3 min read

Julie Andrews Lied To Us

The beginning can be such a frustrating place to start

Before I go too deep, I wanted to say a huge thanks to everyone who reached out with encouragement about the new project on Leading Smart Creative Teams - and, of course, to the people who went so far as to apply to join! There are 3 or 4 spots still open, so if you want to join/want to send someone from your company/know someone who would dig it, click that button below:

On with the Chaos…

There are a lot of different ways people feel about the beginning of something new1: sometimes eager, sometimes confused, sometimes frustrated, sometimes excited. Usually something that blends a bit of all of it.

I’m going to focus for today specifically on the facet of frustration or even anxiety that can come up at the beginning. I have a theory about this: at the beginning we have a clear sense of where we are going with the new endeavor we’re undertaking, but it’s hard to believe that we’re going to get there based on the way things are getting started. If the process throughout looks like the process at the beginning, we know that we are hopelessly screwed.

I feel this most viscerally when I think about every major writing project I’ve ever undertaken2. In the beginning there is a blank document, and there is me writing a paragraph, wrinkling my nose in disgust at what I’ve written, deleting the entire thing, and beginning the whole process again. After 6 or 7 rounds of that cycle, I decide it’s probably better to just go for a walk. I have exactly zero confidence that this process ever turns into a piece of work that someone else will ever read.

The drunkard's walk, from Chinuk Wawa to Upper Chehalis | Chinook Jargon
Yeah, it looks kind of like that - but without the top hat and cane. (Source)

And I’m right about that. The process eventually evolves. Eventually, I realize that I need to define a basic structure, attack one part of that structure, and then another, and then another. At some point, I realize that the structure was wrong, so I change it. I remember that something I read somewhere at some point will illustrate one idea perfectly, so I track down the quote, and on and on until at the end of it there’s an article or a dissertation or a play or something of the sort.

Here’s the question: is that initial cycle of blank document disgust useless? Misguided? A sign of encroaching mental illness?

I don’t really know, I just know that I may be able to reduce how long it lasts but I can never get away from it entirely.

At the beginning, our temptation is to feel like we need to be productive and to have meaningful output to show. The reality is at the beginning we need to be able to build momentum. We need to activate the processes that allow us to see, think, and act clearly so that we can create things that are valuable while navigating a process that tends to happen in fits and starts rather than in a nice predictable straight line.

Activation takes energy and intention, and it can feel like what we expend to activate isn’t worth what we get for it. And that’s true, if we look at it only in the short term. But if you give yourself permission to not judge the beginning based on its output and take a slightly longer view, you can let the beginning be about finding the right direction and taking the right steps in that direction.

Don’t get me wrong: there is 100% a way that you might just be wasting your time and twiddling your thumbs. I have plenty of writing projects that ended the moment that I got up to take the walk, and I never came back to them. The key to the beginning is momentum: are you building it?

Some Random Reads:

  • What Do Police Statistics Hide (And What Do They Reveal) About Crime in Modern India - this is such an excellent example of how just the quant data isn’t quite enough and how much deeper you can go when you a) know how to interrogate it deeply, and b) also do good qual research.

  • That Which is Unique Breaks - I spend a lot of time thinking about the built environment3, and I loved this post questioning why our modern public spaces are less compelling (and beautiful) than those of the past.

  • Massive “coffee tech” investments are giving startups a jolt - I’ve been spending a lot of time lately understanding the coffee value chain4, and I’m especially interested in some of the models that are evolving in “coffee producer” countries that are also now becoming “coffee consumer” countries. I love a great cafe, but I’m intrigued by the experience of a barista pulling up on a motorbike and making your coffee right in front of you.

  1. Yes, I think about beginnings a lot.

  2. OK, fine, literally every project I've ever undertaken.

  3. Because I am a nerd.

  4. Because I am specifically a coffee nerd.