Sunday, July 30, 2006

Actually doing stuff

Why is it so hard to open up that blank document and start writing? Why is it so hard to stop eating ice cream and go do something else? And why, of course, is it so hard to stop reading all your amusing mailing lists and get back to that coding project you were working on last week?

In my quest to get actual stuff done (like, you know, work, or just make* things), I've been thinking a lot about this question. Maybe my fundamental approach is flawed, trying to fix my problems by thinking about them a lot, but it seems to have worked on enough so far that I'm willing to keep trying. Maybe it is fundamentally at odds with solving this particular problem since thinking is, almost by definition, not doing. But, for what it's worth, here are the thoughs I've had so far.

For a good chunk of time in the past couple months, I've gotten to work on one nice, neat program that I started from scratch and have had almost complete control over, which has been great. Involved learning new technologies and producing a cool final project; few things could be better about that, right? Yet somehow, it was always hard to start working on it. Why? It seemed there was always this "sumbersion time", the time when you go from breathing air to breathing fluid (if you've seen The Abyss you know what I'm talking about), and your system freaks out and resists for a while during the transition, but you're fine once you get to the other side. It's like getting stuck in a local minimum. The dip over the next hill maybe lower than the one you're in, but there's still that hill in the way.

So, what's the hill? Why exactly is it so bad to start on something, even if you know there's a lower valley on the other side? Once you get going on actually doing something, it's better than goofing off, because not only are you doing something interesting, you have a nice productive feeling, and you don't have to worry about anybody getting mad at you for not having things done.

The hill seems to be that (hopefully, usually) brief time when you start working on something, and you're painfully confused. Maybe you have no clue about what you're starting on, and you start worrying how long it might take you to do anything, and questioning yourself, and feeling inadequate or stupid. Or maybe it's just looking at something that you used to know and now it's gotten a little fuzzy in your mind; it probably still makes you feel kind of stupid and mad at your own mind.

So, you're afraid of feeling stupid for a little while. That seems natural enough. But it's very short-term. You spend, say, an hour (maybe at worst a day or two, if it's something really new) feeling stupid. But then, after that, you've gained new knowledge and gotten something done, and that feeling ought to last a while. Should be a great tradeoff, right?

A couple of problems come in with this. One is that a lot of us (particularly Americans, it seems) are really trained to think short-term. Blame the marketing people who have tried their best to train us to use those credit cards for "something special to reward oursleves" and to buy all those candies and trashy magazines at the checkout stand. However it worked out, a lot of us have been wired from a young age to be very concerned with the short term. Of course, the problem is that the short term is more reliable than the long term - you know if you eat dessert, you're going to enjoy it. How many people on the Titanic passed up dessert on the last night? But the ship doesn't usually sink, and mostly, if you do things that will make your life better in twenty years, you'll be around in 20 years to appreciate it. Long-term thinking, like many risky things, can bring higher rewards. It's just a matter of getting into the right mindset.

Another problem is association. If you don't follow through enough to get past that initial uncomfortable stage, you'll never have positive associations with trying in the first place. I was this way about some projects I worked on in school - never really got going, so I had nothing but bad associations, which only turned into positive feedback to not work on them some more. And I feel just awful even thinking about them now. Getting positive associations is one benefit of following through on things. I had a great example of this from the handful of singing & piano lessons I took before my teacher went back to Russia for a month and a half (I'm going to pick up lessons again when she gets back next month). First lesson, she was brutally honest, and I thought good, this is just what I need, I'm going to learn a lot. Second lesson, I really felt like I was just being beaten down with no purpose and not being given a chance. I had one more lesson scheduled after that before she left, and I really, really didn't want to go. I really debated with myself about cancelling, saving the money for the private lesson (not cheap), and either giving up on the idea (who learns to play piano at 25 and gets any good at it?) or at least finding somebody whose goals fit more with mine (I did not want to be an opera singer; I'm just doing this for fun). But, I decided to go ahead, and was quite intent on not taking any more lessons from her after she got back. I must give the teacher credit as a marketer, though; I don't know if she picked up on how I was feeling or if she'd just thought more of the situation since the last lesson, but that time it was fun. Got to actually sing (rather than just try to make a few awkward high notes which I couldn't hit and am not really interested in hitting, since high notes always sound too screetchy to me), she said I'd made progress, and didn't bash me when I couldn't do things on the first try that she asked me to do. A good enough lesson, as you might have guessed, that now I'm going back for more in a month or so and have some hopes that it will get me somewhere.

So, here we have it. I've spent over an hour writing this, and who knows if it will help me (let alone anyone else) get any more real things done. But I've been thinking about this post (actually as two separate threads, which only came together as I was writing) for a while, so I guess it's good to get it out of my system, like using the Pensieve. If nothing else, writing gets out ideas you have rolling around in your head so the space is free for new ideas**.

You know, I feel weird writing stuff like this, like I actually know what I'm talking about. I'm just another kid, fresh out of school, and in a few years I will look back on myself now and think how foolish I was and how little I knew, just as I have always looked back and thought that of my earlier self, for the last half of my life.

* "If you're not sure what to do, make something." - Paul Graham, The Power of the Marginal

** Another idea said well by Paul Graham: The Island Test; read the section on carrying a notebook: "I hardly ever go back and read stuff I write down in notebooks. It's just that if I can't write things down, worrying about remembering one idea gets in the way of having the next. Pen and paper wick ideas."


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