Projects, Life, and Happiness

Life by Adam on 2006-12-09 04:57

As a teenager and in early adulthood, I threw myself into massive projects without a second thought. Create my own video game, doing all the design, programming and graphics? Check. Start my own company, with no business experience or outside capital investment? Check. Take on the status quo of the political system, to render sweeping changes to the legal code to make the world a better place? Oh yeah - check.

This worked out well, but not because I achieved these goals; but rather because, in trying to do so, I developed all sorts of useful skills and knowledge. If I had grasped the massive scale - and in fact, virtual impossibility - of these endeavours beforehand, I probably never would have even started. That would have been a shame, because I would have robbed myself of all the benefits of skill, experience, and wisdom I gained from the process.

Today I’m more jaded. I have a very good idea of just how hard it is to do something like the items mentioned above. I also have a very long list of things I’d like to do; long enough that there’s no way I can squeeze all of it into one lifetime. The weight of possibility weighs down on my shoulders, which sometimes has a paralyzing effect. I am now much more cautious about starting new projects, especially big ones.

But everything in life really worth doing is a challenging, time-and-energy consuming affair. If the wisdom to envisage a potential endeavor’s true cost in time and energy carries too much weight, then one will never do anything worth doing. I think I see this in many older people; without the exuberance and ambition of youth to drive them forward, they retreat to a path of lowest possible energy expenditure, where they only pleasure in life comes from simple comforts and luxuries. At least for me, that’s no kind of life.

I’ve learned to counter this by being highly selective in the projects I undertake. Not only do I run a mental cost-benefit analysis up front, but on an ongoing basis while I am in it. How do I really stand to benefit from the fruits of my labor, and how do those compare to a realistic assessment of the resources that I’m going to expend?

An important tool here is visualization. (I’m going to try to keep this from sounding like a corny self-help seminar, but no promises.) Imagine what you it will be like when you achieve your goal. How will the audience of your project react? What will people that you respect - friends, family, colleagues - say when they see it? And most importantly: how will you feel? Visualizing the outcome should get you excited and motivated. If it doesn’t, then you might need to think about changing the project’s parameters, or perhaps finding a new one altogether. Just thinking that the project will be a good one isn’t enough. You have to feel it.

(Whew, enough of that. Back to my usual cold pragmatism.)

Now that you’re certain you’re on the right project, the next step to a happy outcome is aggressive feature-cutting. A few years ago my projects tried to include every bell and whistle I could think of. But that means you never finish. Instead, par it down to the bare minimum of components, the absolute essential core of what you are trying to achieve. If it’s a business, outsource everything you can. If it’s an art project, throw out any elements that don’t work well or don’t contribute very directly to the vision of the piece. If it’s a political movement, focus on a key issue and some small, achievable effect that takes a baby step toward the final goal of your utopia.

Feature-cutting is hard to do. You have to mercilessly chop up your creation, carving it straight down to the bone, until you are left with the absolute minimum of what can stand on its own. Idealistic young artists, businessmen, etc don’t realize this and insist that every little bell and whistle is vital to the project’s success. But they are almost always wrong. What’s vital is getting something that achieves the vision - in however limited a way - out the door and into the world, and then having the opportunity to get feedback from the target audience and use that to refine and improve the finished product.

I once explained this to a friend as follows. Draw a 4 x 4 grid on a piece of paper or whiteboard, like this:

In the upper left, write down components of your project that are absolutely critical, and easy to do. In the upper right, put components that are important, and easy to do. In the lower left put components which are difficult or time-consuming but critical, and in the lower right components that are difficult and important.

Now take the lower right corner and throw it away. You will never do these items.

Next take the lower left and the upper right and put them on a “maybe, but probably not” list. You may have time for one or two of your favorites from this list, but mostly you won’t be doing any of them either.

Only things in the upper left corner are likely to get done. That is, if you want to finish the project at all. If you want to flail away ineffectually at it forever, then by all means do ignore this advice.

Now this isn’t to say that you should never try to do something that is difficult. Obviously you will. But it’s a way to counter the incredible optimism that you may feel about a project at the start, and force yourself to be realistic about achievable goals. Things you think are easy will actually turn out to be hard, so things that you think are difficult may be nigh-well impossible.

Hang on to the list of components from the other quadrants that you threw out. Chances are that it was painful to make the cut at the time. You may have said something like “No, wait, we have to have that! It’ll suck without it!” But come back and look at that list after your project is done, and you’ll be surprised how superfluous those items will seem.

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