Thoughts & Observations

A Complicated Relationship with Quitting

When I look back at the artifacts of my past, a good portion of what’s there is a bit of a graveyard of unfinished projects and unfulfilled good intentions. From the time years ago that I checked out Spanish books from the library in our town determined to teach myself Spanish (which still has never happened), to the Tumblr I started more recently to document me finally learning to cook which I think has all of three posts and has been dormant for months, to all of the plans I’ve had for the organizations I’ve led that I’ve talked about and shared but was never actually able to ship.

At times, I feel a bit embarrassed by that graveyard of unfinished things, especially when I’ve talked about them publicly, proclaiming my intention to do them and yet never actually get them done. I don’t know if it’s my Northern New England upbringing (as a colleague who grew up in Maine suggested recently), but I can’t stand not keeping my word and not following through, even if the promises I’ve made are to no one in particular and no one really cares if I get them done or not.

I think it also has a bit to do with our how our society in general handles failure to stick – it’s a subject that often comes up in whispered conversations about other people’s downfalls, about how they keep proclaiming that they’ve finally found their “thing” and that they are finally following their passion, only to see them make the same proclamation about something else a few months later.

On the other hand, I see the ability to decide to quit as a highly undervalued skill. People try to stick with everything, and then get nothing done. And too many people also stick with things for too long that make them miserable when they could be doing something that not only makes them happier but in being happier also makes it more likely that they will share something of value with the world.

So where does that graveyard of unshipped ideas stand? Are we failing if we don’t follow through on everything?

The truth is that we all have more ideas then we can possibly ship. And in an Internet age, we share our ideas – those light-bulb moments when we feel like a fire has been lit under our butts – earlier, more publicly, more broadly, and more often, then we have before and often before we have actually built or shipped anything.

And although at least sometimes we think that sharing that idea publicly will push us to actually ship, that form of motivation doesn’t always work. Because in the end the limits of time compel us to choose to focus on one idea over another, on shipping one thing over something else. If we proclaim on Tuesday we are going to start a woodworking business making reclaimed tables and on Wednesday we proclaim that we are going to start a baking business, we most likely can’t do both.

There is really nothing wrong with letting select ideas die. That in fact, needs to happen, to allow you to focus enough attention on one thing to get it to the point of shipping. What matters is not letting every idea die, not letting everything end up on the cutting room floor because you are too afraid to actually push something forward, make it public, and ship.

And maybe there’s something to be said for scaling back the amount of time you spend talking about an idea and replacing that with actually doing something. If you’re motivated to make a chair, then make one. Telling the world “look what I’ve made” is very different from saying “look at my new idea.”

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