"What is not started today is never finished tomorrow" -Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Why is starting so hard?
Earlier this year, my friend Justin Levine sent out an email about a list of goals that his father, Gary, created early in his career. Young and broke, but determined and ambitious, Gary wrote down detailed personal and professional goals for what he wanted to accomplish in life. Recently, he rediscovered his list of goals, and was able to cross off every goal that he had set for himself 25 years earlier.
Inspired by Gary's story, I set about creating my own list of goals, and realized immediately that the first few things I put down were things that I'd wanted to do for years, but just hadn't gotten around to starting. A few days later I bought some books on programming and started spending a few hours each night working through the lessons, and at the same time, I also began thinking about ideas for what is now this blog. These are just beginnings, but talking the first steps made me ask the question: if I've know for years that I wanted to learn to program and write a blog, why was it so damn hard to get started?
Sometimes the strongest resistance to starting something new comes from resistance to change. If you have a routine, or a way of doing something that works, it is very difficult to take the first step towards finding something better because, why rock the boat?
For me, It had simply been easier to come home from work and veg out in front of the TV every night, rather than spend a couple of hours working on personal project.
The thing is, inertia works both ways. An object at rest tends to stay at rest, but an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Now that I've broken that complacency and established a new routine, I can feel myself hurtling along a new path. Now that I've started, continuing seems much easier than it did when I was just thinking about it.
Fear of Failure
One of the most daunting aspects of starting is the possibility of failure. It's pretty easy to talk yourself out of starting something once you ask yourself questions like "What if I'm not capable at this? What if I'm not good at it? What if, what if, what if?"
I'm deeply afraid of failure, a fact that I think stems at least partially from how competitive I am. If I'm not not already good at something, every attempt feels like failure, which is so frustrating that I often don't want to do it at all.
What's interesting is that fear of failure only applies to things that I'm not good at. With things that I'm good at, my sentiment towards failure is quite the opposite: I don't fear it at all, in fact I welcome it, even celebrate it.
For example, the best designs I create come out of innumerable failures. The more iterations I throw away, the better the final product inevitably becomes. In fact, with designs for products and interfaces, I am wary of not failing. If i get to a final version too quickly without throwing away enough iterations, I find my design highly suspect and question whether it is in fact as good as i think it is. Conversely, if i have gone through hundreds of iterations, exhausted all possibilities, and considered every scenario possible, I know that it's good, and am prepared to defend my position. Each failure opens up new ideas that influence the final product, even if it's just knowing what won't work
The reality is, failing is good, valuable, even essential. The more you fail, the closer you get to succeeding.The more solutions you've found that don't work, the more confident you are when you find the one that does. Rather than fearing failure when starting something, it is much more productive to embrace failure, and learn how to fail quickly and efficiently. This is of course, easier said than done.
Something else that makes starting difficult is fear that people will judge me or think I am incompetent, stupid, or naive. I tend to expect myself to be an expert at everything– specifically to be better than other people. As a result I tend to over analyze how I will look to others, rather than just going for it.
This over-analysis can be absolutely paralyzing. Take starting a conversation with a stranger for example. The hardest part is the opening. You want to say something clever, witty or interesting, the question is: what? How many conversations have I failed to start because I didn't have the perfect opening line? The irony is how easy conversations become once they start. The first response is infinitely easier than the opening, the next even easier than, and at some point the conversation becomes natural and takes on a life of its own. Who cares if you start with a stupid comment or boring observation? Getting started is the important part.
Such is the nature of starting anything. When I first started coming up with ideas for client projects, it would take me days, weeks even, to produce a viable idea. I would avoid saying anything until I thought I had something amazing, for fear of looking stupid. In the process I would throw away lots of ideas that were probably pretty good, or at least good enough to consider. Now, little more than a year later, I can spitball ideas on the fly, come up with dozens of possibilities and chase each one in many different directions without being embarrassed when i reach a dead end or realize that one of the ideas wont work. I'm secure enough in my creative abilities and technical knowledge that I'm no longer afraid of small failures because I know that in the end i can figure it out and make it work.
It's hard not to feel insecure when starting, because of uncertainty. Experience grants you the power to know or at least feel very confident that you can get things done, but when you're starting something new you don't have that luxury. You're forced to leave your comfort zone, and step into an uncertain future. Over time you gain confidence, and become more comfortable putting yourself out there, because you're secure in your abilities.
Fear of Commitment
Another thing that makes starting hard is committing to something without being sure I will succeed. You can't truly start something without committing to seeing it through to the end, otherwise you're not giving yourself a fair shot at it.
When I decided in 2008 that I was going to run my first marathon, I made a commitment that had a significant impact on my life for a year. I couldn't say "I'm going to run a marathon and then decide later if it is something I want to pursue long term." I had to commit to it fully and without reservation from the very beginning, because the moment I let myself lapse on the training, I would have already quit.
When you're starting something new you have two choices: honestly and truthfully commit to giving it everything you'e got, or quit immediately. This is is terrifying, because it makes you vulnerable to giving it everything you've got and simply not being able to do it. Starting requires a great deal of faith in yourself, you have to trust that you are capable of accomplishing your goal.
What Haven't You Started?
A few months ago I was talking to Gary about business ideas and he said "Opportunity is everywhere, the hard part is recognizing it and choosing which ones to answer."
A blank page is only a few thousand unwritten words away from being an eloquent blog post. A stranger is only a few unspoken sentences away from being a friend. Your body is only a few hundred un-run miles from being ready to run a marathon. Your startup idea is only a dozen years of hard work away from being a billion dollar business. The truth is, opportunity is everywhere, and endings are easy to see, the hard part is committing to pursue an opportunity, and starting.
So, the question is, what haven't you started?