter things, the circumstances get worked out.
The trouble is we don’t separate these two forces—perceived limiters and real limiters—we’re likely to become idea junkies, forever chasing the next fix of enthusiasm, forever going into withdrawal when we hit the project plateau.
[Another idea: if you have an idea you’re looking to see through the project plateau and you’re looking for support, give me a shout. I’ll help in anyway I can. Seriously. Email davidcfriedlander at gmail dot com].